I have an antique knitter's notebook. How do I preserve it?
Q. Dear Donia,
This is maybe the most unusual thing in my collection, so a bit of background. Knitting lace edgings was a hobby unto itself from the beginnings of knitting as a widespread leisure activity in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, until just about the beginning of World War I. Lace knitters often kept track of patterns they enjoyed by writing them down on a notebook page, then knitting up a representative sample and pinning or sewing it to the page. There are quite a few of these in private collections and museums, but until a lovely knitter gave me this as a gift I never dreamt I would own one myself.
My notebook was begun by a knitter name Frieda A. Formean from Norwood, Massachusetts on December 6, 1882 (she thoughtfully inscribed her name, date, and town on the inside front paper). I have since found out a bit more about her, including that she worked in a post office. And so I wonder: was this curious little binder from the post office? I don't know how to interpret the markings on the front cover. I rather love the idea that she supported her knitting habit by stealing office supplies.
I want to keep this piece intact, if possible, and it presents the weird combo of cotton (all the knit samples are in cotton thread), metal (steel straight pins), and paper all together. The paper is heavily yellowed and some pages have faded ink; but, happy to say, in pretty good shape–no cracking, not many tears, even at the hinges. The knitting is pretty much as you see—no tears or runs, but much discoloring and creasing. This might well be the most precious thing in my textile collection, and I'd like it to survive me and be passed on to posterity in good shape. What are your thoughts? Thank you, Franklin
A. Dear Franklin,
All I can say is WOW! What an amazing piece.
This piece does pose some interesting preservation challenges. We will start with the binding itself. This looks to be a standard post binding - posts with screws hold the pages together and the covers on without any glue or sewing. The first step should be to carefully number each page with a pencil to maintain order and then remove the posts to have all the pages separated.
Now, the pins. These need to be removed as they are damaging not only to the paper but also the cotton samples. You are lucky in that, from the images you have shared, they don't look too corroded so should come out easily. When removing them, be very careful that you don't catch any of the cotton threads when pulling the pins out so that you don't snag or loosen any of the lacework.
Once you have the pins out, it will be easy to get the samples mixed up as everything will be loose. It would be best to take a quick digital image of each page so that you can get the right sample with the right page when you are done. Each sample should then be stitched with cotton thread to Hollytex spun polyester that has been cut to the size of the pages and had holes punched so it can be interleaved with the paper pages for each sample. I would recommend on that is 47 or 53 mil (0.0047" and 0.0053" respectively). These pages can then be placed as overlays over the paper pages. You could also use 4mil polyester sheeting which is clear but has sharper edges which, when punched for sewing, could catch on the cotton threads.
Finally the paper pages themselves. The yellowing tells me that they are getting brittle. The yellow may also be responsible for what appears to be faded ink—less contrast on the page makes the ink harder to read. To help read the pages more easily you can scan each page and play around with the contrast in a photo editor. Apart from that, I would do nothing with the pages on your own. They look like they could benefit from a bath to remove the deterioration products and get get an alkaline reserve deposited through deacidification but the ink could be iron gall and it could be damaged by the washing so this is a process best undertaken by a conservator.
This is just one of many options available for this project but, in discussion with my colleague Kathy Craughwell-Varda, we decided that this would be the simplest solution to execute as a non-conservation professional. I would be happy to discuss this in more detail or other options whenever you wish.