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April 05, 2012

Conservator's Challenge: Faux-Fur Trim for Athabaskan Mittens

As a graduate intern in the NMAI's conservation department, I recently had the privilege of making an unusual repair to the fur trim on a pair of Athabaskan mittens (object no. 25/5333). Gwich'in artist Leah Roberts made the mittens in Fort Yukon, Alaska, in 1983 using tanned moose hide, glass beads, beaver fur, nylon thread, and acrylic fabric and yarn. They were part of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, transferred to the NMAI collections in 2000.

The mittens were chosen for exhibition at the museum in Washington because they are a beautiful example of Athabaskan design and craftsmanship. Sadly, the fur trim was damaged by webbing clothes moth larvae, which are notorious for eating protein-based clothing like wool coats, wool sweaters, and fur. In this case, larvae had eaten right down to the skin, as you can see on the bottom of the left mitten. Areas of complete fur loss were the biggest issue in displaying the mittens, and it was my job to create a faux-fur fill that could be placed in the areas of missing fur so that museum visitors could appreciate the overall look of the mittens. In keeping with conservation practices, I used materials that have excellent aging properties and applied the fills in a manner that can be removed fairly easily, just in case that is ever necessary. 

Athabaskan mittens
The mittens before conservation treatment. 

I began the conservation treatment by thoroughly documenting the construction and condition of the mittens with photographs and a written report. Then I carefully removed dust and insect debris by vacuuming. In the process, I collected loose pieces of fur that were detached and scattered around the surface of the mittens.  I was able to integrate this fur into the fills that I made. 

Athabaskan mittens
Reducing dust and debris with a low-suction vacuum. The vacuum nozzle was custom-made with a plastic pipette.  

There wasn't enough loose beaver fur to fill all the losses, so I custom-dyed wool roving with acid dyes, mixing red, yellow, and blue dyes in an attempt to match the brown color of the beaver fur. Although my color mixtures were slightly off—one was too red, the other too green—I was successful in using wool carders to blend the dyed fibers by hand  until I had a nearly perfect match. 

Carders and wool
Wool hand-carders at top. Custom-dyed wool on the lower right and left with blended wool (the best color match) in between. 

Following the lead of NMAI conservator Kelly McHugh, who treated a similar pair of Athabaskan mittens, I made faux-fur by attaching the wool fibers and loose pieces of beaver fur to an archival support. The technique is based on methods described by Hodson, Maile-Moskowitz, and Heald in the poster Hole-istic Compensation: Needle-felted In-fills for Losses in Wool. I used a barbed felting needle to punch the fiber ends into a nonwoven polyester fabric, turned the fabric over, and felted the fiber ends a little bit on the back to make sure that they wouldn’t fall out. Here is a video of the needle-felting process

This image shows my set up and me. You can see that I was felting over a piece of polyurethane foam that could withstand the vigorous punching that is part of the needle-felting process.

Conservator Rebecca Summerhour
Rebecca Summerour, graduate intern, in the process of needle-felting faux-fur. The Athabaskan mittens being conserved are partially covered on the table. Photo by Lauren Horelick.

This is a detail image of a patch in progress. The top left edge of the patch is filled with loose beaver fur, while the bottom and right sections are sheep wool. You can see that the beaver fur looks best, but the sheep wool is a pretty good match too.

Conservation in progress
Detail of a patch in progess, with both beaver fur and wool inserted in the polyester support. 

After inserting the fiber in the polyester support, I cut the top edge of the support to the shape of the loss and attached thin strips of an archival thermoplastic adhesive to the top edge of the patch with a heated spatula. You can see the shiny adhesive strips, as well as the texture of the felted fiber ends, in this image of the reverse of one of the faux-fur patches.

Placement of adhesive strips
Detail of the reverse of a patch. The shiny areas are the adhesive along the top edge.

I heat-set the adhesive film to the exposed leather in the mitten trim using an electric spatula on low heat. As you can see in the picture below, I introduced heat from the front and protected the fur from the spatula using a polyester barrier. The fibers needed to be fluffed a little after activating the adhesive in this way. 

Activating the adhesive
Securing the fill in the loss by heat-activating the adhesive film with a warm spatula. 

In order to make the patches more easily reversible, only the top edges were attached using adhesive. I secured the bottom edges by folding them around the bottom of the cuff and stitching the support fabric along the seam between the fur cuff and yellow lining fabric. 

Carefully stitching the edge
Securing the bottom edge of a faux-fur fill with cotton thread using a curved needle. The patch is pinned in place with thin insect pins. 

I made a total of three patches, two on the front of the mittens and one on the back. Now museum visitors can appreciate the beauty of these mittens in a state that is much closer to the way Leah Roberts intended them to look.  

Mittens before and after

Above: Details of mitten trim before (top) and after (bottom) conservation treatment.  
Below:  The conserved mittens (left) on display.


The mittens are currently on display outside the Lelawi Theater on the 4th floor of the museum on the National Mall, along with a Tlingit model totem pole, a Yup'ik mask, and three Alutiiq ceremonial paddles.

—Rebecca Summerour, NMAI conservation intern

Rebecca Summerour is a graduate student in the Art Conservation Program at SUNY Buffalo State. She is currently completing her 3rd and final year of graduate school as an intern in textile and object conservation at the NMAI. 


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I was always curious about how this stuff is made. So this was a really useful post!

Thank you!
Radu (also known as Dr Drum)

I really like this post! It's nice to see how they make stuff like this. It's difficult work i think.



Thank you very much for taking the time to put this conservation technique online. The repair blended well with the original fur and allowed the gloves to be exhibited without destracting losses.

Conservation technique, great article. it really is very useful for my work. thank you for sharing.

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