The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 21, Number 5

Quality Linen Thread for Conservation

by Bill Minter

For many years I have been concerned and interested in the quality of linen thread. Fourteen years ago Abigail Quandt, Mary Lampert and I prepared a special order for unbleached and unsized linen thread. Since then, the need for quality linen thread from reliable, stable sources has become clear. I have tried to involve others in the search by contacting them individually., but have been only partly successful. Below is a compilation of their replies. As with any topic that one investigates, there is always an increase in the number of questions. If you have an answer or a comment, I would appreciate hearing from you. It is possible that we may have a new source for this important material.

Don Guyot (Colophon Book Arts, Washington) and I have been talking about his supplying thread similar to what was ordered years ago. He has been to Barbours in Ireland to try to establish specifications. The last communication from him a few months ago was that he has given up on trying to work with them. They are not interested in changing their process to suit our preferences.

Some things that I have learned over the past years:

1) The threads that have been available from our suppliers are usually bleached (even though they might say that the thread is unbleached). But our suppliers are not to be blamed. Apparently, Barbours will sell them/us what they think we want without telling us the facts. They have a nice, clean, uniform bleached thread that looks good (to them). According to a letter from Barbours to Don Guyot, "the thinner threads (25/3 and thinner) are already bleached when they are brought in" and they (Barbours) "bleach the other sizes in-house."

2) Generally, the threads are "sized with soap and silicon." This statement has been confirmed by Abigail Quandt's notes of 1983 when the special order was placed. What does soap and silicon do to the durability of thread? I'm sure the old books that we disbind were not sewn with a thread that was treated with soap and silicon.

3) Most of the linen that comes from Ireland is actually Belgian or other European flax stock.

4) In a conversation with Mary Ballard, textile conservator, CAL--Smithsonian Institution, we discussed the two processes for preparing flax--dew retting and water retting. I asked which process is currently used. Unfortunately, neither is used. Today's manufacturer uses a "modern" method with oxalic acid. Undoubtedly, a faster method. Interestingly, she has observed that linen fabrics of the 18th and 19th century are still in fine condition, whereas, most 20th century linens are failing. This observation raises a REAL concern for me and should be a concern for any binder who works with non-adhesive structures. (The earlier linens were most likely retted slowly with water and naturally occurring bacteria).

It would be nice if someone could do some testing (accelerated aging?) of what we currently use and compare it with something that we have specified.

Unfortunately, Mary Ballard cannot help me further because I am in private practice.

Another thought--I wonder if Barbours is doing the same thing with flax that the papermakers of 1850 did by "improving" the manufacturing process. Now look what we have to deal with--lots of brittle paper!!!!

As I mentioned, I have done some investigating. A friend, Todd Detwiler, has a woolen mill that could spin the thread. He suggested that I grow some flax so that I (we) could learn more about the process. I had a small plot of flax growing last year (about 6' x 15') that was harvested and could be processed. Todd says that he would need more stock to get his equipment working.

I really think that we (conservation bookbinders) need to take the bull by the horns and do something for our own good. I do have a few names of other people who work with flax. In fact, I contacted a Pennsylvania expert, but unfortunately, he has moved on to other projects. I have some more written information that I can send to whoever is interested.

If the Irish won't work with us then we'll have to have a revolution and write our own specifications (Declaration of Independence) that can be met by a Yankee.

I'm willing to do whatever I can to meet our needs (although I still have some stock from that order in 1983; Don says I should hold on to it, as it is as valuable as gold.)

I think I may have found a source for just the thing we need. A friend down the road--a weaver of wool, and now linsey-wool--has found a supplier in the states who brings in linen fiber for Levi Strauss. He seems to have a good product. I will be asking some more questions, especially about the retting process.

My friend Todd Detwiler uses a single strand #24 unbleached linen, line fiber for his fabrics. He says that we could have this fiber double-boiled and washed by someone he knows. We could then deacidify with calcium carbonate (not magnesium?). I don't think we want to buffer. What are your thoughts? Todd says that he also knows someone who could spin the single strands into a 2, 3, 4, etc. thread. We could specify no sizing.

I'm really quite excited by this prospect. I can send out some samples of what I have now, for anyone who is interested. Two of the samples were done in a pan of boiling water in the kitchen.

I really would like to hear any thoughts this discussion has stirred up.

William Minter Bookbinding & Conservation, Inc.,
R.D. 1, Box 99, Woodbury, PA 16695-9516
(Phone 814/793-4020, fax 814/793-4045)

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