Dab and swipe it! Sponges and cloth used in feather conservation

1 Sofft tools sponge 
2 Soot sponge
3 Cosmetic sponge
4 Hydrophilic sponge
4 Velux foam
5 Microfiber Cloth/Suede
6 Velvet/silk
7 Velvet/PE and Lycra
8 Evolon CR

Until the mid-20th century, bird skin and bird taxidermy was often cleaned with cotton cloth or cotton wadding and natural sea sponge (Greek: spongos). In fact, the sea sponge was used for body and household hygiene going back to ancient Greece. Today, a large variety of synthetic sponges and cloth is available to us. However, as our feather cleaning community survey of more than 100 conservation experts working in North- and South America, Europe and Australia showed, sponges and cloth for feather cleaning are more cautiously applied than brushes and vacuum. 

Out of 90 people, 17 (18.89%) use sponges often, 32 (35.56%) sometimes, 29 (32.22%) rarely and 12 (13.33%) never. Out of 89 people, 19 (10.11%) use cloth often, 14 (15.73%) sometimes, 33 (37.08%) rarely and 33 (37.08%) never.

Respondents point out the importance of the pressure and technique applied by the conservator and the condition of the feather when sponges or cloths are used. Rather than rubbing or rolling the sponge, sponges should be gently dabbed against the feather surface. The benefit of a simultaneous grooming and cleaning effect is highlighted. Some use sponges only on larger contour feathers in good condition and on quills. Others apply sponges only in case of heavy soiling or staining. Certain sponges are applied dry or moistened with distilled water or ethanol, depending on the surface dirt.

Out of 47 people, 22 (46.81%) observed damage after dry cleaning with sponges and 11 (23.40%) after dry cleaning with cloth.

Survey respondents experience deformation and/or breakage of barbules, loss of gloss, abrasion, and residues from sponges and cloth. It was pointed out that the bird will be left with unnaturally groomed feathers if tools are not properly applied. Moved soil can disrupt the barbs, and the danger of redeposition of soil onto the feather surface requires continuous renewal of sponges. Textile Conservator Allison Anderson (Anderson 2016) found that for cleaning textiles, the physical characteristics of the sponges are very important; sponges with the smallest cells are most effective and a much higher quantity of residues is produced and deposited by natural-rubber sponges as compared to polyurethane (PU) foam.

Dry cleaning of Scrub Jay mount with Velux foam attached to a vacuum nozzle (left) and Velux foam attached to a spatula (right) ©AMNH/R.Riedler

The main concern when using cloth as a cleaning material is that fibers can get caught up in the barbs and barbules. If cloth is to be used, lint free monofilament fabric for dry cleaning is recommended. Some sponges and cloth can be attached to the vacuum nozzle to increase the impact. Sponges and cloth will find a purpose for application, but only after the feathers have been gently vacuumed!

Dry cleaning of Scrub Jay mount with microfilament cloth Evolon CR (left) and Polyester velvet fingerling (right) ©AMNH/R.Riedler

The following products come recommended for possible dry cleaning use by survey respondents and American Museum of Natural History conservation staff. Any product should be tested closely for potential impact on feathers before use. All products are subject to further study for safe use on feathers.

Polyester velvet (left) and microfilament cloth Evolon CR (right) ©AMNH/R.Riedler

COTTON CLOTH Thin cotton gloves, cotton cloth. *Note: these are not lint-free  **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for dry cleaning

MICROFIBER CLOTH (SUEDE) Microfiber cloth made of Polyester and Polyamide or 100% Polyester (e.g. Modern Magic Blue Suede™). Fibers are finer than one denier (= one strand of silk). *Lint free **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for dry cleaning

NON-WOVEN MICROFILAMENT CLOTH Evolon CR, Dust Bunny dust cloth. Products are identical based on FTIR spectra. Highly absorbent polyester (70%) and polyamide (30%) fabric.  *Lint free **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for dry cleaning

VELVET FABRIC Synthetic velvet (polyester, nylon, viscose, or rayon), silk velvet (silk and rayon). Tufted fabric with a short dense pile. *Not lint free **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for dry cleaning

Clockwise: Soot sponge (brown), Cosmetic sponge (white), hydrophilic sponge (yellow), sofft tool sponge (pink) ©AMNH/R.Riedler

Most polyurethane sponges tested, contain Tinuvin® or Vitamin-E, as antioxidant and alkaline fillers (e.g. calcium carbonate) to neutralize some of the acid produced. Washing sponges before use is recommended. 
*Residues: Some **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for dry and moist cleaning 

Hydrophilic conservator’s sponge, Blitz-fix sponge, Conservators sponge,Polyvinyl Alcohol Sponge PVA
Closed cell Polyvinyl Alcoholsponge, solvent-proof.
*Residues: To be explored **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for moist cleaning

Micropore sponge, mixture of isoprene and styrene butadiene rubber. Developed for application of pastel paint.
*Residues: To be explored  **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for dry cleaning

Natural or vulcanized rubber sponges with coarse pores, elastic. Primarily used in wall paintings conservation. Natural rubbers are polyisoprene polymers, predominantly cis-1,4-polyisoprene (e.g. Wall master). Vulcanized rubbers are made by cross-linking natural rubber, usually with sulfur (e.g. Dry-Cleaning Soot Sponge – Dirt Eraser). Calcium carbonate found in natural rubber foams as alkaline filler.
*Residues: Yes **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for dry cleaning

Velux foam bead and bed mat. 100% flocked Nylon fibers and closed cell polyurethan foam, terylene polyester webbing. The Vellux fabric’s soft nylon bristles loosen the dirt, the polyurethane layer traps the dirt. 
*Residues: To be explored **Can be washed and reused ***Recommended for dry cleaning

Velux foam ©AMNH/R.Riedler

Recommended reading

Anderson, A. M. 2016. Comparison of Dry-Cleaning Sponges Used to Remove Soot from Textiles. Open Access Master’s Theses. Paper 949.University of Rhode Island, USA. 67 pp. https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/theses/949 (15 January 2020)

Brokerhof, A. W., S. de Groot, J. L. Pedersoli, H. van Keulen, B. Reissland, and F. Ligterink. 2002. Dry Cleaning: The Effects of New Wishab Spezialschwamm and Spezialpulver on Paper. Papierrestaurierung, 3(2):13–19.

Casella, L. and Moore, C. 2009. Research on Methods for Cleaning Face-Mounted Photographs. Topics in Photographic Preservation, vol. 13. AIC, Washington D.C. pp. 200-208.

Schorbach, S. 2009. Reinigungsschwämme in der Restaurierung—Vergleichende Untersuchung zu Material, Wirkung und Rückständen. [Cleaning Sponges in Restoration—A Comparative Study with Regards to Material, Effectiveness and Conditions.] Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung, 23(1): 41–54.

Tsang, J. and Barnes, S. 2017. Capturing Dust: Microscopic Examination of Vellux® Fabric Used in Modern and Contemporary Paintings Conservation by WAAC Newsletter 39(3): 9-12

Daudin-Schotte M., van Keulen H. 2014. Dry Cleaning: Research and Practice. In: Issues in Contemporary Oil Paint, van den Berg K. et al. 373-372. Springer, Cham.

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