craftiness

Restoring a plaster frame

by Suw on January 19, 2016

Back in 2011, I bought a plaster mirror off eBay for £26. It was badly packed by the seller, however, and arrive with several cracks and chips. I was gutted, but kept it anyway. In 2013, it got shipped over to the US, during which process our moving company broke it even further. When I looked at it, I wasn’t really sure it could ever be saved: Too many chunks and chips broken off, and five major fractures. I kept it anyway, just in case.

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Last August, I decided to see what I could do to save it. All I had to do was glue it all back together, fill the holes and paint it, right?

I read around about what sort of glue to use, and one recommendation was Fabri-Tac, a fabric glue, which dries relatively quickly but stays workable for long enough to allow positioning. It also works well with plaster, forming a thin layer which doesn’t make the joint thicker than it should be. Gluing all the little bits and chips back was actually a lot of fun, a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. 

So that would work for gluing on the bits that had broken off, but there were five fractures that would need a little bit more strength than I thought Fabri-Tac could provide. However, there’s also a metal hoop that is set into the plaster, so I couldn’t move the broken sections apart to get the glue in between them. The only thing I could think of was using a fast-drying (5-minute) epoxy to glue a metal bars to the back to act as a brace, and if I could, dribble some Fabri-Tac down the fracture to provide extra strength. 

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Once everything was put back together, barring the few chips in the middle of the above photo that I couldn’t find the home for, it was time to fill in the cracks and gaps. At first I thought it would be easiest to use filler, or what Americans call spackle, but it turned out to be a major error – whilst the filler went on easily, it dried soft, not hard. Turned out to be a vinyl filler that was entirely not suitable for this project. Instead, I bought proper plaster of paris, which will dry hard. 

Now, plaster of paris is a really squirly material to work with, and it took me ages to figure out how best to use it. Mixing it thick and then trying to smear it on like filler totally did not work as it didn’t even begin to adhere to the bare plaster. Instead, I mixed it really thin, and then painted it on in layers using a small brush. It thickens very quickly, though, but a little extra water in the mix keeps it workable. You do have to clean the brush off regularly though, otherwise you end up with a stick with a blob of plaster on the end. 

Eventually, I got everything filled, and then I sanded it down with fine sandpaper. 

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Next, it was time to paint. This is where my impatience really got the better of me. Instead of doing research, I just bought a couple of ‘metallic gold’ acrylic paints, picked a shade I liked and got to painting.

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The result was plasticky, to say the least. Although it looked half-decent when not in direct light, the colour deepened by the shadows, in bright sunlight it looked awful.

I had bought some gold-coloured metallic powder for another project, so thought I’d mix some of that into some clear acrylic gloss varnish to get a richer finish. It was… ok. I tried again, but added some burnt sienna to give it a slightly darker colour, and see if that worked better. It sort of did, but it still looked more like plastic than gold leaf. It was tolerable, I guess, but not really what I wanted. 

After a break, due to Christmas and the like, I decided this weekend to have a go at antiquing it, to see if that would save it. Mixing burnt sienna with burnt umber in a 1:2 ratio gave a nice, reddish-brown colour, which I painted into the recesses with a small paintbrush, then took most of it off again with a stiff-bristled brush, and wiped the excess off the highlight areas with a cloth. That made a huge difference, giving the frame much more depth. 

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In the top photos, the top part of the frame has been antiqued, and in the bottom photo, the bottom part has been done.

The antiquing certainly helped, but it still wasn’t quite right. Luckily, for Christmas I was given some Liquid Leaf, which gets the best reviews for of any of the metallic paints. Whist it doesn’t give a finish as smooth as real leaf, it does do a good job. I decided to add that to the highlights. Finally, that gave a finish I was happy with.

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And once the mirror was in and it was hung on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, Grabbity could sit on the newel post to admire herself:

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The finish is quite a bit lighter in tone than the original, but I prefer that. Overall, I’m really pleased about how it came out, though in retrospect I’d do things a bit differently with the painting. What I should have done was:

  1. Seal the bare plaster with an acrylic sealant.
  2. Paint the whole thing with Liquid Leaf.
  3. Seal with gloss acrylic sealant (I haven’t been able to seal this frame, because of the order I did it all in, so the Liquid Leaf may tarnish over time)
  4. Antique with the acrylic burnt sienna/umber mix, but water it down a bit and make sure not to get it on the highlights. If necessary, do it in layers rather than try to do it all at once. (Also, mix enough for the whole frame, otherwise you might have issues matching the colour.)

That said, I have a totally different plan for my next mirror, which is much smaller, but needs just as much love.

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The double-edged sword of mechanisation

by Suw on January 16, 2014

Via Mary Corbet’s Needle ‘n Thread blog I discovered this fantastic video about embroiderers in Appenzell in Switzerland and how their way of life was destroyed by mechanisation.

The documentary paints a fascinating picture of the rural families that earnt a living through incredibly delicate embroidery, supplementing what would have been a meagre income from fairly unproductive small-holdings. The woman of the household would pass on her skills to her children, boys and girls alike. They would all embroider from dawn til dusk and on into the night by candlelight. The school-age children would attend classes, but would still be expected to do significant amounts of embroidery in the evenings. The children who weren’t good with a needle worked at the household chores, often taking on many of the tasks that a mother would normally do so that she could embroider more.

The particular embroidery type that Appenzellers made was called whitework, and this still from the video show just how delicate it can be. (Sorry I couldn’t find a better picture that was also CC licensed!)

Appenzell whitework

Of course, fashions moved on which, along with mechanisation, put many embroiderers out of business. Those changes cannot have been easy for the rural families who depended on embroidery to make ends meet, and who didn’t have many, or any, other reliable income. But the life of an embroiderer would not have been easy either, working all hours and earning relatively little for very demanding work. One mistake would result in money being docked, and they weren’t being paid much in the first place.

Whilst mechanisation freed whole families from gruelling work, (although they may not have seen it like that whilst they were figuring out what else to do), it also likely resulted in the loss of many skills. The story is the same across the crafts. As mass produced materials superseded the hand-crafted, the knowledge that allowed those items to be made, that had been passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, was lost, if not in total then in major part.

The economics of hand-made items were never good. Time-consuming processes require either low-paid workers or very high prices that only a few can afford. The craft industry these days relies on both models, not just because of sweatshops in the developing world, but also Western hobbyist (or, in some cases, subsistence) crafters who sell their work for the cost of the materials rather than including time and other overheads because it’s hard to sell anything otherwise.

The results of this are, I fear, a gradual loss of skill and, worse, a loss of interest in those skills. That’s why I love blogs such as Mary Corbet’s, and why they are so fundamentally important. Although there are institutions such as the Royal School of Needlework who do a great job of preserving and passing on knowledge, craft blogs allow anyone to not only be inspired by the beautiful work on display, but to also learn a little about how it’s done. It is because of Mary’s blog that I’ve picked up an embroidery needle, with the intention of doing something more interesting than just a few French knots.

Argleton embroidered cover

But this is also why I like including aspects of crafting in my work, both my books and my writing. The Argleton project included a hand-embroidered silk-covered edition, and The Lacemaker, well, obviously, makes reference to the making of bobbin lace. I love learning about new crafts, as much as I love learning about engineering and physics – indeed, embroidery involves quite a bit of materials science, with different threads and fabrics behaving in different ways.

As the subtitle to my blog implies, I find it easy to nerd out over almost anything, and in that I don’t think I’m alone. There’s currently a boom in interest in knitting, which I hope will be followed by a revival of all sorts of other crafts, including embroidery and bobbin lace. Of course, if anything I write or create helps inspire anyone else to look into our rich crafting heritage, that’s great, but it’s people like Mary we should be looking to, and supporting, as they share their expertise in the crafts for all our benefit.

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