The development of the polymer polyacrylonitrile (PAN) in the late 1940’s led to the production of a synthetic alternative to fur: a fabric well known as fake fur, fun fur or faux fur. To improve the properties of synthetic furs different type of monomers were co-polymerised with acrylonitrile, thus generating a large variety of fibres with different chemical compositions and characteristics. Synthetic furs became very popular and were widespread in the pop culture of the 1960s; they were not only used in clothing, but also for toys, in fashion accessories, furniture pieces, interior design, works of art and installations.
Museum professionals charged with the conservation of these new materials face an interesting challenge; many works of art made of synthetic furs are in poor condition and often require cleaning, as the fibres are dirty and darkened, thus compromising their colourful and playful original appearance and artist’s intention. However, safe and effective cleaning procedures for synthetic furs are still lacking.
This study presents the variety of materials and processing methods used to produce synthetic furs and the investigation undertaken to find suitable conservation strategies to clean these fibres. The Dutch Pop art style artworks Hortisculptuur (1967-69) and Wombtomb (1968) by Ferdi Tajiri (1927-1969) and the installation Soft Living Room (1968) by Maria van Elk (1943), all containing different kinds of synthetic furs were used as case studies. Naturally aged synthetic furs, most likely residuals of the artwork Mother’s Invention (1968) by Ferdi Tajiri were donated by her family and used as test material for performing
Publications concerning cleaning of synthetic material and informal inquiries with both modern art and textiles conservators were used to select the cleaning products, which included organic solvents and aqueous cleaning agents. Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) and Pyrolysis-Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (py-GCMS) were used to identify and characterize the fibres of both artworks and test materials. Further observations under polarized light allowed the classification of the varieties of synthetic fibres. The effect and efficiency of the cleaning agents on the fibres were evaluated by scanning electron microscopy (SEM). In order to investigate whether the cleaning agents would accelerate the degradation of the fibres in the long-term, accelerated aging experiments were carried out. Partially cleaned residual synthetic fur samples were exposed to both accelerated light-aging conditions in a Xenotest Alpha High Energy (Atlas®) using filtered Xenon Arc lamp radiation for a period of 336 hours and to thermal ageing in a Vötsch Vc 0200 climate chamber at 60°C for 672 hours.
Finally, cleaning agents that had proved the most suitable and effective for cleaning the synthetic fur test samples, were applied to the two artworks Hortisculptuur and Soft Living Room. As a result, the characteristic intention of these artworks, a voluminous and shiny appearance of the fibres, could be recovered substantially. The successful cleaning of both artworks demonstrates that the results of this investigation can be successfully put into practice.