The Revival of Colored Cotton; April 1999; Scientific American Magazine; by Vreeland, Jr.; 7 Page(s)
One afternoon in 1977 I was struggling to work in the National Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Lima, Peru, in a small conservation laboratory that I shared with a resident population of fleas, rats, a snake and a monkey. I was examining pre-Columbian textiles through a stereoscopic microscope, thinking about how best to preserve them. A graduate student in archaeology, I had come to Peru several years earlier to participate in an excavation at the Chan Chan site in the northern Andes and had just returned with a modest grant from the Organization of American States to continue my studies. Little did I know that what I would see through the microscope that day would set me off on a different trail altogether.
Inside the cotton fibers' walls I noticed some intriguing dark masses that imparted color to the fabric. Because the distinct brown spots did not appear to be the result of dye, I began to ask around at universities in Lima: Was it possible that some cotton was naturally pigmented? The answer-often derisively given-was categorically no: cotton is white. The coloration apparent in the microscope must be, the experts reasoned, the result of oxidation or of some other discoloration that came about as the now antique fabric had aged.