Textile Conservator Claudia Walpole was onsite at Reynolda House earlier this month completing her conservation of the objects to be showcased in collaboration with Star Power: Edward Steichen Glamour Photography, on view February 23 - May 19. Showcasing The Golden Age of Reynolda (1923-1937), the objects treated include evening gowns, shoes, and accessories.
How did you choose textile conservation?
I was always interested in costume design, but when I studied abroad in Luxembourg during undergrad my eyes were opened. Textile Conservation married my love of costume, textiles, and history.
What does a textile conservator do?
I can tell you what conservators don’t do, and that is restoration - there is a very clear distinction between conservation and restoration. Conservators do not try to make things look “new” and we do not add to nor do we take away anything from the artifact A basic tenet of our work is that everything we do treatment-wise is reversible. It’s important to preserve the object as it is, respecting its intrinsic historic value. Future scholars may then be able to study the textile object in it’s unaltered state, future scholars may study the artifact trusting the information they glean is accurate. For that reason, we also document everything we do with comprehensive reports describing the proposed treatment and the treatment actually undertaken. Photographs are also an important element in this documentation.
Each type of object in a museum has a specialized conservator. (ie. paintings, sculpture,furniture, textiles)
Textile conservators come from all backgrounds, i.e. science, fashion or costuming and the fiber arts, being good technicians. And we end up working on everything from samplers and quilts to historic dress, ethnographic textiles, tapestries and flags and banners.
The first thing we do is examine the textile to determine it’s condition in terms of soiling and structural damage, then devise a treatment plan which first involves cleaning. Then if there is structural damage, e.g. tears, holes, open seams which make the object fragile, we stabilize the textile with support linings, patches, overlays, and an array of conservation stitches.
Textile conservators surface clean textiles with low-suction vacuuming, wet clean if appropriate with pH balanced solutions and deionized water, occasionally solvent clean them under controlled conditions and also occasionally use humidification to relax sharp creases (with cool, deionized water - not a regular steamer.) We also advise on best practices for the archival storage, exhibition and the shipping of textile objects for exhibition.”
What is the biggest threat to conserving textiles?
Light exposure is the biggest threat, which causes dye fading and also breaks down the fibers on a molecular-level; next is acidic soiling and finally frequent or poor handling.
What is the most interesting thing you learned during this conservation project?
The hats. One in particular has two real birds attached and I had to look into the proper way to handle the fragile feathers and skin.
I am often struck by the stark contrast between the meticulous hand work of the textiles I work on as opposed to the mass production of items today. I primarily work on textiles that are at least 70 years old and most are much, much older - the oldest piece I’ve worked on is a Peruvian feather tabard from approximately 400-700 A.D. and the craftsmanship is incredible..
What was the most challenging piece to restore for this show? And why?
The beaded gown because of its intricate beading, complex construction of silk chemise, built-in corset, and any modifications that had been made through time.
Sometimes you have to listen to the object, and let it tell you what it needs..
*Claudia Walpole’s answers are adapted from an interview on February 5, 2013.