The education of textile restorers

The education of textile restorers
By Karen Finch
First published 1965 in Studies in Conservation

At present, in England, we have no accepted course of training for anyone who wishes to work at the conservation of textiles. Indeed there is hardly anyone outside a museum, or without some personal contact with the work, who would even know there is a need for workers in this field. There are no generally accepted standards, nor is there any method of assessing the competence, or otherwise, of anyone who attempts conservation other than by knowledge of that person’s previous work. Even more serious, is the fact that there is no recognised or generally known method of recruiting would-be workers in the field of repair and conservation. There are, of course, excellent workers to be found in museums, in the Royal School of Needlework, and privately. They have come into the work in many varied ways. Their skill and knowledge has come by experience, but it is all too often limited to such work as they have actually done themselves or have watched being done in their immediate surroundings.

I became a conservator by evolution, but I believe my early training has been of much value. It is because of my training, subsequent experiences, and knowledge of the difficulties of those looking for people to work at conservation, that I feel so strongly that there is a need for a properly accredited, systematic and comprehensive course by which those who are to work at the conservation of textiles in the future, should be trained to a recognised standard.

It might be a good idea, first of all, to give you a short review of how I “evolved” into a conservator.

Church embroidery

I first became aware of the work at 13, when the pastor in our little village north of Viborg, in Denmark, found some very beautiful, but also very deteriorated embroidery in the loft of our medieval church, together with some quite nice wooden panels with paintings of the Apostles.

The pastor persuaded his rather close-fisted farming congregation that these were treasures worth spending money to preserve, and on advice from the National Museum, the embroidery was repaired by Fru Schmedes and her ladies, who still work in one of the towers at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. I have since had the privilege of visiting them, and the opportunity to study their work more closely, and to learn of the indomitable interest in textiles that, together with the will to preserve the treasures of the past, has driven Mrs Schmedes and her devoted helpers on, in the many years since they first decided to try to keep the Kronberg Tapestries from disintegration.

I had started to do embroidery when I was 5, and made myself a loom from a cigar box when I was 10. I enjoyed learning new stitches, and continued to do so at the Danish High School, where we were also taught dressmaking. After that, I learnt to weave, at first from a former student of the Art School in Copenhagen, where I was eventually accepted myself as a student.

We were taught about colour, design and technique by dedicated artists who all considered these things inseparable, and I do not know, even now, which has been of the most value in my work in conservation.

At this stage, though, I certainly did not visualise that conservation was what I would eventually be doing, but I was lucky enough to be able to live in the building of the Museum of Applied Art, where the school was also housed, and to have access to their textile collections where I continued my, by now automatic, scanning for repairs.

I married, came to England, and quite by chance, found myself working at the Royal School of Needlework. Here I became conscious for the first time of the satisfaction gained by making beautiful old textiles whole again.

Then my daughter was born. While she was little, I worked as a freelance, on conservation, weaving, design, including children’s clothes and toys, teaching and interior decorating. The latter mostly for ourselves and friends. It was a lovely life, and it lasted till the roof of our house began to leak, and the bank did not think anything of freelance work, or at least of my ability to earn by this method, and so I took a job at the Victoria and Albert Museum. First I worked on tapestries but later I was allowed to indulge my interest in cleaning, which had developed since my High School days. It was here too that I first became aware of the work of Louisa Bellinger and the Workshop Notes from the Textile Museum in Washington. Through the interest they aroused, I felt the need for more knowledge of chemistry and so, after leaving the museum, I attended weekly chemistry classes for two years. I also learnt something of textile printing at the Hammersmith College of Art. Even such a slight knowledge of chemistry as I now have, has made for greater understanding of both textiles and dyes, and how different dyes behave on different fabrics. But perhaps the most important result of learning a little chemistry is the ability to understand the chemists. As long as they choose their words carefully, and go slowly, I can understand enough to work with them and take advantage of their knowledge also regarding the use of new materials in conservation.

I have put together a course that makes a firm foundation for students to start their experiences upon. Such a course should set a standard of knowledge acceptable to any future employer, and, we hope, imbue the student with enough enthusiasm to last a lifetime.

I believe interest in conservation is rising and many people are becoming aware of the work for the first time. Since I have been working on my own, I have had many enquiries from employers, as well as would-be conservators. I think there is the need for a training scheme of some kind. In England, at any rate, the salary for such work has recently been made more attractive too. A recognised standard of training would be of value where work is undertaken for private customers, and the conservator who left her job to marry would have the wherewithal at her fingertips for embarking on freelance work, for which there is a constant call.

All these different experiences of mine have given me quite a number of ideas of what should be included in a scheme for training conservators.

I feel that the ideal would be to provide a two-year period of training during which we should aim to teach the students to get to know all the methods now used in the conservation of textiles, and yet we want them to be flexible enough in their ways to be able to appraise each piece of work on its merit, and to be able to utilise knowledge and experience or, if necessary, evolve an original method to repair that piece of work in a manner appropriate to its value and future use. Naturally, a course of about two years could not hope to turn even the cleverest person into an expert, but, from my own knowledge, I have learned to pick out those parts of my training as a textile designer and weaver that have been most relevant to conservation, and on which I now see I have built my subsequent experience, and gained the interest that has led me to add to these experiences. With this in mind, together with those subjects which I feel it would have been an advantage to have known more about, I have put together a course that makes a firm foundation for students to start their experiences upon. Such a course should set a standard of knowledge acceptable to any future employer, and, we hope, imbue the student with enough enthusiasm to last a lifetime.

From my own experience and that of respected colleagues, like Mrs [Evelyn] Birkill, I would say that it would be very desirable that the would-be students should have had an art school training. They would then have had instruction in design and gained a knowledge of colour and the essential feeling for the material. Once such a course as I envisage is known to exist, it might well attract some of those art students who see in the preservation of existing objects of artistic and historical value, an outlet better suited to their abilities than trying to find a foothold in the crowded and uncertain world of commercial art. The successful conservator, able to change her style to repair so many different works by slipping into the feeling and technique of original craftsman, can then enjoy a satisfaction nearly as great as the original artist.

Having decided on the type of student we would like to see taking the course, and the type of conservator we hope to produce, we come to the most important part, the course itself.

I would like to see the course divided into two sections, theoretical and practical, but divided quite literally, so that each student spent part of each day on some actual conservation. At the end of a two-year period, finishing with an examination, or the award of a diploma, the student should have gone far enough along the road, under supervision, to be able to go on learning, independent of actual instruction. With the frequent discoveries of new ways of preserving and repairing, no-one can pretend that any course can be completely comprehensive.

On the theoretical side, there should be general instruction on the conservation of textiles, whether they are still in use, for instance, like those owned by churches or on display in museums and houses of historical interest. I should like to have instruction given on how textiles in museums can be displayed, in ideal surroundings and lighting, and also how they can best be stored and preserved. Under the heading of theory too, would be chemistry and instruction in textile technology and in the use of a microscope. Lectures on art and social history and visits to museums and historic houses would also come in this part of the course.

I think it essential that there should be instruction in the basic methods of weaving and embroidery, printing and lace-making which were used to produce the textiles which the students will be called upon to repair. Knowing the original processes of manufacture gives the strongest clues to the treatment needed for conservation. To aid this knowledge, there should also be, if possible, visits to textile factories where other processes in the manufacture of textiles could be studied.

On the practical side there should be instruction in how to tackle a job from the beginning. Students should first watch and then be encouraged to deal with the work in all its stages: consultation; estimating time and cost; the use of photography; taking the work apart; washing or cleaning; framing up; the actual repair and the final displaying, with safety, of the finished work. Throughout the whole process, students should be encouraged to keep records of all stages of the work. As an example of what I mean, I should like to tell you of a report I saw in Copenhagen sometime ago, of work done to a Norwegian chasuble under the direction of Dr Muller in Munich. I was greatly impressed by its thoroughness. It included an analysis of weaves used in all the materials from which the chasuble had been made, including linings that had deteriorated in the past and were now only visible at the seams. All information that could ever be of historical value was included. This seems to me an example of conservation in its fullest sense.

Special care should be given to teaching the principles and techniques of washing and cleaning, with again, practical experience. Perhaps commercial dry cleaners and launderers could be called in here to explain their methods.

And finally during the practical period, there should be the carrying out of actual repairs so that the students will become accustomed to handling all types of textiles and finding out for themselves where the different methods of stitching and sticking are appropriate. This part of the training is very important, not only for learning, but also in showing that steady application to the work in hand is essential. This applies especially to tapestries which provide possibly the most time-consuming work there is in the conservation of textiles.

Having completed the course, and acquired the diploma, students would be expected to study and gain further experience. Any museum which considered employing such a student would know that her early training was of a good standard, that she had been trained to work with initiative and was likely to be able to train others to work under her supervision. The person who has had a recognised training is, as a rule, in a far better position to pass that training on to others than is someone who acquired skill and knowledge only by a process of trial and error.

Karen at the Acton studio. Photo taken for the Acton Gazette.

Is such a scheme as I have outlined a practical proposition? Undoubtedly there would be a number of problems to overcome, not least the financial ones. It might be possible to interest the education authorities. This would solve many administrative difficulties and perhaps also financial ones pertaining to students’ grants etc. I foresee one very important difficulty in connection with what I feel is the lynchpin of my particular idea, namely, how to be sure of having actual textiles, suffering various grades of decay, according to the use which has been made of them and the conditions under which they have been kept. Without these, students could not be taught to recognise the characterisation of each period, or trained to see, feel and smell the objects, to get to know them in order to choose the most suitable treatment for each one. Though they are needed as well, valueless samples are not enough. No-one could gain the kind of interest in the whole subject that will carry them over the duller patches – like working a few years on a tapestry – on anything but the REAL thing. So it is apparent that the scheme would have to have supplies of textiles needing conservation from museums with good collections and that might make it difficult for an education authority to finance students, most of whose work would directly benefit some other authority.

The teaching part itself should not be so difficult. There are people on the existing staff of most leading museums who are competent to give lectures and add the proper slant towards conservation.

The person in charge of the daily work would need to have a good all-round knowledge of textiles and an inexhaustible supply of interest and enthusiasm for this work, as on this person would rest the responsibility of relating all the various subjects to each other in such a way that the student would not only understand, but come to have the right attitude to the profession.

There might, of course, be alternative ways of providing training than the ones I have put forward. Perhaps short courses could be arranged each year, specialising in one or two subjects, but otherwise much the same as the longer course and gradually covering the same ground. Staff already attached to museums might more readily be given leave of absence to attend a shorter course than a two-year course. In England, it might be possible to give a series of courses that could be connected with the knowledge expected of those wishing to gain the Technical Museum Diploma.

This idea of a training scheme has been in my mind for a long time, and I feel very strongly that the greatest hope of its success would be in the establishment of two-year courses. Continuous instruction of this kind encourages an interchange of ideas amongst the students and a satisfying feeling of working together with a common purpose.

Karen Finch
41 King Edwards Gardens
London, W3

The article ‘The Education of Textile Restorers’ by Karen Finch was originally published in Studies in Conservation vol 9 1964 Issue sup1: 1964 Delft Conference on The Conservation of Textiles. Second Edition, 1965 pp 48-52. © The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd, http://www.tandfonline.com on behalf of The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.