ETSG conference talk by Katrina Finch

Karen Finch: Her Legacy Online
ETSG conference talk by Katrina Finch
Oct 24, 2019 • By Katrina Finch0 comments

This is the talk I gave on June 6th 2019 as part of the Early Textiles Study Group’s (ETSG) biennial conference, held in Glasgow and dedicated to the memory of Karen Finch. Click here for more information.

1. Home page

The home page of

Karen Finch, my mother, left to us a considerable archive containing: published and unpublished papers, photographs and slides, correspondence, diaries, teaching samples, not to mention creative works, and a classified collection of ephemeral literature on topics that she saw as relevant to textile history and textile conservation. In short, a mass of material that illustrates her distinctive approach to teaching and research.

While Karen was still alive, we decided that a website would be the best way to give people all over the world access to her archive. The website was recently launched on the first anniversary of Karen’s death. This talk is to introduce you to the website and its various strands of content. Our aim was to make the website represent the whole of Karen’s life and work, reflecting the exceptional woman that she was, and the profound impact she made on the world of textiles. But also, the website is about all of you and welcomes your input. Let me explain.

2. Mockup of pull-down menus

A mockup showing the menu structure of the website

The Archive section of the website is where you will find information about the content of the archive, with links to articles and papers, conservation projects, and Karen publications.

The Life section focusses more directly on Karen’s biography. It includes two important Oral Histories – one conducted by the American Institute for Conservation in 1985, and another set of interviews undertaken by the family between 2010-2011 for the Life Journey video produced for Karen’s 90th birthday.

The Legacy section demonstrates the personal impact Karen had on the textile world, in particular, of course, the field of Textile Conservation. Here also is a place for all those people, Karen’s “diaspora”, many of you, who influenced or were influenced by Karen, including her former conservation students, and subsequent students at the TCC and now at the CTC.

The Forum is a space for people to engage with each other in discussion and debate about present-day interests and concerns.

The picture galleries speak for themselves, and are easy to navigate.

3. Karen Finch Library and Reference Collection

An example of the presentation of Karen’s articles on the website

One of the articles in the Archive Section gives details about the content of the Karen Finch Library and Reference Collection.

The core of this archive was brought by Karen from her Ealing studio to Hampton Court in 1975.

My mother wrote in the article seen here that the Collection began as an extension “to my specialized library of books, postcards with textile subjects, magazines and journals, that now form the nucleus of the TCC’s library. The collection helped me to put across the philosophy on which the course was founded, namely the treatment of artistically or culturally important textiles as documents of history.”

Here, by “course”, Karen is referring to the History of Dress course at the Courtauld Institute of Art, for which she began in 1973 to assemble objects for personal and group learning.

This collection became so important that Karen devoted part of her retirement to catalogue, index and store it. It remains a resource for students at the CTC, used everyday, as I hear, from Frances Lennard and still added to over the years.

Karen often said that if she hadn’t been a textile conservator she would have been a librarian. For all that she grabbed the present with both hands, and she also had her eyes fixed on the future. She wanted the past to be part of the future, hence her passionate love of archives. And what she collected was inextricably linked to her nature: her open-mindedness; her constant search for new ways of doing things; her hatred of restriction and being pigeon-holed – all this meant that her interests traversed all disciplines – as her archive reflects.

4. Content of the (Textile) Reference Collection

The textiles amassed by Karen came from many different sources: her own creations; family donations; materials she picked up during her work. Other people gave samples to her and some she bought at a ridiculously low cost at Portobello Market. The more valuable of the donations were given to various museums.

The textile-making equipment she put to use when teaching the Techniques course.

5. Photo of Ninna Rathje with my parents

One of the donors to Karen’s textile collection was Ninna Ratjhe of the Historical Archaeological Research Centre at Lejre in Denmark.

The photo of Ninna Rathje with my parents, from the Galleries section, relates to Karen’s conviction that in order to do textile conservation you had to understand, sometimes through making, how textiles were constructed in the past.

As she wrote in her article “The Beginning of the Textile Conservation Centre” published on the website:

“My interest in early techniques were shared by a fellow student, Ninna Rathje. We were allowed access to the Study Rooms of the Danish National Museum, otherwise closed because of the war. There we met Margrethe Hald. She let us handle her re-constructions of the archaeological textiles published in her 1950 Doctoral thesis – and in 1980 in an English Version: Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials. Her work inspired us both. Ninna went on to help set up the Textile Workshop at the Historical-Archaeological Research Centre at Lejre near Roskilde. Ninna also worked on Sprang and tablet weave finds. The TCC Reference Collection contains several examples of her work.”

6. Glasgow University Archive

A sample page from the PDF listing the contents of Karen’s archive

In 2006 when Karen sold her home in Ealing, a lorry load of archive material was given to the TCC in Winchester. Philip, Alan (my husband sitting here) and I have made regular visits to the Glasgow University archive to log what was brought there.

Emma Wong Yan – the university archivist – has been so helpful to us (and Lesley Richmond before her) and the result is that Emma has given Karen’s archive an accession number and has provided a PDF listing the contents of many of Karen’s boxes of archive material. The PDF is on the website and I am showing an example here.

Emma also sent a link to the list of books held by the TCC in the main library as well as the library annexe – where we have found that the vast majority of Karen’s own signed books are held. This list can also be accessed on the website.

300 books were sent to Denmark to be held by the Danish Textile Research Centre. This was organised by Else Østergaard. We will publish the link to this collection soon.

At our home in Walthamstow, there is a mass of unindexed material from Karen’s personal archives – a further source of rich material for publication on the website to aid future researchers.

7. Historical Royal Palaces: Kensington Palace

The King’s Emblem Pin

Other archival material was donated by Karen in her lifetime primarily to museums. We have yet to trace all those donations.

Here are photos of one of the items loaned to Kensington Palace, a badge in honour of the King of Denmark. I am ending with this item because it so eloquently links Karen’s early life and experience of war to the person she became – a very human person leaving open-ended questions hanging in the air. Here we find written in Karen’s handwriting:

Dannebrogs Maerke
Ostensibly celebrating the birthday of Christian X, this mark became a symbol of the resistance. The proceeds from its sale helped to fund the resistance movement. At the Royal Garden Party I wore it under the tie of the dress – because it seemed a good idea. I cannot really explain.

Katrina Finch June 2019