Preserving Historic Textiles

Textiles reflect culture and history. They reveal the nuances of their time through fiber, color, and pattern. Reading a textile can be as informative as reading a history book. I am drawn to textiles for their power to tell a story, for their ability to transport the viewer to a distant time or reality as their fibers tell the secrets of the past. Because of my love for textile arts and my desire to become a museum professional, learning to preserve historic textiles was a perfect way for me to bring these interests together.

I started interning at Praxis Fiber Workshop when I moved to Cleveland in June 2019. I fell in love with it immediately! The Praxis community of interns, fellows, and artists is a welcoming and inspiring group that ushered me into their niche world with exuberance. They have a natural dyes garden where I helped harvest and process indigo into a natural dye, a dye lab where I have taken classes and conducted various experiments with color, fiber and minerals, and a communal workspace studio filled with looms, sewing machines, and spinning wheels where I have learned everything from a twill weave on a Jacquard loom to spinning wool into yarn and making indigo-dyed silk ordainments. Praxis is a fiber artist’s paradise!

Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion: Waterways to Waterways indigo banner project I helped with throughout the summer, 2019.
This was my first time using a twill weave on a 6-treadle Macomber loom, experimenting with a piece of hand-dyed indigo fabric by looping it around sections of warp.

I eventually learned that Praxis had acquired a collection of de-accessioned historic textiles from the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is small but significant, consisting of beautiful pieces from four continents dating back to at least the 18th century. Unfortunately, the method in which it has been stored is not sustainable for the longevity of the collection. Because of my interest in historic textiles, creating fiber art and being part of the Praxis community, I proposed the creation of a textile preservation internship for Spring 2020, that would work collaboratively between Praxis, Cleveland State and the Cleveland Museum of Art, to create a textile library at Praxis.

The internship consisted of taking classes through Praxis including a natural dyes workshop, as well as sewing, spinning, and weaving classes. I researched fiber materials, studied various weaving, sewing, and dyeing techniques and cultural traditions throughout the semester. Having a strong base of textile knowledge, knowing how the textile was created, what fibers were used and in what techniques, provides a preservationist or conservator the ability to identify preservation needs, and allows them to appropriately care for each item. Understanding the structure of a piece can reveal unique cultural and era-specific nuances, and can illustrate the delicacies, weaknesses, and strengths of the fabric.

I was taught how to follow a sewing pattern to make a skirt. I learned how to hand stitch hems and to use a sewing machine in the process. following a pattern is a helpful way to learn sewing terms and familiarizing yourself with various stitch techniques.
I learned mending tips along the way after accidentally ripping the waistband I had just sewn… sewing is a learning experience!
During the natural dyes workshop, I was taught to use a mortar and pestle to grind the dried cochineal into a power that can then be mixed with a mordant to produce a pink, purple, or red dye. I learned that cochineal (an insect from Mexico) was used to dye the British army’s “Red Coats” during the Revolutionary war, and fustic (a bark) is used to dye Buddhist monks rob’s yellow.
I practiced a few Japanese shibori techniques, a method using various stitch patterns which creates a resist between the dye and the fabric, resulting in unique patterns.
Cochineal and logwood using a block resist method. Fustic and marigold dyed fabric in the background.

While learning these various textile techniques, I began digitizing Praxis’s book collection to familiarize myself with textile artists, publications, institutions and to start collecting metadata. I wanted the textile library to be established with the utmost professionalism and museum standards, so I reached out to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s textile conservator, Robin Hanson, for advice. I was incredibly surprised by her willingness to meet with me, and through generous consultations with Robin and her associates, I was taught the highest quality of textile preservation methods through visits at Praxis and to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Robin demonstrated how to appropriately catalog, store, clean, and handle historic textiles while providing specific advice that would best meet Praxis’s needs to maintain the highest standards for quality care, accessibility, and longevity.

Praxis’s textile collection was unorganized in a folded crumpled mix within various boxes and flat files. Some were enclosed in acidic plastic while others were attached to strange mounts, with little to no organizational systems in place either physically or digitally. The textiles are currently in a general work area at Praxis, where machinery and various equipment is also stored and used. This does not meet the standards of preservation professionalism and threatens the sustainability of the collection as damage is inevitable if they remain in these conditions.

The flat file storage at Praxis before any organization or preservation began.

Between my meetings with Robin, I started to reorganize the flat files and boxes and began digitizing the pieces one by one. I created an Excel sheet where I collected all the metadata available on each piece including the country /culture or origin, acquisition origin, date of creation, date cataloged, dimensions, weave structure/materials, and photographs. When re-storing the pieces, I made sure to lay each flat or to roll them. Folding should never be done when preserving or storing textiles. The fold creates a strain on the warp fibers which results in worn, torn, or stretched out the warp. Usually, permanent creases are created in the fabric and because of their delicate nature, washing and ironing are not advised. Textiles should also never be enclosed in plastic, especially in an uncontrolled environment. Non-archival plastics are acidic and can capture humidity and dust, all of which lead to damaged textiles.

Here, the textiles have been organized and stored properly in a rolled or laid flat fashion in an acid-free archival box.
This textile shows damage from being stored in a folded manner. Permanent creases and stretched out warp have occurred.

I transcribed notes taken during my meetings with Robin and compiled them with my observations from working with Praxis’s textile collection to create a series of documents for Praxis including an outline of preservation steps, an Excel catalog, and a proposal illustrating the needs and steps for establishing Praxis’s Textile Library and Archives. Because of COVID-19, I, unfortunately, have not been able to complete the work I started in preserving the collection. I hope the documents not only help others to continue the process of cataloging and preserving but will also lead to a well-established Textile Library and Archives.

I have had an exciting, informative, and fulfilling experience as a textile preservation intern this semester at Praxis. I was incredibly sad when COVID-19 prohibited me from continuing my project to preserve and document their collections. Since in quarantine, I have remained diligent in building my textile base through studying cultural-historic textiles, spinning, mending, and have been weaving on a small table loom daily. Although my preservation work has been paused, I am grateful for the experience I had, for the people I met and the skills I have learned. It has been a fantastic experience!

here is the small table loom I has been using since at home. It has two shafts and creates a plain weave structure.
I have been making these small sample weavings to practice various techniques. This is an interlocking method where one thread wraps around the other and pulls it through to the opposite side, resulting in two colors on the same weft line.
This is also using an interlocking technique but in a controlled method, where each line of weft is pulled through to a specific point.
Here, I am spinning wool into yarn using a one peddle spinning wheel.