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!
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.
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.
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.
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!