Handle With Care: The Delicate Art and Science of Textile Conservation
Yadin Larochette shudders inside when she hears a client say an heirloom quilt needs a good washing. As a textile conservator, she knows that fragile antique fabrics, even silk and cotton, generally don’t fare well in the rinse cycle.
“Sometimes, it may just need a vacuuming,” she said — noting that even vacuuming requires commercially
available filters that temper the force of a home machine. Larochette worked with the Autry to restore the Eurith LaBarthe quilt that is a featured item in the Autry’s current exhibition, Home Lands: How Women Made the West. Larochette will also give a talk on June 5 about her work, and about what people at home can do to preserve their heirloom textiles, including quilts and samplers passed down through generations.
The Eurith LaBarthe quilt, a riot of diamond shapes of stitched silk in irridescent, jewel-like colors in what is known as a log cabin pattern, was a present given in 1892 to Eurith LaBarthe, a high school teacher and principal, as she prepared to leave Colorado Springs for Salt Lake City, Utah. The names of her
previous hometowns and the initials of her friends are embroidered along the edges. The quilt is on loan from the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, and it illustrates women’s social and geographic mobility in the West of the late 19th Century: not only did LaBarthe move from town to town, she also moved up in society, eventually becoming Utah’s first woman legislator.
“It’s in its way a map of a woman’s movement,” said Carolyn Brucken, Autry associate curator of Western women’s history who co-curated Home Lands. “It’s a record of her mobility as well as being a beautiful, beautiful log cabin quilt.”
Larochette considers herself a conservator, not a restorer, because in her work she aims to stabilize pieces, but not necessarily get them to look brand new. “We try to have everything be
reversible,” she said. “Whatever we do, in the future, could be taken out if a better material comes along or if what we did is no longer working. We want to still be able to keep the integrity of the original and be able to remove whatever it is that we applied.”
Larochette’s work with the quilt began more than a year ago, when preparations for the exhibition were already well underway. The piece, she said, was in fair shape, and there was one area along the edge that was faded and had, in conservators’ terms “shattered,” meaning there was tearing and separation of the fabric in several directions, somewhat similar to shattering glass. In those days, silk producers often “weighted” the fabric, treating it with an agent that made it rustle but also weakened it. This material is not weighted, but was weak nevertheless. Larochette believes the dyeing process played a part.
Larochette says she has to be very mindful of chemicals and gases that the materials she works with might release either into the air or when exposed to water, because these chemicals can affect the stability of the original piece. Hence her master’s degree in science.
She began the quilt project with a specially dyed silk crepeline, an organdy often used in textile conservation, and impregnated it with an adhesive — a last resort, only because the damage was so extensive.
“In this case, it will be very hard to remove it because the original is so weak,” Larochette said. “But there was no other way to strengthen the areas that were weak.”
She applied the crepeline to the shattered area to realign the “losses” and then backed it with a hand-stiched darker material underneath for strength and to somewhat camouflage the repair. Then she applied net over the top of the entire repair, carefully sewing it to the edges. The whole process took about a month, not including the planning of the procedure and writing a proposal.
In keeping with her philosphy as a conservator, Larochette follows a rule of threes.
“You can’t see the repair from three feet away,” she said. “But you can from three inches away.”
Larochette’s June 5 talk will include tips on storage, cleaning and minor repairs of family textiles.
“We want to be able to give people resources for how to take care of their own heirlooms,” said Angie McGrew, associate conservator at the Autry. “I think what’s really important, too, is for people to see what goes into actual conservation.”