Lucy asked me to write an article for the Messenger to explain the conservation and restoration work that I have been doing on the church’s beautiful altar frontals. I have thought a lot about that, but in thinking how to explain, I keep coming back to one central and very unexpected idea: Friendship. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I was seven, my grandmother had an embroidered pillow on her sofa. I had never seen anything like it before and I thought it was the very essence of magnificence. I knew I had to—somehow—be able to stitch things like that. I know now that my grandmother’s scatter cushion was adorned with crewel embroidery and was classically English. It was a very traditional Jacobean design and it was stitched with fine wool on linen twill. Learning how to do this very specific type of embroidery was more difficult than I thought it would be. But, in truth, for 40 years other types of needlework kept me busy: quilting, smocking, dressmaking, French handsewing, and knitting. I did try, but I could never find anybody able to teach me crewel embroidery. In fact, I never even saw much of it. Then, about 15 years ago, out of curiosity, I took to the internet. Pretty quickly, I found Phillipa Turnbull, the proprietor of The Crewelwork Company, which is located in England’s Lake District. I emailed her. She answered. We exchanged more emails. Stunningly, she invited me to visit her and to stay in her home. I went: Like a shot I went! Right from the first, it was as if Phillipa and I had been separated at birth: We were sisters of sorts who shared a passion for needlework and ponies and adventure. As we got to know each other, we found that we shared odd connection after odd connection. Over the next few years, Phillipa did indeed teach me how to stitch and I am keenly aware I have been taught by the very best.
But, stitching was not the only thing I learned. On many occasions, Phillipa has generously brought me with her when she zipped around the country to look at one incredible piece of stitching after another. In her wee car, we belted around some of the most stunning country on God’s creation laughing, and marveling, and talking. Of course, you don’t become an expert on historic embroidery without studying the original pieces. Introverted by nature, I marveled at her cheery, confident, powerfully extroverted self and have been with her when she has magically talked her way into places where other people are simply not allowed. And, standing quietly behind her, I have gotten to go with her, too. I have been with her when our conversation was about a set of bed hangings drew a crowd. In a matter of minutes she is delivering an impromptu lecture to an enraptured group of very fortunate tourists. Studying these precious pieces means visiting remote castles and stately homes, frequenting auctions, going to museums (the big ones and the little ones), and collecting lots of obscure books. So, for the past 15 years I have had the good sense to go everywhere Phillipa has asked me to go in England, Scotland, and even the United States. Amazingly, I have found myself looking at stitching which adorned Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s bed in the bowels of the Burrell Museum in Glasgow, Scotland; I have followed Phillipa up a circular stone staircase to study costumes stored in the attics of Muncaster Castle in Cumbria; listened (sometimes holding a flashlight) as experts were consulted about a piece of spectacular Elizabethan stitching; and I have (with cotton gloves on) helped Phillipa remove something splendid from a drawer, a chest, or a trunk. Each time we look at something different, I realize how much she knows and how much I have yet
Because I have come in contact with so many ancient and precious pieces, I have learned how to treat, handle, and respect old textiles. Equally, I have seen how not to treat fabric. Strangely, while people would be very unlikely to attempt to repair or clean an oil painting, they have no problem attempting to repair or clean something made from fabric. I have seen careful conservation and restoration work done beautifully. But I have also seen horrible and damaging repairs made with scissors, tape, staples, superglue, dry cleaning fluids, water, soaps, and even epoxy.
The caring for precious textiles—particularly old ones—has to do with careful storage and handling. It is important to store these delicate pieces in an acid free environment and to handle them very little (or with cotton gloves). Consideration should be given to how they are folded and supported when they need to be stored and wrapped in clean cotton. Cleaning is best accomplished with light vacuum suction since dry cleaning fluids can ruin both fabric and dyes. Humidity and light are very damaging to textiles as well. Also, hungry insects are a common and persistent problem. Knowing what you are dealing with can sometimes be daunting but, there are people willing to help if you are not quite sure what to do. Even a family heirloom deserves proper care.
Though I had long admired the banners and frontals, it was Thor Kvande at Grace-St. Luke’s School who first approached me about the school banner.
Repairing the school banner was pretty straight forward: I removed and replaced the tattered silk backing; I removed and remade the tabs at the top so that the banner better fit on the existing stand; I put a tulle cover over the entirety of the banner front to protect the fragile fabric; and I restitched some of the trims and embellishments which were coming loose. It now hangs in the narthex and you can take a look at it. When you do that, you will want to keep your hands away from it. Though it is tempting to touch textiles, the oils and dirt on hands are not good for fabric (because I have been well trained by Phillipa, while looking at something, I simply stand with my hands behind my back). Though I certainly worked long and hard on the school banner, what I did should not be noticeable (and it is all completely reversible). That is consistent with conservation and restoration best practices. It might surprise you that to have a new banner made in England (where the school banner and the church banner were made) would cost several thousand dollars each. The conservation and restoration I did will significantly prolong the life of the banner. And, if replacing the banner would cost several thousand, the cost of replacing the frontals would make you gasp.
Grace-St. Luke’s indeed has some beautiful frontals. The goldwork with silk shading on the slip embroidery (which was then applied to silk damask) is a classic style from Victorian and Edwardian England. I have spent a lot of time carefully filling in the silk shading which we suspect has been eaten by hungry bugs. We are now trying to determine just who these bugs might be. To do this, I have had the help of a textile conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I have also had a long and productive conversation with the exterminator for the church. Once we identify the hungry bugs, we will begin gently vacuuming and cleaning the drawers, storing the frontals in clean cotton sheets, and lining the highly acidic wooden drawers with acid-free mat board. At that point I will proceed with fixing the silk shading. It is important to be patient and careful. And, I am confident enough in my stitching to know that whatever the bugs have done, I can repair. After I finish with the frontals, I will work on whatever Lucy McLemore and the altar guild ask me to. Carefully helping to care for these treasures is a privilege.
Repairing the silk shading is intense: That slow stitching is very Zen. I find myself thinking about who might have done the original stitching decades ago, about England, about the delicate detail of the silks, about some of the amazing textiles I’ve seen, about exploring castle attics, and about my friendship with Phillipa.
The frontals at Grace-St. Luke’s are a long, long way from the cushion on my grandmother’s couch. But, certainly friendship, curiosity, castles, spiral staircases, and adventure link them.