Volume 9, Number 1, Jan. 1987, pp.7-9
I have a BA and MA in biology from San Jose State University. My studies included a pretty strong emphasis in chemistry. Later, I did a couple of more years of graduate work at UC-Davis, but didn't complete the dissertation.
I got "hands-on" experience in textile conservation by growing up in the business, and working with my father. Summer vacations, after school, things like that. He always told me that I ought to learn, that I never knew when I might have to work with my hands.
After San Jose State, I did some other things. My wife and I spent two years with the Peace Corps in India, and after we returned I taught science in high school for a couple of years, but found that teaching wouldn't be my life's work. That's when I went to Davis. It was around that time that my father was thinking about his retirement, and said that I should make a decision about whether or not I wanted the business. -- I had been doing some buying and selling, and occasional repair of carpets while I was in graduate school.
By that time, I realized that I enjoyed the work, it was interesting, and the people I met were interesting, so the decision was easy. I officially joined in the business in 1970.
My grandfather came to this country around the turn of the century, and like so many Armenians then, he started a carpet business. At the time large quantities of carpets were being imported, and because of damage in transit, they would need cleaning and repair as well as chemical washing. My grandfather worked mostly with the importers and dealers, getting the carpets ready for the retail market.
Later, when my father came to the States around 1920, he went to school for a while, worked with his uncle in the rug business in New York, and then came out to San Francisco where my grandfather was already established.
When my father took charge of the business in the mid-thirties, he moved to San Mateo, and started doing more of a retail business. Even though tapestries and other textile conservation (repair was the word used then) was a small part of my grandfather's business, it expanded during the 30's and 40's.
Most of the people working with carpets during that time were Armenian immigrants. That entire generation has long since retired, but in the 60's and early 70's it was possible to go into almost any medium-sized town, look up the old time rug cleaner and repair person and the chances are he would be one of this group. Furthermore, he would know most of the others of his generation who were working around the country. Many of the Armenians learned their skills in New York, and then left for the boondocks with their trade and contacts. They would open a storefront of their own, selling carpets they got from New York, and then doing all the necessary cleaning and repair for the following forty or fifty years. I used to love traveling around the country and meeting these people. But it's no longer possible since most have retired or died, and like most immigrant families their children are doing other things so even the businesses are gone.
Well, as I said, my grandfather had this business which was mostly for trade. The hooks that were used to move the bales of carpets would leave holes which would need repair and then there was water damage that had to be attended to. The chemical washing that I mentioned before was done to give the wool of new carpets a luster, but it also faded out the red dyes. This color would then be painted back in, an acceptable practice at the time. That was my grandfather's business. He had dozens of employees retouching these colors.
The Depression came along, and public taste had changed by the thirties, so my father changed his business to accommodate. It became more retail, and more specialized in the repair of finer rugs and tapestries. He began to get work from out of the area. New York, for example.
The business has gradually come to specialize in tapestries, mostly belonging to institutions. I do fewer, but larger jobs, and have become more interested in the general problems associated with the display of tapestries. I guess you could consider it an interest in the damage prevention.
Well, it seems as though there were no standardized procedures for treatment, previously. There still isn't much agreement, but at least conservators are talking about their work. Records are very incomplete so that even though you can look at a tapestry and see hundreds of years of repairs, it is difficult to determine when and where any particular repair was done. Though, I have now seen enough examples that I am able to make some very tenuous assumptions about past techniques.
Presently, there is a more hi-tech emphasis on treatment. But looking back at some of the things that have been tried, and discarded over the last fifteen years or so, I think that there is a still a place for common sense and a skillfully applied needle. I'm not a reactionary by a long shot, but I think that some of the treatments are not based on sound knowledge of fiber structure, and aging, and so on, but it sounds like some of the research the Getty is doing will be helpful in this regard. I'm thinking of the silk-aging studies, particularly.
I guess that I would sum it up by saying that my philosophy is that each item has a particular history and must be considered individually; usually taking the most conservative approach to treatment.
To me the major concern with conservation of tapestries is maintaining their structural integrity. Unlike many other textiles, tapestries hang by the weaker weft threads which also make up the design. When the weft is silk degraded by age, light, and so on, most of the "hanging" strength is gone. This deteriorated silk is usually removed in cleaning. Then, what to do?
As you might know, there is an ongoing controversy over whether to reweave, or patch, an area of missing weft. Some conservators are opposed to reweaving the space. They prefer to fill the space by sewing in a patch of cloth dyed to match the color field. I prefer reweaving because I believe that it is the only way to restore the tapestry to an acceptable level of structural integrity. An argument that I always hear against reweaving is that one shouldn't try to restore the original design. That is given as one of the reasons for the plain cloth patch. My thoughts on this are that the decision to restore design should not be a conservator's decision. If the curator desires it, and knows that his or her conservator is skillful enough, then the restoration of design might be feasible. On the other hand, if it is decided that there should only be a plain color to indicate loss of original, then the area of loss could be rewoven anyway. The plainness would be there, but the fabric would be strong.
To support the idea of reweaving one needs only to look at tapestries with old repairs. Those that have been skillfully rewoven, with or without restoration of design, will be as strong as the original. Plain cloth patches, because the material is of a different nature than that of the tapestry, stretches differently, and transfers stress to the surrounding margins. With time and handling they have a tendency to pull loose, actually making the hole larger.
That can be a problem, but right now I do have source of silk that I am pleased with. The weight and twist is so close to the original tapestry silk that it is very difficult to tell the difference. I dye all of the silk using fiber reactive dyes, and then fade test the yarn in sunlight.
I have a good stock of wool of different weights and textures, but I am always on the lookout for new sources.
A lot of people have asked me about training, and my answer has always been that if anyone were to come to apprentice with me, they would die of boredom because most jobs take so long, and are so similar. As a private conservator with deadlines to meet, there is no way to give the variety of experience which is necessary for a training program. The answer, of course, would be to work under a grant and set up a variety of teaching situations. I'd listen to anyone out there that would provide the funds. As it is I have four employees, three of them are full time. One lady has been with us for twenty years an another for fifteen. They've been trained on the job.
Cleaning, conservation, display preparation. I like to work on large objects. I guess because the large sizes can offer challenging problems. About half are tapestries, the other half, carpets. Other kinds of textiles, I generally refer to other conservators.
I have been consulting with buyers about tapestries they consider for purchase and am interested in doing more of this kind of work. Because structural problems are so important, and can have such an effect on both value and appearance, I think that pre- purchase surveys make a lot of sense. My experience has been that most people, even some with strong academic credentials, are surprisingly ignorant of the importance of structure to both monetary and display value.
Not very large. But then I try not to have a lot of different jobs going on at any one time. I can do two large tapestries simultaneously. The ceilings are high so that I can do some of the work vertically. I consider this essential for getting tapestries to hang correctly. The workshop has a lot of light, but not enough storage. "Junk" expands to fill the space!
The fire spread a layer of oily soot on the textiles. Fortunately, one of the Savonnerie carpets was at my workshop at the time. The other I had recently returned to them after cleaning and repair. We agreed that the affected objects would be treated in place to avoid possible streaking which might be caused by soot working its way into the carpet pile during handling. So we devised a "poulticing" technique using a commercial adsorbent and solvent. The Getty labs checked it for its effect on wool and silk.
We applied the poultice, brushed and vacuumed it off. The results were very good. The same technique worked well on the upholstered furniture, and was especially successful on the six-panelled Savonnerie screen. The tapestries are being cleaned in the traditional way.
The whole project was a collaborative effort. Besides the staff at the Huntington: Carol Verheyen, Shelley Bennet, and Dr. Wark; I worked with Catherine McLean, Jim Greaves, and Barbara Roberts and Bill Ginnell from the Getty.
Timestamp: Thursday, 11-Dec-2008 13:02:27 PST
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