Kaelyn mounting the House of Worth evening coat for display. House of Worth (French, 1858-1956), Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856-1926), ca. 1900; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009 (2009.300.94). [Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute.]
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a third year Polaire Weissman Fund fellow in conservation in the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I am researching synthetic materials and developing long-term storage practices for plastics. Before I made the decision to go back for my masters in art conservation I worked as a fashion/textile designer and instructor, specializing in weaving, embroidery, and bobbin lace in New York City for more than ten years. I frequently lecture and facilitate classes at the Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of Folk Art, and the Textile Art Center. I am currently an adjunct instructor in the Fashion Institute of Technology’s MA program in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice.How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
When I was an undergraduate student at Columbia College, a liberal arts school in Chicago, I registered for a fashion history class. A professor of mine at the time suggested I consider art conservation based on my technical knowledge in fashion/textiles and my interest in art history. After I graduated, I moved to New York City and began working at Oscar de la Renta. I continued to work in the fashion industry for many years while thinking about getting my masters at some point. About six to seven years later, I decided to finally make a career change and I started to take the next steps to apply to get my masters. I began reaching out to conservators working in the field to hear about how they found their way into conservation and the steps it required. I also went back to school to complete my pre-reqs for chemistry before I could apply to any conservation programs. Prior to my professor telling me about conservation, I had no idea this field existed or that it could be a career path. Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue textile conservation?
The decision to pursue textile conservation was very easy for me because I had already spent a decade of my life working in various textile and fashion industries. I had always been interested in textiles and worn objects and it felt like the obvious pathway for me. What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
I have an MA in Fashion and Textile Studies with a concentration in conservation from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York (2018); a BFA in Fashion Design and Art History from Columbia College Chicago (2009). While I was a graduate student, I interned at the Textile Conservation Laboratory at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hispanic Society of America. From 2018-2019, I was the post-graduate fellow in conservation in the Costumes and Textile Conservation department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I have taken embroidery courses at the Royal School of Needlework, lace-making courses at the Centre d’Enseignement de la Dentelle au Fuseau, and weaving classes at Haystack School of Arts and Crafts. Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
Textile/fashion conservation is very specific and can be challenging. Having knowledge of basic sewing techniques and construction is foundational to many of the treatments one might encounter. I think it’s important to understand various techniques on a very practical level in order to truly understand and treat an object. Knowledge of weaving, garment construction, sewing, draping, patterning, embroidery, knitting, and lacemaking can all be very important when it comes to having the skills to work in our discipline. I think it’s also really important to be familiar with materials that are often found on textiles…this could be leather, glass, metal etc. Good research skills are essential! What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
I am currently working on multiple research projects pertaining to plastic materials. I recently presented new research on different types of cellulose nitrate paints used by Elsa Schiaparelli in the early 1930s. My co-author and I carried out analysis by Fourier-Transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and pyrolysis-gas chromatography/ mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS) that indicated formulations of 1930s cellulose-nitrate paints with oil, natural resins, plasticizers and fire retardants, aiming at creating enamel-like surfaces. Many of Schiaparelli’s accessories are constructed out of inherent-vice plastic substrates, such as cellulose acetate, and are detrimental to the painted designs, due to mechanical, as well as physical-chemical changes, resulting in flaking and migration of chemical components to the surface. Our research showed the use of these paints by Schiiaparelli in both the commercial and artist context during the 1930s, but also brought to light the specific condition issues when these materials are in contact and that can be done to preserve them.In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
I think there are many, but two that come to mind are surfactants and plastics. I’m currently the TSG wiki co-editor and we have a new working group that will be focused on developing an aqueous cleaning page in our wiki and there will be a section on surfactants, which is very exciting! Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
Yes, I encourage emerging conservators to take classes and learn technical skills like sewing, weaving, draping, patterning, etc. You cannot learn everything from just one class…seek out as many opportunities as you can and get involved with local guilds. Having excellent practical skills will support your conservation skills!
I also found it helpful to seek out individuals already working in the field and talk with them about their experiences. I found many of these conversations to be helpful when I had to apply to graduate programs, internships, or where to seek the type of opportunities I was looking for.What is your favorite textile that you’ve worked on/treated?
That’s a really hard question, but I’ll share a treatment I did during the first year of my fellowship at the Costume Institute. The silk lining on a House of Worth evening coat was in very poor condition and shattered throughout and the evening coat needed to be mounted for display. After consulting with my supervisor, we decided it would be best to encase the silk lining with silk crepeline. Overall, the treatment was a success and it protected the fragile silk lining, making vertical display possible.