Conservator gives aging textiles a new life
Our ties to history often hang by a thread.
Textile conservator Julia Brennan of Washington, D.C., makes it her life’s work to ensure that important artifacts aren’t lost to the ravages of time.
As a child growing up in Thailand, Brennan developed a deep appreciation for handwork, learning the art of batik making, pottery, weaving and embroidery. In the 30 years of her career since, she has traveled the globe to rescue and preserve many rare and exotic pieces of cloth.
Brennan, now in her 50s, entered a sacred Bhutan mountain monastery, where she taught monks how to preserve a late 18th- or early 19th-century altar canopy of silk tapestry called a ladri. Large in size, 70 inches by 95 inches, and poor in condition with large holes, it was black with soot and smoke from burning incense and butter lamps.
Reclaiming the ladri required careful vacuuming through netting and wet-cleaning it outdoors in a specially built tank with water heated by three outdoor fires. With drying, re-sewing and stabilizing many areas of the religious textile, the process took about 10 weeks.
When its original colors were revealed, Brennan wrote in May 2013 in the publication Textiles Asia, the design was one of “unexpectedly brilliant yellows, oranges and blues with dynamic cranes in flight and sparkling metallic gold dragons.”
“It is quite miraculous to watch a blackened textile become colorful again,” she writes.
Brennan will tell this story and others of her travels and conservation training in Thailand, Algeria and Madagascar during a local program: “From Around the World to Grand Junction: Textile Preservation Globally and Locally” from 1:30–3:30 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church, 3940 27½ Road.
The program is to be interactive with hands-on tips. Participants are invited to bring a textile that’s important to them or their family for preservation solutions and recommendations.
Brennan also will talk about the basics of preservation with an emphasis on how to care for your own textiles, including quilts.
Brennan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in art history, operates her Washington, D.C.-based business Caring for Textiles, caringfortextiles.com, and works with museums in training staff and upgrading storage displays and sometimes working with private clients.
She is a professional associate of the American Institute for Conservation and serves on the boards of the Washington Conservation Guild and the Collection Care Network.
Brennan’s expertise often puts her in close proximity to items of cultural and historical significance, such as the gold embroidered robe given in 1902 by the King of Siam to the first and only foreign commander of the Thai Royal Navy. After nearly 200 hours of repair, she restored this robe, which now is on public display in Bangkok.
Her labors include a 16th- century tapestry, part of a series depicting Antony and Cleopatra; multiple christening dresses; wedding costumes and trousseaus from a North Carolina museum; 18th- and early 19th-century samplers for the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C.; and turn-of-the-century quilts belonging to a family whose ancestors made them on their plantation.
Other famous Americans whose textiles Brennan’s hands have touched are those of baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
When Gehrig’s 1931 Yankee’s wool jersey was sent to a sports memorabilia auction, it took a detour to Brennan’s Caring for Textiles for repair of disfiguring holes in the back, neck and shoulders. Bleach and other cleaning agents had been too strong for the old wool, and the damage was shoddily disguised. Brennan removed that damage, realigned what remained of the original wool and, using lightweight support cloth and similar wool, reconstructed large areas to regain some of the jersey’s priceless value.
As for President Lincoln’s Great Coat, Brennan says it was made for him by Brooks Brothers of New York for his second inauguration. Draped over his chair at Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination in Washington, D.C., the coat now is displayed at the theater part of the year. As its textile conservator, her only starker brush with the Great Emancipator’s history might be touching his actual bearded face.
She made “repeated stabilizations to secure the fragile embroidered and quilted lining.” The coat’s silk lining is quilted with a pattern of eagles holding pennants, which read “One Country, One Destiny.”
Whether she’s talking about 16th-century, Civil War-era or 20th-century textiles from all reaches of the world, you won’t want to miss Brennan’s upcoming program on her travels and adventures in restoring vintage textiles to their original glory.
It’s her way of making history come alive again.