"It is very rewarding to see a 16-foot tapestry finally installed in a space like the Cathedral after having spent months fixing the damage."
Kira Eng-Wilmot is a textile conservator at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, where she cares for tapestries in the church's collection and private commissions. In her off-time, she makes delicious ice cream. Kira told us what it's like to give a 400-year-old tapestry a bath and why the basic tools of her trade are still a needle and thread.
Textile conservationist is pretty specific. What got you into this line of work?
"Textile conservator" was not my childhood dream job. However, clothes have been the one thing that I have been consistently interested in since childhood. I think for a long time my parents thought I was going to be a fashion designer. I was definitely the kid who played dress-up, and my mother taught me how to sew when I was in elementary school. I cultivated my adolescent mysterious weirdo persona by making/altering/wearing vintage clothes and reading lots of old fashion magazines. I had this vague idea of studying fashion academically, and the best way for me to do that was to combine classes in art history and costume design/theater. But I soon realized that I am not a theory person, nor do I have that true drive to create fashion. And I was really interested in fashion construction more than theater.
My costume design professor steered me toward the museum path and suggested that I volunteer in the costume collection at the Valentine Richmond History Center. That snowballed into a collections job where I realized that I really liked objects, the physicality of objects, and the stories they tell. But even then, I thought that meant I wanted to be a curator. I enrolled in the Fashion and Textiles Study Masters program at FIT, and quickly ditched any aspirations of being a curator. One of the core classes is an introduction to conservation, and it really just clicked. Science, sewing, handling and preserving objects all in one class and I was sold. Art, textile, and fashion history are definitely still important in my job.
How did you translate a specialized graduate degree to a real world paying job?
The best way to get a job in the field is definitely internships or apprenticeships, and most graduate programs have internship hours as part of their curriculum. I was luckily recommended to fill an internship at St. John during my first year at FIT, and I've been there since. Like many arts jobs, my position is grant-funded for specific projects. I am primarily there to finish the conservation and installation of the two sets of tapestries owned by the Cathedral. The lab takes on projects from other institutions and private clients, so I also get to work on non-tapestry projects.
What is an average day like?
Conservation emphasizes preservation at an object's current state, making it stable while creating visual continuity, and slowing the rate of deterioration. Every object that comes in gets a treatment proposal, which is an assessment, some testing, and recommendations. Cleaning is probably the most important thing we can do to improve an object's appearance and lifespan. We vacuum everything to remove as much surface soiling as possible and, depending on the object's construction, wet clean (basically give it a bath) or dry clean. It's amazing how much better an object feels and looks after wet cleaning – even water by itself pulls out so much acidic deterioration and particulate soiling.
However, the bulk of our time is spent sewing—using new stitches and support fabrics to provide stability and to improve the visual appearance by consolidating holes and worn areas. I get to see and touch and help preserve a lot of amazing objects on a regular basis, for example a beautiful Fortuny pleated silk dress, or a 17th-century tapestry, or pieces based on designs by modern artists like Calder and Lichtenstein. It is very rewarding to see a 16-foot tapestry finally installed in a space like the Cathedral after having spent months just focusing on the small and frustratingly damaged areas. That final moment puts it all into perspective.
How much of your work is devoted to church-related stuff? Is St. John strictly a religious organization?
My position covers probably 75 percent Cathedral objects, but that's only, like, 10 percent of what the lab does total. All of the Cathedral object projects are funded through grants, like the National Endowment for the Arts and Kress Foundation. The Textile Conservation Lab was started in the 1980s specifically to take care of the Cathedral's tapestries, but in order to be sustainable, it became a private lab and takes in projects from other places, which fund the salaries and day-to-day expenses. Let's just say it's a complicated logistical relationship. The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine is an active Episcopal church, and I believe the seat of the New York diocese. The Bishop and Dean both live on the campus, and I frequently see clergy. So while we are technically a private lab, we are definitely part of the Cathedral community.
What are some of the specific pieces you're working on?
There are two major sets of tapestries owned by the Cathedral, the Life of Christ series and the Acts of the Apostles, as well as many smaller pieces. The emphasis for the past 30 years has been on the Life of Christ series. It is a set of 12 tapestries depicting major events in the life of Christ. They were commissioned and made in Italy in the mid-17th century by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, for the family during the height of Barberini influence and power. They are a unique set for many reasons. They were made in Italy in the Barberini manufactory. (The family established their own workshop just to make tapestries for them and were at the time the only tapestry workshop in Italy.) I had the privilege of completing the conservation on two tapestries in the set, the Annunciation and the Baptism.
The Acts of the Apostles set is also an interesting set and is the next big Cathedral project. It is a set of 10 tapestries based on a copy of a set of cartoons made by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel. This particular set was woven in England. It has some difficult conservation issues, mainly that a previous treatment involved a heavy animal-based glue, which has discolored and hardened, so all of the glue has to be removed before it can even be wet cleaned. And then, once cleaned, they are in weak condition, so they are huge projects.
Do you have to use antiquated methods to retain a textile's character? Or is new technology an asset?
Textile conservation is a relatively new field, so processes and standards are ever changing. Technology plays a huge role in general, and professional development, reading, workshops, and cross-disciplinary discussions are important. But our lab is lower-tech; we don't do scientific analysis beyond basic microscopy, or fiber identification. The basic tools of the trade are still a needle and thread, but I still wouldn't call that antiquated. We are not spinning our own thread or forging needles, nor are we doing things exactly as the original weavers or historic restorers. We use commercially produced wools and cotton and sometimes silk threads for most things. While we do custom dye wool to match specific projects, we are using synthetic dyes, which produce reliable and reproducible results. Now, while there are some European labs that have completely automated wet cleaning setups, we do our wet cleaning the low-tech way with sponges, a surfactant, deionized water, person-power, and some specific cleaning on a suction table. I think we all wish that someone would design and build a new wash table for us with better drainage, but our system works effectively without a big fuss or high tech sprayers.