"Adoration of the Magi" (detail), from the set Scenes from the Life of Christ, Barberini Manufactory, 17th c.
Photo: John Bigelow Taylor

Textile Conservation Laboratory

The Textile Conservation Laboratory, familiarly known as "the Lab," was founded in 1981. At the heart of its mission is the ongoing care and conservation of the Catheral's treasured Barberini and Mortlake tapestry sets. Its first director, R. Bruce Hutchison, was hired in 1982. Under his leadership, and with the help of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the J. P. Getty Grants Program, the Samuel Kress Foundation, and the Municipal Arts Council, the Lab was equipped with an electric hoist system, a sixteen-by-twenty foot wash table, a suction table, and a dye laboratory. Throughout the 1980s, the Lab gained prominence. World-renowned museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Wadsworth Athenaeum, entrusted it with the conservation of valuable works in their own collections. As the field of textile conservation grew, Mr. Hutchison solidified the Lab’s position at the forefront of national and international tapestry and textile conservation development by participating in standard-setting research and publications.

The Lab’s current Director, Marlene Eidelheit, has been at the helm since 1992. During her tenure, with the help of a full contingent of five conservators and the assistance of dedicated interns, the range of Lab projects has grown, and it continues to develop and expand the field of tapestry conservation. Each piece brought to the Lab is carefully analyzed and researched before conservation begins, ensuring that the restoration process is guided by the work itself, its unique iconography and its specific history. Unlike restorers, who seek to make a work like new, the goal of the Lab is to preserve the textile and prevent its condition from worsening—a thorough cleaning is one of the most important methods of achieving this end. The piece may be washed in deionized water with a mild detergent, cleaned with a low-suction vacuum, or spot-cleaned with solvent solutions. Dental probes and tweezers aid in loosening the thickest, most tenacious layers of dirt. Weak areas, splits, and missing fibers are restored by hand, using needles and color-matched thread dyed on site, and decaying silk is replaced with a longer lasting cotton thread specially treated to shimmer like the original fabric. Newly restored and stabilized at the end of this detailed process, the textile is backed, mounted, or framed and ready for display once again.

Tapestries, carpets, historic needlework, costumes, quilts samplers and upholstery are among the projects that come into the Lab. Lab staff have recovered countless works of art, collectibles, and decorative pieces from states of disrepair. On any given day, visiting the Lab and hearing about such projects is a crash course in all the ways people have used and enjoyed textiles, as well as an object lesson in the importance of treating these treasures with the care they deserve.

To contact Marlene Eidelheit, call (212) 316-7523 or email eidelheit@stjohndivine.org.