January 15, 2019 - 12:42 PM

Team Spotlight: Textile Conservation Lab

By Rebecca Merrill

Those who visit the Cathedral will have seen Cathedral's tapestry sets The Life of Christ and The Acts of the Apostles. What you might not know is that the reason we all enjoy those works is because of the hard-working and dedicated group of people who work in the Cathedral's Textile Conservation Lab. These professionals conserve textiles of all kinds belonging to leading museums, private collectors, and clients concerned with one or more family pieces.

In today's Staff Spotlight, we'll learn a little more about this team!

Marlene Eidelheit, Director, Textile Conservation Laboratory

As director of the Textile Lab since 1992, I’ve seen the Lab evolve and grow in various ways with the types of projects we do and how we may approach them. With our core of conservators and admin remaining steady for over the past 2 decades, we have maintained the mission of caring for the Cathedral’s precious possessions – the Barberini Life of Christ tapestry set made for a Pope and a related set of the Acts of the Apostles originally designed by Raphael for the Sistine chapel. In between we have been fortunate to work on other fantastic textiles—historic and contemporary—from other marvelous collections around the country.

What is your favorite project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
There have been many but my biggest thrill was to see the Barberinis completed, exhibited and finally having their opportunity to be seen in not just one but two great settings so they may tell their fascinating story. This could not have been accomplished without the massive dedication and contribution of everyone currently in the Lab—I am indebted to them—and to all the others in the Cathedral and those that worked with us and came before us, including the appreciated input from a stream of interns we have mentored through the years.

What is your favorite item in the Cathedral or on its grounds?
While I’ve been lucky enough to work in some wonderful places: Boston’s Gardner Museum in the 70’s; antique dealers in Florence, Italy during the 80’s followed by NY’s Museum of Natural History, still after 26 years here, when I walk from the Lab through the sacristy side door and into the Cathedral I still get a rush of inspiration and awe that something so old and glorious could seem so stunning and breathtaking each time I cross the threshold. On the other end of the spectrum there is one flowering plant on the pulpit green, a fritillaria that blooms for about a week every spring that is a little gem, straight out of a tapestry!

Jamie Casbon, Assistant Textile Conservator
I developed my love of history growing up in Europe, the son of a doctor in the Air Force. I studied fashion design initially but became interested in textile conservation while interning at the Museum of the City of New York. I first started at the Textile Conservation Lab as an intern as a part of the Fashion and Textile Studies graduate program at FIT and have been a staff member since 2012. I’ve also done work for the Brooklyn Museum, Museum of the City of New York, and MoMA.

What is the most challenging project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
One of the most difficult projects I've worked on at the Lab was a livery coat that was worn by an enslaved person from a collection in New Orleans. The coat had been very damaged by pests and the entire lining had to be recreated. There were many holes across the coat that had to either be backed by a matching fabric or hand dyed wool felt. A custom mannequin was also built for it. Both the challenges of the conservation work and the difficult history the coat represented made it a really fascinating project.

What is your favorite item in the Cathedral or on its grounds?
I love the Biblical Garden. It's a beautiful and peaceful place to take a break and have lunch. I always take friends there, especially in the spring when all the plants and trees are blossoming.

Valerie Soll, Senior Textile Conservator
I began working in the Textile Conservation Laboratory as a volunteer in 1993 and became a full time conservator in 1995. My background is in weaving and ceramics and was introduced to conservation while working on a ceramics project on a dig in Turkey. Since 2004, I’ve taught in the Fashion and Textile Studies program of the Graduate Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on in the Textile Lab?
My reflexive answer to the above question is: the next one coming up. Each project offers a chance to really look at an object, learn its story and devise a strategy that extends the amount of time it can be enjoyed. That being said, one of the things I love about working at the Lab is the opportunity to work on large jobs over an extended period of time. An example of that is a set of six David and Goliath tapestries hanging in St. Mary’s Chapel at Washington National Cathedral. The conservation campaign lasted years (with some pauses) and when the last one was complete and installed it was very gratifying to see how the conservation of the textiles really enhanced a beautiful a space.

What is your favorite part of the Cathedral?
I think that my favorite thing about the Cathedral is the way it is a work in progress: it is interested and able to engage so many people in so many ways. It has aspects that are current and those that are traditional and it works on being open and welcoming.

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