Textile conservator

What do you do for a living?

I am a self-employed textile conservator, dealing with the care and preservation of historic textiles for museums, organisations such as the National Trust, and private individuals. I also undertake short contracts for organisations such as the National Museums of Scotland, when they have particular projects ongoing that require additional assistance.

 

How did you get interested in what you do? What advice was available to you when you chose this career direction?

I found out about this career option when at school doing a needlework O-level. However, I went to a very academic school and needlework was discouraged – they wanted to produce scientists! – so there was literally no advice available about this career. I found out that the only training available at that time was a post-graduate qualification so I did as I was told and concentrated on the sciences to get a degree, intending to go back to conservation once I graduated.

 

What was your journey to reach the role you are in today?

I have a very science-based education, with A-levels in Maths, Further Maths and Physics. I then went on to do a degree in physics at Warwick University and, on graduation, was offered a job as a broker with UBS in the City of London. I sort of ‘forgot’ about the conservation and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated (though I’d worked out I didn’t want to be a physicist!) so I’d applied for all sorts of jobs and, to be honest, the broker’s job paid a lot more than the others I was offered, so I took it! Mistake – I could do the job OK, but I didn’t like the pressured atmosphere and the constant need to be cold-calling possible clients – I felt I might just as well be selling double glazing, but with much more pressure! After about two and a half years, I left and went into conference management – again, quickly obvious it was not for me, but I’m glad I did it as it enabled me to travel and work in countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Australia. Finally, at the grand old age of 26, I went back to the conservation option, applied for the post-graduate course and was accepted. It was a 3-year, full-time, post-graduate diploma course and had to be entirely self funded so I managed to obtain a bursary for the fees and several small grants from charitable trusts (lots and lots of letter writing!) for living expenses, but I also had to work through all the holidays plus a shelf-stacking job at M&S in the early mornings, before college, to make ends meet.

The training course was brilliant, recognised the world over as the only way into textile conservation and, when I did it, it was based at Hampton Court Palace – so every morning I walked up the drive to ‘the office’, not quite believing I was there! The curriculum covered all the appropriate treatment methods – including sewing – as well as the chemistry required to understand degradations processes and possible reactions to treatments. History and context of textiles were also studied as you need to know how and where an object was produced in order to understand how it was likely to have been made. All of this could impact on the suitability of various treatments.

Continuing Professional Development is now an essential part of being a conservator. Generally, it is a self-regulated profession with ICON (the Institute of Conservation) overseeing standards via the accreditation process. This involves submitting a portfolio of work and having an interview with assessors (the great and good of conservation) to prove that your methods are well thought out, carefully executed and appropriate. This is an on-going process, with reviews every 3 – 5 years, and being accredited has a huge impact on the amount of work you can do as many organisations and institutions are only able to commission conservation work from accredited conservators.

 

Talk me through a day in your life... what sorts of things would it involve?

If it’s a workshop day, I might be working on an object in my workshop at home, undertaking a treatment that has been discussed and agreed with the client. Typically, objects would be relatively small in size – embroidered samplers, a chair, items of costume, flags or banners. Treatments are as non-interventive as possible as we’re aiming to preserve what is there rather than restore an object to its previous glory (restoration is a different career!), and we also aim to make any treatment reversible as a better way of doing it may be found 5 years down the line. Everything has to be photographed and fully documented, so that future conservators can easily identify what is original and what I have done/added. I also may be preparing estimates - I have to examine an object, propose a treatment, then break down how long that will take and what materials will be required, cost the materials and finally sum it all up with a price for which I would be prepared to undertake the work. Some of the larger organisations put work out to tender, so there is a constant pressure to do the work as cheaply as possible.

If it’s an ‘in-situ’ day, I could be visiting clients at a museum, church or stately home and working on the object where it is. This often happens if an object is too large to move, or requires such a small treatment that it isn’t financially sensible to get it back to the workshop. It can mean working in difficult situations and conditions, such as standing all day in a freezing cold, stately home trying to stop my hands being too numb to stitch a giant curtain, or up a ladder while the visiting public pass by below and enquire what you’re doing. I’ve worked crammed into the very small space in the footwell of a carriage, and I’ve climbed up the scaffolding supporting the giant tapestry at Coventry Cathedral. I’ve been very lucky to visit parts of these places not generally open to the public.

If it’s a museum contract day, I will be working at the NMS Conservation Centre at Granton in their workshops. Recent projects have included the re-display of the Royal Museum, where I was responsible for the textiles in the Ivy Wu Gallery (lots of kimono!) and, some years back, the military museum at Edinburgh Castle (where there is an amazing ‘camp bed in a trunk’ which some poor soldiers had to carry around so that their officer could sleep in comfort while on campaigns!).

 

Was it your planned career when you were 18?

No, but I was aware of it as a possibility. As the only training course in textile conservation in the country (and the world!) was a post-graduate course, I knew I had to get a degree and physics was my natural subject – then I just got distracted into other, glamorous-sounding jobs before I realised conservation was what I really wanted to do.

 

What did your mum and dad want you to do?

No pressure in any direction, but I think they always knew I’d end up working with textiles, despite the circuitous route!

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

Check out the various options with ICON - www.icon.org.uk - which should lead you to the appropriate training. Each specialism (textiles, paper, paintings, sculpture, furniture etc) has a very specific training, although there are some courses that address conservation more generally, with the possibility of specialising later on. The place to study textiles is the Centre for Textile Conservation, now based at Glasgow University. There is no substitute for practical experience so try and do some voluntary work with a museum or other heritage organisation (or even a paid job if you can!). Training courses in this area have a huge number of applicants so any indication of commitment is very valuable. And I must say that it is unlikely you will ever get rich – generally, conservators and curators are considered to do the job because they love it and salaries are not high.

In terms of subjects to study at school/degree level, sciences have proved invaluable to me. A degree in physics made me stand out from other candidates when applying for the training course and I am quite sure this helped me get a place. This background has also given me a different, more analytical approach to problems to my colleagues (almost all textile conservators have an arts/history background) and this means I can work really well with others, covering all the bases between us.

 

What other directions could you go in /work in within your field other than the job you have chosen?

I could have chosen to work for a museum as a conservator – usually a wide variety of objects, but much more workshop based, and under pressure of time from curators/exhibition managers. Many of the larger organisations have a departmental career structure, which enables a conservator to rise at least as high as a departmental head – although this would usually entail doing so much admin that you become distanced from practical work. Conservators can also become consultants to the heritage industry, working closely with exhibition designers (to try and reconcile what the designer wants with what is possible!). However, for me it is a love of the objects that keeps me in practical conservation, and the ability to be my own boss that keeps me self-employed.

If there is anything you have not covered about your area of expertise, please feel free to add here.

I love it! I feel really lucky to be able to work with so many beautiful objects and visit such lovely places (though you do sometimes find yourself doing condition surveys of 1920s underwear that may not be too clean, or dealing with curtains that are suffering from the attentions of dogs peeing on them!). I’ve worked on mummy wrappings, archaeological fragments, a Partick Thistle flag from the club in the 1990s, a shoe reputed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots, couture costume and military memorabilia – it is very varied,and never gets boring.