An interview with Kathy Staples - Part Three of Three

Editors Note:   This is Part Three of a three part interview with Kathy Staples about the recent exhibit in New York city at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on English Embroidery.

In your catalog essay you seem to leave the reader with the sense that more research in primary sources is needed to ascertain how framed pieces were displayed, since no inventories specify needlework or embroidery as being framed. For example, your statement  “were [embroidered] panels now framed as pictures intended to be hung?”  This is an interesting perspective that leaves one to realize how difficult it is to get a complete grasp on the “use” part of the embroideries. Can you share with us if you know of other persons in the field at work on these questions?

As far as I know, no one had ever discussed uses, at least in print. So it’s a topic that I’m going to continue to investigate.

The actual exhibit itself was held at the Bard Graduate center (which is a few blocks north) instead of the Met, which in the end in my view provided a more intimate exhibition setting for the pieces.  What is your perspective and do you feel there were disadvantages or things you would have added to this arrangement?   Also, the Irwin Untermeyer collection of embroideries contains many more pieces than were put on exhibit, plus there were other pieces the Met owned or had been donated.  It appears there was some attempt to achieve a balance between professional and domestically produced articles in selection that was made for the exhibit.

Yes, the Bard brownstone was the perfect place for this exhibit. The Met has huge spaces; the ceilings seem to go to the heavens. The Bard gallery, by contrast, is more intimate. In this exhibition, the display cases allowed for each object to be shown as a jewel. This worked really well. It was a wonderful use of space and object to tell a story.

The jury is still out on which pieces were professionally made as opposed to the product of domestic production or a teaching situation. More work needs to be done on the activities of professional embroiderers living in the London area between 1640 and 1690.

Can you give some insight into what were the some of the criteria influencing the decisions that were made of which pieces to include or exclude in the Metropolitan exhibit?

Every object under consideration for exhibition at any institution undergoes a condition analysis: Is the object in stable condition or are the services of a conservator needed; how long will stabilization take and what is the cost; even with stabilization, is the object too fragile to exhibit; are there special considerations with regard to the display of the object and can these be met. And so on. It’s always a challenge balance what you want visitors to see versus the long-term “health” of the object.

For those who saw the exhibition, I can say that you saw a representative sampling of the breadth and depth of the Met’s collection.

Melinda Watt’s essay in the catalog has photos of the some of the rooms of the 20th century collectors (including Irwin Untermeyer) illustrating most if not all of the embroidered pieces are in frames on the wall.  In the exhibit, a lot of pieces were shown without frames, is there a reason for this and were there any embroidered pieces in the exhibit that had their original frames, besides the mirrors?  Were the pieces in frames under glass?   Isn’t it the belief of some conservators that changes to the object are part of the story of the object as well?

n working on the condition reports for the objects, special consideration was given to the frames holding many of the panels. As Melinda’s catalog essay indicates, Judge Untermeyer enjoyed framing his treasures. However, in most cases, the mirrors excepted, the frames were quite later in date than the embroideries they held. In a few cases the frames were too small for the needlework. It is likely that Untermeyer himself had pieces framed—perhaps their first frames—when he acquired them. So the decision was made to remove the frames (they were put in storage) and show the embroideries as unframed panels. With current research suggesting that few of these panels were ever originally framed and hung on the wall, remounting them in picture frames would have been misleading.

It is true that changes over time to an object are part of the story of the object. This is why the frames were not disposed of.

When looking at all the objects of this exhibit, what surprised you most as an independent researcher?


Most certainly the variety of threads used in the embroideries, silk thread as well as metal. Some of the threads were really odd and because they had degraded over time, I wondered what they looked like to begin with.

I was surprised there were so many different treatments for the silk threads, and here I’m not referring to the thickness of the thread. I’ve been asked about silk thread thickness surprisingly often, especially as it relates to sampler making. Silk, like wool, was sold by the ounce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The thread was usually tightly wound and twisted upon itself to form a thin but fairly rigid stick. Once untwisted and secured for working so that it would not tangle up, single strands from various sticks might not have the same diameter, i.e., strands might be thicker or thinner. The reasons for this have not been studied, but I would venture to guess that diameter had to do with how the raw staple silk was spun by different silk workers to form the strands suitable for sewing as well as the effect of different dyes on the silk. Also, the quality of the staple silk fibers, and especially their length, determines the quality, including diameter, of the finished thread. A second consideration is whether stitches were made with a spun silk thread or filament silk. In these period embroideries, stitching done with the latter is always finer and has a harder finish. You can see both kinds of silk in embroideries done in the workshop of John Nelham, currently the only pattern drawer/professional embroiderer whose work can be positively identified.

The unusual thread treatments I observed involve the use of two colors, one for each ply, of the two-ply twisted silk; the use of one ply of a smaller diameter (perhaps a filament instead of spun) than the other; and the variety of sizes of chenille thread. The metal threads exhibited so many variations that that topic is a research project in itself.

And speaking of research topics, another area that continually surprises me is stitch technique on the raised work embroideries. This needs to be systematically documented—with the help of a conservator who can help you to look at the back of an embroidery—not only for technique, but by chronology for dated pieces. We don’t know enough about regional variations to determine if technique is related to this.

Perhaps the biggest surprise—and not just for me, but all who were present—was the find announced at the January symposium by British conservators Mary Brooks and Dr. Sonia O’Connor: an actual bird skull had been used as a form to create a bird’s head. The skull was covered with detached buttonhole. This was discovered when the embroidery in question was subjected to x-radiography (harmless to the needlework).

What is your favorite piece in the exhibit and why?

I call it the Rosetta Stone. It is a large tent-stitch panel of the story of Abraham—catalog #58 for anyone who has a copy. From a design standpoint, it incorporates everything I need to discuss how one anonymous pattern drawer and his workshop created designs. Because of its size, there is a lot of detail. You can compare these details with elements in other embroideries to identify other designs created by this artisan’s workshop, regardless of the stitch technique used or quality of the stitching. It turns out that this artisan was extremely prolific.

As an embroiderer yourself, how has this shaped your research perspective?  Is there any time when you feel it is an obstacle?

Absolutely not. The more you understand about the process itself, the more questions you can ask. A researcher in material culture doesn’t have to be an expert in stitching or throwing clay or even building furniture well, but he or she does need to know and understand the process.

A large number of the essays in the catalog cite articles by A. J. B. Wace.  Can you tell me anything about who this is?

Alan John Bayard Wace is an important name in the history of English needlework. He was first a scholar of the classics and an expert on classical Greek antiquities. He was in charge the of the textile department of the Victoria and Albert for ten years. The Sheldon Tapestry Weavers and Their Work, published in 1928, is still the classic work in the field. Wace also wrote about Elizabethan embroideries in “English Embroideries Belonging to Sir John Carew Pole, Bart,” in the Walpole Society Annual.

There are other American institutions that have 17th century English embroidered pieces.  Who are they and are the pieces on exhibit?

As to textiles, in general, the only time they would be shown in a group is for exhibition, given their fragility. The Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and Colonial Williamsburg all have great collections, and interested readers should contact respective textile departments for information about viewing pieces.

Can you share with the readers of this interview what’s on the horizon for you as a writer and researcher?  Are there plans for another textile related exhibit?

As to textile-related exhibitions, MESDA (Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts), in Winston-Salem, NC, is in the process of creating a new permanent textile gallery, and I am fortunate to be organizing this project. MESDA has great Southern samplers and a little-known but large collection of bedcovers, worked in just about every medium from colorful weaves to candlewicking, Dresden, patchwork, appliqué, stuffed and corded, and embroidered. The textiles will be rotated on a regular basis but visitors will be able to see examples from all parts of the collection whenever they come to the museum. The gallery will be open in time to be celebrated at MESDA’s annual textile seminar, in March 2010.

I’m also continuing my research on seventeenth-century English embroidery with an upcoming magazine article on father-and-son embroiderers Roger and John Nelham. Of equal interest is further research on the construction of period threads. Some of these must have been labor intensive and their production was clearly more than a simple multi-step process. A vocabulary is needed to define these processes. I hope to be able to spend some time at the Met in the near future to pursue some of these questions.

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