By Valerie Stambaugh Robbins ’84
When you enter the studio of Julia Brennan ’76, you are impressed by the light and openness of her space. Tall ceilings, white walls and working surfaces with natural light create the perfect textile conservator’s environment. Spread out on the large center table lays a remarkable 16th to17th-century Flemish tapestry. She has already tested the dyes for fastness and cleaned the textile, without harmful machinery or cleaning methods. Now she is working on stabilizing the piece and reweaving areas of loss.
As owner and chief conservator of Textile Conservation Services, a D.C.-based business she founded in 1995, Julia oversees and works on a myriad of textile conservation projects from clients from around the world, from individuals seeking to return family heirlooms to their pristine state, to international organizations, museums and embassies needing to maintain and display textiles.
Today in her studio a variety of projects are in progress: Antique placemats that have been cleaned and repaired; a contemporary French silkscreen mounted with hand-stitching on a muslin-covered rigid support; an 1811 sampler stitched by an 11-year-old girl; and a turn-of-the-century, delicate, white christening dress. Past projects include the dress worn by Miss Kitty in the TV series, “Gunsmoke,” an Andy Warhol exhibit and numerous displays for embassies and cultural institutions. The Kennedy Center also retains Julia as textile conservator.
Julia’s love of textiles began early. She grew up in Southeast Asia, the daughter of a Foreign Service officer. Her father’s job took the family from Indonesia to Thailand, Bangladesh and Nepal–lands full of rich textiles, colorful vistas and dcoration, and robust culture. Her mother decorated the family home with textiles, and a love of these fabrics and the cultures they represented took hold in Julia.
While she was a student at Farmington, Miss Freeze inspired her to study art history. Julia spent January of her senior year documenting the handicrafts of Bangladesh, traveling through villages, photographing people and work, and ultimately publishing her photographic and written journal. At Barnard she majored in art history and Japanese studies. After working as a photojournalist in Katmandu, Julia received a master’s degree in art history from the University of Pennsylvania.
“At the time, the University had no major for the study of textiles,” she says. “They considered it a derivative art form. But I wanted to find a way to combine my love for history with my love of working with my hands.”
While attending graduate school she accepted a five-year internship in Philadelphia with a private textile conservator. The training prepared her for her position as assistant conservator at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Following this, she began her own company. She also became the Executive Director of the James Renwick Alliance, a support organization for the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. Her responsibilities were primarily administrative, but the job afforded her the opportunity to make valuable contacts and learn about contemporary craft art. Her heart, however, was in “hands-on work,” and she recently decided to dedicate herself to textile conservation.
Unlike textile restoration, which seeks to return a textile to its original state, conservation arrests deterioration and stabilizes the object. This tricky task includes taking preventative measures, such as controlling pests, archival mounting, and educating museums and individuals about how to properly display and store an item. The work must be fully documented, and it must be reversible in the treatment to comply with the American Institute for Conservation’s standards.
Julia first evaluates and documents the artwork, and then, if possible, cleans the textile using a solvent or special detergent. She stabilizes, stitches or weaves to repair as necessary. Eventually she custom designs a method of display or storage depending on the client’s needs and the textile’s characteristics.
“My love is really for display – transforming a textile, mounting and displaying it in a way that makes it pop,” she says.
Through pro-bono work, lecturing and work for historical societies, she also seeks to create a broader awareness of the value of textile conservation. Every job compels her to learn the history not only of the textile, but also of the culture that shaped it. Clients value her vision and respect for their cultures. For example, the kingdom of Bhutan invited Julia to help establish a national textile museum under royal patronage.
“Bhutan is an isolated and culturally protective country, so much so the government requires all citizens to wear traditional dress at all times,” Julia explains. Because of her diverse background, Julia had the sensitivity and skills to design a system suited to the museum’s needs. She spent a month and a half in Bhutan spearheading the textile museum initiative, teaching courses in conservation and setting up a database to catalogue the museum’s work. She devised methods and materials of conservation that were region-specific and local solutions for storage and display that allow the museum to be self-sustaining.
These days, amid a host of other projects, Julia is launching a conservation survey of the textile collection at Mount Vernon, focuses on 60 priority items that have firm attribution to George and Martha Washington. In a comment on this project that sums up her delight in her career, Julia wrote, “Such fun working with these extraordinary ‘relics’.”
See Julia’s website www.caringfortextiles for more on her work.
Valerie Stambaugh Robbins ’84 is a web designer in Maryland.