Curators’ Colloquium 2020

Held on 29th January 2021, our Curators’ Colloquium on Knitted Textiles proved a popular online event, gathering an audience of almost 400 from 38 countries to hear museum and collection professionals discuss aspects of their work with knitted textiles in Scottish collections.

Please see our blog for an overview of the event and of the Q&A that followed.

Programme

1.30 Welcome and Introduction (Lynn Abrams and Carol Christiansen)

1.40-2.30 Acquisition, Identity and Interpretation

The Challenges of a ‘Living’ Knitwear Collection (Carol Christiansen, Shetland Museum and Archives)

Scottish and European Knitted Textiles at National Museums Scotland: collecting, interpretation and display’ (Helen Wyld, National Museums of Scotland)

Chair: Roslyn Chapman

2.30-3.00 Care and Conservation

The Care and conservation of Knit Collections (Frances Lennard, University of Glasgow)

Chair: Sally Tuckett

3.00-3.05 Leg Stretch

3.05-3.50 Interpretation and Display – Conventional and Digital

Colour Revolution: Bernat Klein and the post-war market for handknitting (Lisa Mason, National Museum of Scotland)

Glorious Ganseys: a glance at the Scottish Fisheries Museum’s collection of fishermen’s jumpers with particular focus “Knitting the Herring” and the creation of a National Database (Jen Gordon and Federica Papiccio, Scottish Fisheries Museum)

Chair: Lin Gardner

3.50-4.00 Summing Up and Next Steps (Marina Moskowitz)

Session 1: Acquisition, Identity, and Interpretation

The Challenges of a ‘Living’ Knitwear Collection

Carol Christiansen, Curator & Community Museums Officer, Shetland Museum and Archives

Screenshot of online talk by Carol Christiansen, Shetland Museum and Archives at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing archival material related to garment in collection (copyright Shetland Museum and Archives)
Archival material related to garment in collection (© Shetland Museum and Archives)

After giving an overview of Shetland Museum’s collection and the projects she is currently working on, Carol spoke about her experiences and methods working with a collection that comes directly and specifically from the culture it was, and still is, produced in. She discussed three interlinking themes: working with a collection of two halves; a change to collecting approach; and managing access to the collection. Discussing the ‘two halves’ of her collection – knitwear made by Shetlanders for export and knitwear made by Shetlanders for Shetlanders – she highlighted the layers of traceability, identity and emotional investment associated with each.

Screenshot of online talk by Carol Christiansen, Shetland Museum and Archives at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing examples of knitted textiles and garments from the museum collection (copyright Shetland Museum and Archives)
Examples of knitted textiles and garments from the museum collection (© Shetland Museum and Archives)

Her changing approach to collecting now includes damaged and lesser quality garments to better understand: all skillsets, including those of children; the reach of Shetland knitwear; the reality of women’s lives, as knitters; and consumers of their own knitting. Carol finished with a discussion of the responsibilities of recording and working with personal and family information from donors. Highlighting what it is to have a living collection and what that means to the community today, she discussed the responsibilities the museum has for knitters in the past whose pieces are in the collection but noted that we all have responsibilities, not just curators but researchers and publishers of this information.

Carol Christiansen is Curator and Community Museums Officer at Shetland Museum and Archives. As curator, her main responsibility is the Museum’s nationally recognised textiles collection, which has a large knitted textile component. She holds a PhD from the University of Manchester in Archaeology with a specialisation in Textiles and has worked and published in the specialism with colleagues in the UK and Nordic countries.

She is the author of Taatit Rugs: the pile bedcovers of Shetland (2015) and numerous articles on Shetland’s textile heritage. Currently she is leading a project to record and assess the Museum’s knitted lace collection and is preparing a publication on Shetland knitted lace design. Her related research focuses on indigenous sheep breeds and fleece development, ethnographic and historic research on wool production, processing, spinning, dyeing and textile making in the North Atlantic and Nordic regions.

Scottish and European Knitted Textiles at National Museums Scotland: Collecting, interpretation and display

Helen Wyld, Senior Curator, National Museum of Scotland

Screenshot of online talk by Helen Wyld, National Museums Scotland at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing examples of archaeological knitted textiles in the NMS collection (copyright National Museums Scotland)
Examples of archaeological knitted textiles in the NMS collection (© National Museums Scotland)

Helen spoke about the history of knitting in the NMS collection, what is happening now and a tantalising glimpse of where they might be going with it in the future. Using a wide array of examples from the collection, Helen noted that their items are not always collected specifically because they are knitting, but rather as part of the wider dress and textile collection. Although mainly held in the European dress collection in a range of both hand knitted and machine knitted items from the 17th century to present, knitting has found its way into various parts of the museum.

Screenshot of online talk by Helen Wyld, National Museums Scotland at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing an example of knitwear from the European Dress collection (copyright National Museums Scotland)
Example of knitwear from the European Dress collection (© National Museums Scotland)

From archaeological knitted textiles and reproductions for display (Gunnister Man and Arnish Moor) to knitted items in the World Cultures department and the Science and Technology collection, other curators are also responsible for knitted items, making curating knitting at NMS a collaborative effort. Helen also spoke of the Pringle exhibition held at the NMS and the Fashion and Style Gallery. This gallery contains a number of knitted items including Fair Isle appearing in two different contexts, one in relation to global fashion and one in relation to Scottish manufacture. Finally, Helen spoke about looking to the future of the collection and the possibility of redesigning the Museum of Scotland at some point with some new and exciting acquisitions.

Helen Wyld is Senior Curator of Historic Textiles at National Museums Scotland, where she is responsible for European textiles and dress from the medieval period to 1850. She studied History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and after early career Assistant Curator roles at the National Trust and National Portrait Gallery, her interest in and knowledge of tapestry was nurtured via a three-year Paul Mellon Centre fellowship as Tapestry Research Curator with the Trust (2010-2013).

A fellowship year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art courtesy of the Sylvan C and Pamela Coleman Memorial Fund was followed by a period as Curator with National Trust for Scotland before joining National Museums Scotland in 2017. Helen is currently undertaking part-time doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh on ‘Textiles and Ritual at the Court of Charles I’. Other research interests include Renaissance jewels, Jacobite visual culture, ecclesiastical textiles, Scottish linen damask, and early modern domestic embroidery.

Session 2: Care and Conservation

The Care and Conservation of Knit Collections

Frances Lennard, Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History, University of Glasgow

Frances began by briefly describing the post-graduate conservation course and the valuable relationships the department had formed with small museums and collections. These relationships allowed students to gain a real-life experience of conservation treatments and an understanding of how textiles were stored, displayed, and interpreted. She added that deciding on the best course of treatment for a textile was the most important skill that students could acquire.

Frances acknowledged that knitted textiles pose additional challenges to conservators because they can stretch and unravel, which has an impact on the choice of treatment. She explained that in some cases woven or knitted patches are used to support damaged or lost areas, whilst in other cases Swiss darning techniques are used. She explained how conservators had used a looping stitch technique to stabilise small holes in a knitted dance costume, which allowed it to be mounted on a mannequin in a pose that conveyed the dynamism of movement.

Screenshot of online talk by Frances Lennard, University of Glasgow at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing treatment of Sanquhar glove by postgraduate student, Harriet Perkins
Treatment of Sanquhar glove by postgraduate student, Harriet Perkins
Screenshot of online talk by Frances Lennard, University of Glasgow at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing experiments with digital printing by Thordis Baldursdóttir
Experiments with digital printing by Thordis Baldursdóttir

In another example the inherent stretch of woven fabric cut on the bias was used to infill the damaged area of a Sanquhar glove. And conservators also experimented with the use of a digitally printed support fabric to replicate the distinctive stitch pattern of the knitted object. However, Frances stressed that the job of a conservator is to stabilise objects for preservation and interpretation, and that all conservation treatments must remain visible to ensure that the history of an object is neither disguised nor compromised.

Frances Lennard is Professor of Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow, and led the University’s Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History until 2020. She trained and worked as a textile conservator for 20 years before moving to the academic sphere and becoming the convenor of the postgraduate textile conservation programme at the University of Southampton and then in Glasgow. She has led major research programmes into the assessment and conservation of woven tapestry and the interdisciplinary investigation of Pacific barkcloth. She is the editor of volumes on tapestry and textile conservation and Pacific barkcloth. She is a keen knitter.

Session 3: Interpretation and Display – Conventional and Digital

Colour Revolution: Bernat Klein and the post-war market for handknitting

Lisa Mason, Assistant Curator, National Museums of Scotland

Screenshot of online talk by Lisa Mason, National Museums Scotland at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 illustrating the Bernat Klein collection (copyright National Museums Scotland)
Bernat Klein collection (© National Museums Scotland)

Lisa spoke about one specific collection held in NMS: the Bernat Klein Collection which contains about 4000 objects, including garments, textiles, and design development material. Lisa noted the collection was rich in terms of material evidence, but scant in terms of business records. Lisa provided a comprehensive personal and professional background to Klein’s life highlighting his creativity after starting his own company in the Scottish Borders producing woven fabrics, tweeds and space-dyed yarns. Klein also launched his own range of knitting yarns and Margaret Klein devised a series of knitting patterns to showcase these new yarns. Lisa then discussed how handknitting became integral to Bernat Klein’s fashion business alongside couture fabrics, home dressmaking and ready to wear fashion.

Screenshot of online talk by Lisa Mason, National Museums Scotland at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing kits of knitting wools and woven fabric, Bernat Klein (copyright National Museums Scotland)
Kits of knitting wools and woven fabric, Bernat Klein (© National Museums Scotland)

She also highlighted the thus far overlooked role of Bernat Klein’s wife Margaret as a knitwear designer and creative collaborator. Klein’s mail order ready to wear catalogues included handknitted garments in Bernat’s signature colourful yarns, designed by Margaret which were handknitted by outworkers across Scotland. Finally, Lisa spoke of her current work in developing a retrospective about Klein’s work and legacy scheduled for 2022, using the exhibition to highlight the multifaceted nature of Klein’s career and ongoing legacy. The exhibition will include Klein’s ready to wear and handknitting brand and crucially will provide a long overdue opportunity to highlight Margaret Klein’s role as a creative force.

Lisa Mason is Assistant Curator within the Art & Design department at National Museums Scotland, Trustee of the Bernat Klein Foundation, and Membership Secretary of the Dress and Textile Specialists. Her research interests include twentieth century tapestry, post-war design in Britain, artist textiles, and design archives. Lisa studied textile design at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, the University of Dundee and History of Art at the University of Edinburgh.

Lisa is currently working on a project funded by the Art Fund to collect modernist textiles for the permanent collection at National Museums Scotland and a major retrospective exhibition of tapestry artist Archie Brennan, which will open at Dovecot Studios in March 2021. During her time at National Museums Scotland Lisa worked on a Heritage Lottery funded capital project to develop four Art & Design galleries and the Bernat Klein Project, which was generously funded by the Clothworkers Foundation. Prior to joining National Museums Scotland Lisa worked on various curatorial projects with Dundee University Museum Services, the Talbot Rice Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland.

Glorious Ganseys: A glance at the Scottish Fisheries Museum’s collection of fishermen’s jumpers with particular focus on “Knitting the Herring” and the creation of a National Database

Jen Gordon and Federica Papiccio, Assistant Curators, Scottish Fisheries Museum

Screenshot of online talk by Jen Gordon, Scottish Fisheries Museum at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 showing women wearing Ganseys, photograph (copyright Scottish Fisheries Museum)
Women wearing Ganseys, photograph (© Scottish Fisheries Museum)

Jen began with an overview of the museum’s costume collection, which is recognised as one of Scotland’s Nationally Significant Collections. She then described a recent review of the collection to help establish priorities for acquisition, display, and storage. This thorough audit provided an opportunity to improve existing object descriptions and revealed the popularity of the museum’s collection of Ganseys. These hand-knitted and individually patterned garments were produced locally and worn by both men and women working in the herring industry. As well as being exhibited, Jen discussed how these garments provided a source of inspiration to designers and valuable material evidence of the community’s social history to researchers. Finally, Jen described how the collection of Ganseys, with the aid of an award, was sympathetically repacked to enable it to be stored more accessibly.

Screenshot of online talk by Federica Papiccio, Scottish Fisheries Museum at the Curators' Colloquium, 2021 illustrating the digitisation process used to create the 3D model of a Gansey (copyright Scottish Fisheries Museum)
Digitisation process used to create the 3D model of a Gansey (© Scottish Fisheries Museum)

Federica discussed the collaborative development of the Knitting the Herring project, which is a national database collating information about the Gansey. The online database will enable collectors, curators, and the general public to access information about these garments through a single portal. She described the stages involved in creating the database and the ways in which complex data was captured and eventually displayed. In addition to the database, Federica also described the creation of a 3D digital model of a Gansey. This model not only permits viewers to see the intricate stitch patterns in detail, it also allows them to look inside the garment – a view that is rarely afforded when garments are exhibited.

Jen Gordon has worked at the Scottish Fisheries Museum for a long time but in recent years has focused on Engagement with the Collections rather than Collections Management. Jen is a fan of social and local history which she is lucky enough to legitimately indulge in through research, exhibitions, events and the museum’s enquiry service. Having received many queries about the museum’s costume collection and found costume exhibitions to be popular with visitors, she collated her own plus exiting in-house research to produce the booklet Threads: A Guide to the Clothing of Scottish Fisherfolk.

Jen holds great affection for the East Neuk landscape and its inhabitants and tending towards the nostalgic, is determined to support the continuation (now post-Pandemic revival??) of Old School events like Coffee Mornings and Illustrated Talks as well as more future-conscious collaborations with artists, musicians, designers and community/environmental groups through her museum work and with her volunteering for the Anstruther Improvements Association. She is a terrible knitter, has a loose grasp on the technical side of identifying/analysing textiles and has low confidence in using I.T.

Federica Papiccio holds a BA in Illustration and Animation from the European Institute of Design in Rome and an MLitt in Museum and Gallery Studies from the University of St Andrews. She is also an interdisciplinary PhD candidate in Art History and Computer Science at St Andrews, where she is exploring the potential of user-generated content to maximise the use of museum collections and enhance their significance.

She has held various posts in the cultural heritage sector, and she is currently working in collections-based roles at the Scottish Fisheries Museum and at HMS Unicorn in Dundee. At the Fisheries, she is co-managing ‘Knitting the Herring’, Scotland’s national gansey project, whilst at HMS Unicorn, she looks after the collections, including the ship’s uniform collection. When she is not working, you will find her reading, playing her ukulele, watching long movie-marathons or, of course, brewing never-ending cups of green tea.