At the beginning of the year, I had the opportunity to audit a Textile Conservation course hosted within the William H. Hannon Library’s Archives and Special Collections, where I was able to participate in the cleaning, rehousing, and condition reporting for several sets of California mission-era liturgical garments donated by the Del Valle Family. As an MLIS student interested in archiving costume and dress, this class was an incredible hands-on learning experience.
The course was led by Leon Wiebers, Associate Professor of Costume Design, Cynthia Becht, Head of Archives and Special Collections, and Elise Rousseau of Art Conservation de Rigueur, an art conservator with extensive vestment conservation experience. Over the course of 16 weeks, I was one of four students who learned how to properly vacuum, spot treat, mend, safely rehouse, and meticulously collect details on the condition of the garments. At the beginning of the course we learned about the history of Alta California’s Spanish missions, and the nomenclature for and liturgical symbolism of the vestments we would be handling. We were also introduced to textile and costume conservation and restoration through Elise’s work at Art Conservation de Rigueur. Once we had an understanding of the historical context and the materials, trims and production methods, we dove into processing the vestment sets.
The first step in our process was to carefully describe the garment measurements, textile composition, garment and textile design or decorations, and details of the condition of each item. We captured this information using condition reports and sketches of any abrasions, pests, or soiling. During the condition report process, we would discuss vocabulary usage so that our reporting would be consistent across each item in the set. Once we had completed the exhaustive condition report of each item, we would move on to cleaning the garment. If there was any pest detritus, we would pick it up with tape and affix it to the condition report to record the type and extent of infestation. If there was any encrustations on the item, we would exercise extreme caution to flake it off using flat edge tweezers without damaging the fibers. Finally, we would meticulously vacuum every inch of the item using a mesh screen to protect the garment from excessive stress. Once each item was cleaned up, we could rehouse them in archival boxes.
All of the items from each vestment set were kept together in one box, so they were easy to locate. Each item was folded carefully into acid-free tissue paper and placed in Tyvek-lined archival boxes, to ensure that everything would be preserved for decades to come. The condition reports have not yet been converted to digital files, but we are preparing the vestment collection for digitization. Funded by a grant from the Costume Society of America, the vestment sets will be photographed and metadata entry from the condition reports will begin.
The Del Valle family was among the most prominent in California during the first century of California’s statehood. At their family homestead, Rancho Camulos, a small chapel hosted traveling Franciscan priests who would sometimes leave their vestments with the family for return engagements. Some of the vestment sets we handled appear to have traveled with the priests from Europe, with evidence to suggest that pieces (or at least fabric) came from both Spain and France – one garment even had a label sewn into it identifying the shop in Barcelona that produced it. As a part of the Textile Conservation course, we were able to tour Rancho Camulos to see not only the beautiful chapel and homestead, but also several vestment sets and dresses from the Del Valle women tucked away in storage there. The field trip was a wonderful way to cap off the semester and to contextualize the work we had accomplished during the course.
I am extremely grateful to have been able to incorporate my experience in this Textile Conservation class into my MLIS course work at UCLA. Based on my first-hand knowledge of the collection and the metadata collected in the condition reports, I was inspired to devise a metadata strategy for the digitization of the Del Valle vestment collection for one of my final papers last quarter. This quarter I will be using my knowledge of textile conservation to help create a collection development plan for uniforms, medals, regalia, and flags for the Veterans Affairs archive in Westwood as part of a larger collection assessment and development proposal. I have also organized a small workshop with fellow MLIS students to clean and rehouse a few remaining pieces from the vestment collection. Working with this vestment collection has been very rewarding for me personally and professionally, and has opened up avenues of study I did not have access to before.