Preserving history

Caterina Florio shares her experience restoring the Queen’s Collection of Canadian Dre

Caterina Florio received $15,000 in total as the first recipient of the Isabel Bader Research Fellowship in Textile Conservation.
Caterina Florio received $15,000 in total as the first recipient of the Isabel Bader Research Fellowship in Textile Conservation.
Credit: 
Supplied by Agnes Etherington

It’s part of Caterina Florio’s job to get 200-year-old stains out. The textile conservationist worked to restore torn, stained and deteriorated artifacts in the care of Agnes Etherington Art Centre — a process which can never restore an object to its former glory.

“Everything has a life and at one point that ends,” Florio said. “My job is just to try to take it as long as possible knowing though that everything has, in a sense, an end. It’s not to try to fix things, it’s try to make the life of an artifact the best that we can for as long as we can.”

Florio was the first recipient of the Isabel Bader Research Fellowship in Textile Conservation. The fellowship allowed her to work with the Queen’s University Collection of Canadian Dress which is housed in a storage facility.

The collection has over 2,000 fashion items ranging from dresses, accessories, undergarments and children’s clothing from the 1800s to 1970s.

“What I love about that collection is it had a very strong legacy to the territory, it’s so connected to Kingston and the history of Kingston, which makes it such a particular and varied collection,” she said. “It’s not one of the biggest, but it has this quality to it that connects it to the territory in a poetic way.”

The collection was put together by Margaret Angus, who came to Kingston in 1937 and helped create and collect costumes for theatrical productions in the Queen’s drama department.

Florio graduated from the University of Florence and the Palazzo Spinelli Institute of Art and Conservation in Florence. In January 2011 she began her three month fellowship at Queen’s focusing her studies on how modern aesthetic expectations influence the treatment done to artifacts in exhibits. She received $12,000 for her time plus $3,000 for travel and expenses. Currently Florio works in private practice at her studio in Toronto.

Accessories from the Queen’s collection can currently be seen in Agnes’s Adornment which pairs contemporary artwork with historical accessories from as early as the 19th century.

“It’s a very interesting curatorial choice,” Florio said. “It’s very rare to see such a contrast, it’s usually thematic, historical, chronological, those are the main guidelines for shows … You kind of see a path that goes through history.”

Florio and said textile conservation is much more involved than just removing stains.

“Most of the time the work is like actual conservation treatments, but every treatment involves a lot of research,” she said. “I research the creator or the owner of the artifact and try to collect as much information as I can because every little detail that I can gather of the history of the artifact helps me on the other aspect of research, which is deciding what to do and what is the best way to fix the problem.”

Florio’s last project was on a sword that had a leather belt with velvet embroidery that needed to be restored.

“Textiles are found in many, many different types of artifacts. It’s not just embroidery or costumes or fashion accessories,” she said.

Florio has her own studio where she does most of her work, which involves hours at a bench, hunched over the artifacts.

“You develop such an intimate ‘relationship’ with the artifact that you also discover things that maybe have been impossible to know in a curatorial side,” she said. “Sometimes we work under a microscope so you have a really deep, material knowledge of the artifact.”

Since Florio works with a wide range of artifacts with different problems, she can’t estimate an average amount of time a piece takes to restore.

“I work on very small sections at a time, I work at the thread level,” she said. “And also since it’s such a particular and focused work the body, the human body, my body, is very tired.

“For instance one of the recent projects I was working on was a military jacket from the War of 1812 and that took a month and a half. But if we’re talking about tapestry, that can take years to finish or it can take a week.”

Since Florio works with so many clothes and fashion accessories, it was inevitable to ask if she loves fashion.

“Of course,” she said with a laugh. “People that do textile conservation ... have a slight passion for fashion. I guess we’re nerds. We’re in contact with such beautiful things, it kind of develops this love.”

Caterina Florio will give a talk on Textile Conservation at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on Sunday at 2 p.m.

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