May Berkouwer Textile Conservation celebrates ten years in the business of fabric conservation
PUBLISHED: 12:39 18 July 2017 | UPDATED: 15:48 18 July 2017
Sudbury, in south Suffolk on the Essex border, is a town with a rich and long heritage linked to the textile industry, and today, it remains a major silk manufacturing centre with at least three well-known firms producing a wide range of quality fabrics.
It is apt then that it is also the location for a small, inspirational business that specialises in the conservation of historic textiles.
Last month May Berkouwer Textile Conservation celebrated the tenth anniversary since it started business as the first tenant on Sudbury’s Brundon Lane Industrial Estate.
To mark this significant milestone, the company opened its doors to the public for three days, offering an insight into some of the projects it has been involved in, and the painstaking but rewarding work the team carry out.
The business was started by May Berkouwer who, before moving to Suffolk, had worked for the National Trust and for a textile restoration company in London. Her move out to the country saw her go freelance before starting her eponymous business, which provides conservation services for institutions such as the National Trust and the Victorian and Albert Museum, as well as private owners.
The business is now four-strong and works with all kinds of historic textiles, tapestries, interior wall hangings, flags and banners. And over the years, the team has worked on some notable and high-profile projects.
When the business first started, a large part of its work was focussed on conserving the seventeenth century silk wall-hangings in the Queen’s antechamber in Ham House, a National Trust property based in Richmond, west London.
More recently Ms Berkouwer was assigned to help restore and clean one of the world’s largest tapestries. Called Christ in Glory, the 23 metre-long tapestry was produced by famous artist Graham Sutherland in the 1960s, and hangs in Coventry Cathedral. The project involved working in situ at the cathedral with Ms Berkouwer climbing high up using scaffolding to reach the extremes of the giant wall-hanging.
Preserving for the future
She explains that old textiles can be affected in many ways. Light fading can destroy the structure and colour of a fabric, while soiling and staining, wear and tear, and insect and rodent activity can lead to substantial damage. Many fabrics seen by the team will have a combination of these problems.
“An object will come in and we will assess it, and decide what to do about cleaning and supporting it, and making good the areas that are damaged as best as possible, “said Ms Berkouwer.
“A big chunk of the work we do is deciding how to preserve it for the next generation or two.”
Another important aspect of the team’s work is analysing the textiles and documenting their findings.
One project Ms Berkouwer is particularly proud of is the work she had done to help conserve a series of pre-Reformation embroideries located at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. This job was notable for the observations her and her team have been able to make during the treatment of the fabrics, which has assisted the curatorial research into the origin of these fragments and how they are linked to other textiles at the Hall made from the same vestments
“We get to look at things closer than curators do - we look behinds the layers,” continued Ms Berkouwer.
“We’ve discovered where the object has been and how it has been used over the past 400 years. Things that were unknown before. This happens on a lot of objects, where we are able to do a bit of detective work and figure something out about its provenance and history. We have a very manual, hands-on approach and can sometimes provide a second opinion for curators by looking at the stitching and the cut and making interpretations.”
She added: “We might discover a different dating for an object, clues to who made it or signs of old repairs. It might be that the piece is much older than originally thought – it could be a host of things.
“It’s not just about making repairs and making things look good – it’s also about informing the owner, whether it’s the V&A or the National Trust, or a private owners, what they might have.”
Ms Berkouwer’s obvious passion for the subject shines through and it has been this enthusiasm that has sustained her during the tough times for the business. Speaking to her, it becomes clear that the recession was not a good time to run a textile conservation company.
“We felt the effects from 2011 to 2015. It was tough and I was taking home less money and working twice as hard as normal, but you just have to keep going.”
But with business now looking good, Ms Berkouwer has a renewed vigour for her work and a contentedness that comes with someone who is happy in her work.
She said: “We are enabling people to keep things under safer circumstances than just putting them into a box – which is unhealthy for tapestries. We can make them easier to read which adds to people’s understanding of history and their aesthetic enjoyment.
“Ultimately, it is a choice to restore historic fabrics and tapestries. The modern approach to conservation is to keep things as they were originally. We don’t want to reinterpret and add.
“This is in contrast to someone like the Victorian church architect George Bodley who would restore a church but also add new towers and paint the inside differently. The 21st century mind likes to keep things pure and to learn the scientific side of things.”
And given her interest in history, Ms Berkouwer enjoys the link between her business and Sudbury’s heritage,
She added: “I like the fact that in the one town, we have the making of textiles as well as people preserving it for the future.”