Thursday, December 17, 2015

what's in an old dress? visiting a textile conservation lab in Vienna

History books describe voyages, trade routes, architecture, wars.

I'm interested in the more modest register of clothes. Clothes show us how people from other times and places lived--as well as about voyages, war, and trade routes. After all, fabrics were brought from the Orient to Europe; lace from Belgium to Spain; bone buttons from Upper Canada to England. With each royal marriage between countries, new fashions were introduced at court, filtering down to the population.

This dress is on display at the McCord Museum in Montreal. Its date is 1882. From its style and the fabric, a textile conservator can make an educated guess as to where it came from and the social status of the woman who wore it. Sure, she had status. Look at the gorgeous embroidered trim and matching shell buttons. The buttons are machine-made, which make me wonder how they're made and where they came from.

And underneath the dress, what did the woman wear? There's always the ubiquitous chemise, some variation of which women wore next to their skin for centuries.

Bras as we know them, weren't worn until the 1900s. Before then, depending on the ideal silhouette of the time, breasts were either squished/half-supported with a corset, let hang, or engirdled. The medical debate about the necessity of strapping women into corsets to keep their innards in place is pretty funny. Yay for the good sense of the Rational Dress Society (1881) who opposed constricting corsets, unwieldy skirts, impossible heels. There's a history of feminism to be deduced from the changing line of the bodices of dresses.  

In textile conservation, clothes are called costumes. That was the first thing I learned as I began to do research. The next is that there is nothing as damaging to textiles as sunlight--or light in general. And moths. Moths can do worse damage, but you might not have moths, whereas light is pervasive.

Before I went to Austria this past fall, I wrote some letters and was granted permission to visit the textile laboratory of the Institute of Conservation in Vienna, where several students explained their projects to me.

I was a little hampered by not being able to take pictures. I was a little hampered because I persisted in trying to understand in German. I was a little hampered because some of what people used to wear simply didn't make sense.

One object was a hat that looked like a 1960s bouffant hairstyle created with emerald green feathers. Imagine it.

I assumed it was a woman's hat, but the student assured me it was for a man--in fact, for a military man. It was a ceremonial military hat worn in the early 1900s. She wasn't actually working on the feathers and the hat, which were in good condition, but the hat box. There had been a tear and she was dyeing swatches of canvas to try to match the colour to patch it. She had hotplates, scales, beakers, and pages of chemical equations to concoct the exact colour.

That evening, back at the hotel, still not understanding what this extravagantly green-feathered hat was supposed to look like, I did a search and found this photo of Kaiser Franz Josef. I suppose it's no more ridiculous than the guards' hats at Buckingham Palace.

I mention moths above. One of the objects being worked on was a 15th-century saint's cassock that had been kept in a monastery where it was observed to have moth holes. Conservation had to wait until the church granted permission to open the reliquary in which the robe was tightly rolled. That's what that large wax seal is: permission granted.
Many photos had to be taken--and will be taken yet. Many, many, many. Documentation before, during, every step of the way. So many photos that the robe wasn't even ready to be unrolled yet while I was there. However, I was there when the string was cut and the rolled cassock was very carefully lifted out.

Again, I had to wait to get back to the hotel that evening to see who this St. Joannis a Capistrano was: the patron saint of Hungary, as well as of soldiers and lawyers.
I don't know my saints, but the name nagged at me until I did more research and found out that there are Spanish mission houses in the US named after him too. We visited one when we were in Texas in 2008.

I attach no significance to the coincidence, but I'm always tickled when life throws one at me.

There were a few interesting objects under treatment in the textile lab. I took copious notes and am thinking of how I want to incorporate what I've learned in this next novel I'm working on. I'll probably only use a small fraction, but who knows where else the research might lead?

I wasn't supposed to take pics of the objects but here's one I must have snapped accidentally.

I shouldn't say what it is... but it belonged to a woman who was related to Marie Antoinette. The dress didn't interest me as much as the flower decorations along the longer piece. They're made of knotted threads. The conservation student was trying to make some herself but had so far only succeeding in tangling the knots. I'm thinking only a child's fingers could have done work that fine. A child living in the 1700s, crouched on a stool, having to work by candlelight.

Monday, December 7, 2015

the fine, old art of gold leafing

Old as in the Egyptians were doing it, and it's still being done as it was done then. It's called water gilding in English. In German, it's called Branntweinvergoldung, which means brandy gilding. Interesting, the difference in emphasis.

When I was in Austria in October, my cousin, who is a master gold-leafer, took me into her workshop. This past week I've been transcribing my videos, looking up words, and doing my best to understand. So many details. There are up to 20 steps--and one can't tell if a mistake was made until the final step when polishing the gold.

The first time I saw gold leafing done (when I was younger), my uncle claimed to use a wild boar's tooth as a polisher. It's since been discovered that agate has the same degree of hardness as tooth enamel, so now agates are used. Easier to come by than wild boar's teeth.

The agates are cut and shaped, though, as if they were teeth. As I remember the colour of my uncle's wild boar tooth polisher, it was the same translucent grey.
What you might also notice on that suede cushion on the table is that my cousin has several sheets of gold leaf to hand. You might think it's like aluminium foil. Each leaf is four thousandth of a millimetre. It doesn't only crinkle, it dissolves into flecks at the slightest wrong move. She flips the leaves with her icing spreader knife, slices pieces to fit, and drops them, one by one, with a brush onto the prepared surface.
It looks easy to watch. Then she says, do you want to try, and of course I ruin my evanescent wing of gold. Nothing to do but lick the insubstantial shiny specks off my fingers. It'll be the only chance I ever get to eat 23 karat gold.

This is a demonstration piece that shows some of the steps in gold-leafing. The dull yellow is bole made of volcanic earth and other ingredients. Bole can be bought, but this bole is made from a recipe handed down from our great-grandfather. That red tongue is bole as well. The white at the bottom is gesso. The bole goes on top of the gesso. The carving is of basswood. Some of the gold has been burnished, some hasn't yet.

Here's a fellow anxiously awaiting his turn. He had the bad luck to have been restored by someone who didn't clean him properly before applying gold leaf, so that the gold has begun to flake off. Here, he will be cleaned, regilt, and freshened up.

 A huge thank you to Monika for her patience and expertise. Dankeschön!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Queen Victoria in St-Henri

Yesterday I saw Queen Victoria between a pedestrian and a bike path in St-Henri.
Queen V, her consort, and some architectural knick-knacks rimmed with the winter's first ice, on a bed of dead leaves.   

There are so many old and stately buildings in Montreal that stand neglected and empty, until they're eventually knocked down to build yet more condos. I love that someone reclaimed these pieces and put them on display, though you almost have to be a local to know where to find them. I only happened on them by chance. 
St-Henri is the poor, working-class neighbourhood Gabrielle Roy described in her novel Bonheur d'Occasion (1945). In English, The Tin Flute. The book won the Prix Femina and the Governor General's Award, among others. In it, the inhabitants of the miserable tenement houses of St-Henri look up at the rich English houses on the mountain. 

All these years later, you can stand in the mean, garbage-strewn parkette the city has named after Gabrielle Roy, and look up at the same fine stone houses on the mountain. I suppose there's social progress of sorts. Francophones live in Westmount too now.       

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quebec Writers' Federation

The Quebec Writers' Federation is a wonderful, busy, thriving organization. I count myself lucky to belong. I have been both a mentee and a mentor in their Mentorship Program. I have twice been asked to speak or read at events they've hosted. I've met many of my current writer friends through QWF. My book of short stories, Ruins & Relics, was a finalist for their 2009 First Book Prize.

Recently I was asked by QWF Writes to expand a piece on editing that I'd written for my blog. Here it is--tweaked and polished under the sharp editorial eye of Crystal Chan.

Monday, November 9, 2015

other fun things I did in Austria

In German this is called Klangschalentherapie. It's a Tibetan method of sending reverberations through the body. My cousin wanted to try it on my heart which doesn't always beat with a regular rhythm. R was concerned that putting the brass bowl directly on my chest might have too strong an effect, so she did it on my back. It felt interesting. Body as an echo chamber On my bum... well... there was too much adipose tissue for the reverberations to get very far.

We also visited a castle. I was asked not to say the name since it's not open to the public. It was built in the 15th century on the site of a 12th-century castle that was destroyed by invading Turks. No one lives there now, though I'm guessing it was inhabited up till the 1920s. There were still balls in the pockets of the dusty billiard table.

We visited my aunt who doesn't live in a castle, though it's still quite the house with marble floors and impressive details. Here is what you see when you walk in.

Here's the door to the kitchen. Fresco painting and gold leaf.

With a house of this pedigree, of course there's a ghost. R expected her to visit him since she did last time we were here. But she stayed on her side of the grille where she lived before she became a ghost.

Another aunt decorates cakes when someone special has a birthday. This one's for her granddaughter. The butterflies, flowers, and horn of plenty are marzipan. The Smarties are Smarties.
It wasn't my birthday while we were there, so I don't know if I'm special enough to warrant a cake. However, when we were last there, she gold-leafed a rock for R on his birthday.

I took endless pictures of this milky green river that runs past the villages and town where different members of my family live. My camera never did get the exact shade of milky green just right.

And clouds. They look so different when they billow around mountains. Though they, too, elude my cheap camera.

You bet, we sampled Austrian food. Here I'm sprinkling lemon on my Wiener Schnitzel which was excellent. R ordered a selection of stuffed dumplings which were also very tasty.

And I can never resist a yellow door. Especially on an old house.

Friday, November 6, 2015

November in Montreal

People complain about grey skies and wet, but I love how the colours stand out.
Here's the view from my study onto the wet street below.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

explaining bed head

I was having lunch with my second cousin (my mother's cousin) in Austria. She'd made cottage cheese dumplings called Kasnudel. After that we had tea and a rolled cake. 

She was telling me her version of family stories. We had fun. She said she liked to write letters and I asked if she had a computer. 

My first word processor in the 80s looked like this. You could only see three lines at a time on the screen--but it was better than having to roll paper into the machine and having to manually obliterate the mistakes you made while typing. I'm a lousy typist. One typo for every six times I hit a key. 

I love these ceramic kitchen drawers for cooking ingredients, though they too are dated. One of the drawers is for Feigenkaffee or fig coffee, which was a coffee substitute used during WWII.  

She has a traditional Austrian painted ceiling in her hallway. 

And a tranquil view onto fields and cows. On a day without fog there are mountains. 

She has a wood stove or Kachelofen decorated with tiles recuperated from her grandfather's house in the mountains. There's a curve of bench to sit by the stove and keep warm. On the cushion are a pair of leg warmers knit for her husband by his grandmother. If he died ten years ago at seventy-one, how old would that make the leg warmers, assuming his grandmother--not his mother--knit them some years ago?

At one point she asked what I put in my hair, because she'd had an excellent tip about a product from her hairdresser. She brought me into her bedroom to show me. 
Great, I said, if it works, why not? It really does, she exclaimed. But I can't figure out what it means--Bed Head. So I translated bed head and said it was a look some people aimed for. Bettkopf. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

bye bye, Vienna

When the cafés and bars in Vienna start hanging velvet curtains in the doorways to stop the draft from blowing in, it's time to head home. 
Not that Montreal is any warmer, but at least I have warmer clothes at home. 

Time for one last cone of roasted chestnuts. A sweet man, he added an extra. We live in a time when anything can be bought anywhere, but roasted chestnuts are still better in Europe.  

A last walk past the cool windows displays, often with the owner's dog in patient or resigned--certainly obedient--attendance. 

Eavesdropping on some last intense conversations in which politics, philosophy, art, refugees, and I'd-better-get-going-because-my-little-girl-is-waiting-at-daycare are being discussed. 

A few last sketches, though I don't know if he realized he was sitting under a poster for an exhibition called To Draw To Draw. 

A last visit to the Institute of Conservation where I had spent time doing research for a new novel. I was asked not to take pictures of the objects being restored. The glass case you can just see bottom right contains the wooden clogs of a 15th-century saint. The clogs will be cleaned and placed in the older case which is believed to have originally housed them. It, too, needs to be cleaned with sponges, tweezers, brushes (and a cell phone?) of several centuries of dirt. 

In the evening we had a stroll and a traditional meal of Kümmel-Schopfbraten with Knödel und Kraut in a Viennese Beisl--the Austrian word for a Gasthaus. Beisl translates as a little bite, though the little bite you'll get here will see you through a few hours of scything hay on an Alpine slope. 
What I loved about this place were the wood-panelled wine refrigerators--in honour of which I had a glass of Prosecco. 

There will be more blog posts about Austria once I'm settled again. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

shoes and cups / Vienna

There's old-style Viennese

where cups were designed so there was room on the saucer for a cookie

and what looked like gold really was gold. (That's me in the mirror.)

And new-style Viennese

where design is still paramount,

even in public bathrooms,

and sidewalk cafés still have interesting cups.