Textile restorer Jessica Hack brings old fabric—be it a flag or a Carnival dress—back to its original splendor.
by DAWN RUTH
Many drawers of yarn fill up a corner of Jessica Hack’s textile restoration studio in Algiers Point. Dozens of skeins reside there, silks and cottons in every hue of red, green, blue and yellow. But somehow there’s never just the right shade among them.
That’s when the dye comes out and the magic of color and texture really begins. “I have a new definition,” Hack says, “It’s blending— matching is impossible.”
Five days a week, seven hours a day, Hack and her crew of five mend, stabilize and restore damaged fabric, sewing and weaving textiles of all kinds, from European tapestries to Confederate War flags. Many are destined for museums around the country, others return to private collections. Many are priceless.
“That’s going into the new Louisiana State Museum in Baton Rouge,” Hack says of Con-federate War General Kirby Smith’s gray frock coat. “That’s wool. You don’t see this anymore.”
The wool, probably English, and the star-patterned, gold embroidery around the collar distinguishes Smith as upper class and important. “The officers were generally rich and their coats were all tailored,” she says. “See this checked lining? The lining materials were all different.”
She points out the brass buttons with relief patterns of pelicans and stars. The buttons identify Smith’s Confederate state as Louisiana, she says.
After 25 years of working with similar items, Hack has become an expert in Confederate era textiles. That specialty comes with the territory, she says, because as one of about 200 textile restorers in the country she provides an uncommon service in the southern region. Though she has repaired Union artifacts, her Northeastern counterparts are more likely to get them because most clients prefer to hand-deliver such delicate materials.
She operates her branch of the business, Gentle Arts, from a 1,000-square-foot former neighborhood grocery store lit by bright halogen lights. A worn green check-out counter serves as her desk. Classical music via WWNO/89.9 flows from stereo speakers tucked into the corners of 13-foot ceilings. The atmosphere oozes history and a love for all things old and rediscovered.
This 1880 cypress building furnished with several worktables is a grand improvement over working from her living room, Hack says. She acquired the building about eight years ago. Now Hack and her employees move among several workstations, including an 8-foot-by-16-foot table used for the largest projects.
On one of the many worktables, a World War II life preserver lies in a box waiting its turn at the needle. “There’s a mud dauber’s nest in it,” Hack says. “We get things that have been in attics and garages. It’s people’s old stuff.”
Another item on the recovery list is a damaged 1820 cross-stitched sampler a client purchased at a garage sale for $3. “It’s worth a great deal more,” she says.
Carnival costumes and gowns are another Gentle Arts specialty. A 1946 Carnival gown came to Hack from a client in Mississippi who plans to donate it to a museum in Amory, Miss. A family member wore it when she was queen of a Junior League Carnival Ball in Jackson. “It’s beautiful,” Hack says, stroking its 13-foot velvet and faux ermine mantle.
In addition to cleaning the rhinestones with distilled water and re-stitching stones that have fallen off, Hacks says an internal harness will be made to support the gown while it hangs on a mannequin in the museum. Even though it doesn’t need as much work as many of the other artifacts, it will take about 100 hours to finish.
The amount of time needed for the repair is what determines the charge. In her opinion, appraisals typically undervalue antique textiles and the cost of conservation or restoration often exceeds the appraised value. Many jobs require as many as 300 hours to complete the process.
The work requires patience, good light and minute attention to detail. Some items need restoration “reweaving” and others require conservation, which entails stitching the existing material to a new support layer to stabilize the piece.
“People will come in and think how peaceful and relaxing, but it’s major stress,” Hack says. “Many of these are of major historical significance, only one in the world. You have to do it right.”
Good, true lighting is an essential factor for blending threads and dyeing fabrics to match, Hack says. The studio’s halogen overhead lamps provide that. Flor-escent bulbs cast a bluish color and incandescent lights cast a yellow color, so they can’t be used.
Hack says she fell into the textile restoration field by accident. She had been a freelance weaver, creating large hangings for public buildings. During that time, she did an apprenticeship restoring Oriental carpets in New York and later studied textile conservation in London. “I got totally fascinated,” she says.
She learned the principles of conservation and restoration, but most of her knowledge was gleaned from 25 years of on-the-job-training. Because so many projects are unique, she has had to devise her own techniques to suit the situation. “There are many judgment calls that need to be made,” she says. “You make it up as you go along.” •