Mending History: The seamless art of a textiles conservator

Lee-Anne Jack, managing editor of ROM magazine

Shirley Ellis

Department of Conservation

Conservation Positions

Textile Conservator
University of Alberta

Master of Art Conservation
Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario

Visual Communication Diploma
Grant MacEwan Community College

Graduate coursework towards Master of Science
University of Alberta

Bachelor of Education
University of Alberta

In 6th grade, when Shirley Ellis sewed her first piece of clothing for home-ec class—a purple jumpsuit—she never expected she’d make a living from her skill with a needle and thread. Even years later, when she’d come home from a job in retail one night and sew an outfit to wear the next day, it never really crossed her mind. She had her sights set on science. Today, as the ROM’s senior conservator of textiles, Ellis cares for pieces of costume and textile history—a nice blend of art and chemistry.

Since joining the ROM in 2003, Ellis has ministered to dresses from the 1700s, silk fragments, costumes from the Renaissance and medieval eras, ethnographic clothing and textiles, and textiles from South Asia and Egypt. One of her most glamorous assignments was working on a gown that may have belonged to Marie-Antoinette. But her favourite pieces, if she’s pressed to choose, are needlework samplers—because of their size and potential repairs. Today, a red ensign is spread on her work table. Her challenge: to ready the War of 1812–era flag for display in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples.

“We’re not attempting to patch it and make it look new,” says the University of Alberta–trained conservator. “But you can see it’s not in very good condition.” Her favourite kind of project. Though she holds a Master’s in art conservation from Queen’s University, there’s really no manual for this work, and she must devise solutions on the fly. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Ellis, who lived for many years in Alberta, has much experience to draw from, including internships at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York, NY, and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Bodrum, Turkey.

She expects the red ensign to have a satisfyingly dramatic before-and-after (watch for her article in the fall issue of ROM). It’s a nice change, considering how much of her work isn’t especially visible. The Museum’s approach is low intervention, particularly with archaeological materials, where supporting the weakened fabrics simply by laying them on a rigid, padded support, is the best approach. “The fibres on this type of material are just so brittle. As soon as you start working on them, they break.” Other damaged delicate fabrics, such as ribbons or shredded dress linings, can be encased in sheer polyester Stabiltex stitched down with very, very fine thread, almost like a protective fabric cage.

A typical project starts under the microscope, identifying the fibres. Ideally, you use “like with like” in choosing fabric to repair a textile. Other common activities: testing dye fastness, mixing cleaning solutions in the correct pH, and humidifying and flattening fabric to appear “pressed” without using heat.
Sometimes solutions come from teamwork. The mountmaker devised an ingenious band of magnets, invisible to viewers, to support the weight of tinkle cones along the bottom hem of an 1899 Southwestern Chippewa pow-wow tunic being exhibited with the flag.

Immersed in the world of textiles at work, Ellis now tries to avoid the siren call of fabric stores.

An overflowing bin of textiles at home already calls out to be sewn into suits and special-occasion dresses.

This luxurious silk satin court robe with train "en fourreau" and petticoat dates from the 1780s and is thought to have belonged to Marie-Antoinette of France.

Photo credit for Marie Antoinette’s dress: Brian Boyle

Photo credit for Shirley Ellis: Wanda Dobrowlanski