A guide to collecting textiles: why every detail matters
Titi Halle, owner and director of leading textile gallery Cora Ginsburg, explains what makes historic fabric and costume valuable
In today’s collecting landscape, textiles tend to attract a small but devoted community for their combination of extraordinary technique and artistry, as well as their cultural significance. The limited collectorship is largely due to limited supply, for by nature, textiles are inherently fragile, and made only more so over time when worn in dress and used in upholstered furnishings. The fact so few of the utmost quality exist is, of course, what makes finding and acquiring them such a thrill.
Since the 1940s, those seeking expert advice on fine historic textiles or fashions, primarily spanning the 17th through 20th centuries, have turned to Cora Ginsburg. Known for its museum-quality treasures, the gallery currently operates out of Connecticut and is run by owner and director, Titi Halle, who first joined the company in 1981.
As for how to identify different textiles and determine their value, Halle says, ‘Everything about a textile is a clue,’ from its weave structure to the colour of its threads. Below, the specialist provides fascinating insights into the history of textiles, and the qualities that make some fetch six figures at auction.
A brief history of textile collecting
In terms of public collections, many museums began acquiring textiles in the 19th century, and by the early 20th century, there was a large push for American and European institutions to develop their own textile and clothing collections. Most of today’s most prestigious textile collections, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Musée des Tissus in Lyon and the Textile Museum at George Washington University in Washington, DC, were formed during that time.
At the beginning of the 20th century, textiles were also gaining traction amongst private collectors. Many women collected lace, for example, even taking part in local clubs where they could share and appreciate others’. In 1879, lace became the first textile that the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired, and in 1916, the newly found Needle and Bobbin Club held its first meeting at the museum — the guild was reported to have 200 members in its first year.
Today, Halle finds there are fewer private collectors of European textiles than Asian ones, --- Many collectors specialise in a country’s textiles, for example, Ottoman, Indonesian, or Indian, or even more exclusively on specific types of textiles, such as silks, cottons, ikats or painted chintz. Religious textiles and attire also represent another collecting category.
What differentiates the late Ann Getty’s textile collection beyond its sheer volume is its immense diversity. Beginning this October at Christie’s New York, more than 200 of the interior designer and philanthropist’s textiles will be offered as part of The Ann & Gordon Getty Collection. With pieces ranging from the 17th through 20th centuries, the collection spans the globe — Asian, African, European, and American textiles, as well as different religious garments, are all represented.
Due to their value, historic textiles have often lived many lives
In the last 100 years, technological advances have made access to material so vast that surpluses have spawned sustainable movements encouraging a return to reuse to combat the harmful consequences of fast fashion. In centuries past, however, textiles had to be made by hand in time-consuming processes, making them far more costly and scarce than those of contemporary times. In terms of royal or noble garb, textiles could easily have been more valuable than today’s luxury cars or commodities. Gold and other precious metals could be complexly woven into textiles — there are records of people bringing metals to an embroiderer and weighing them to make sure none of the metal was being siphoned off.
Due to textiles’ beauty, value, and lack of availability, people typically held onto them, either reworking them into new silhouettes as fashions changed, or incorporating them as upholstery. ‘The value of fabric is such that it’s used and reused,’ says Halle. ‘As we see in Mrs. Getty’s textile collection, an 18th-century dress made of silk could be given to a church who would make it into a chasuble or coverlet. When the coverlet is worn out, it could be made into cushions or something else. for example, she has brocaded coverlets, which are comprised of six panels that were probably once the skirt of a dress.’
Fragility and Condition
Textiles have become much harder to find on the market for a variety of reasons, explains Halle: ‘If they enter museum collections, they’re likely out of circulation permanently, and if they’re used, they’re also out of circulation. If a coverlet becomes pillows, it’s not going to go on the market again as a textile. That’s what makes Mrs. Getty’s collection such an incredible opportunity for collectors.’ Beyond their functional nature, which has made them subject to wear and degradation, maintaining extant textiles requires special conservation efforts.
The most important determinant of historic textiles’ value today is condition. ‘Part of the rarity of a textile is a textile that survived in extraordinary condition,’ says Halle. ‘How does something survive? It’s a miracle because of what they’ve been through: daily use, travel, wars.’
Halle continues, ‘You can’t go back on stains, and you can’t go back on textiles that are struck by light and have lost their colour. It’s not as if you can rebuff them.’
Identifying textiles: the importance of width, weave, thread, and colour
Examining a textile’s structure, often under microscopic analysis, can give strong indications of its origins, but, as Halle notes, it is important to be aware that there are always exceptions.
‘In terms of fabric width, you know if it’s 52 or 56 inches wide, it was not made on a loom in the 18th century, as those could only produce fabric so large,’ says Halle on some of the ‘clues’ of identifying textiles. ‘Some countries were known to produce textiles of a certain width, for example, it is commonly thought that silks that are 17 or 19 inches were woven in either Holland or England.’
Weave structure, whether hand or machine woven, can also reveal when and where a textile was made. ‘There are unique weave structures in some countries, for example, the Burmese weave tapestries completely different than how the French do,’ says Halle. Another key component is the thread itself: ‘How is a thread spun — is it S or Z, in other words, does it twist to the right or the left? How many threads are twisted together — is it a single ply or double ply? When it’s woven, is it silk, or silk and linen, or silk and cotton?’
Familiarity with historic palettes in different countries can also help identify textiles — ‘It’s not necessarily technical, but there’s a different palette of red used in England than in France,’ says Halle. Like fine art, closer inspection of pigments can, however, reveal a certain dye that would only have been used after the date it was invented. Natural versus synthetic dyes, introduced in the 19th century, also help differentiate.
The decorative potential of textiles
While to preserve textiles, purists would only recommend conservation techniques, as opposed to perpetual use, there is no denying that when used within an interior, textiles offer tremendous visual impact. As illustrated by the homes of Ann and Gordon Getty, an abundance of historic and international textiles imbued each room with a distinctly opulent and global sensibility.
‘Mrs. Getty used textiles to enhance her environment and make them extraordinary and unusual. She had a lot of guts and was original in her thinking — she took a chasuble, cut it up, and put it on a chair,’ recalls Halle, adding that when she could not find a fabric (or enough of one), she would have it woven abroad by the finest makers, a process which required as much patience as it did capital. ‘Mrs. Getty used fabrics that were seemingly very different in their design, age, colour, and origin, and she used them as a vehicle for bringing her rooms together.’