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Zooming into History: An Interview with Cristina Balloffet Carr on Examining Early Modern Textiles U

Cristina Balloffet Carr, conservator for early modern textiles at the New York Metropolitan Museum, is a pioneer of digital microscopy for textiles (fig. 1, 2). Alongside John Style’s Spinning Wheel project, Cristina’s work inspired Ulinka Rublack to integrate digital microscopy into her project on the history of feather-work. The usage of the microscope is likewise a crucial element of the research that Stefan Hanß is conducting, as a member of the Materialized Identities group in co-investigation with Ulinka Rublack, on the techniques, skills, and hands-on knowledge of early modern European and indigenous feather-workers. Here Cristina Balloffet Carr explains why microscopy tells us so much about making skills and their meaning:

Ulinka Rublack: What fascinates you about early modern embroidery?

Cristina Balloffet Carr: I find the physical qualities of the materials compelling. The movement of the eye within the composition is led by the light reflected by the shifting planes silk and metal. A change in vantage point or ambient light affects the interplay of color resulting in a seemingly limitless range of hue, always newly fascinating.

Carr at microscope examining MMA 29.23.25. Image by Tricia Wilson Ngyuen.

Why do you think that digital microscopy is such a powerful research tool?

Textiles viewed through a microscope can be breathtaking, even simple weaves come alive when you see the complexity of interaction of the elements. Examination close-in can clarify a logical sequence of events in building a structure but it also allows a bit of freedom for more “oblique” thinking. Each element can be distinguished from the composition and in its abstracted form deliver a profound impression. Experiencing light and color under magnification can fill the “mind’s” eye with information that alters perception of the object as a whole. Objects are created at point in time of a particular culture but they tend to outlive their “initial public offering” and can accrue significance as they slip, or because they slip, from the commonality of a material culture.

Digital technology allows the capture and sharing of that experience.

Images on a monitor, either live or recorded, can make external what is an internal, non-verbal response to a physical object. Objects convey information and might be created expressly to convey information relevant to a specific culture. Written accounts regarding material culture, when removed from the researcher’s own experience can place an object in historical context but the object itself is no longer the primary focus. High caliber images can provoke an intimate, non-verbal, experience of a physical object. Text and image combined can deliver both the intellectual order and physical experience that together form material culture. Textiles work hard for a shape-shifting living, magnification can allow you to begin the story at the beginning. Adding readily open access to the mix allows for the lively interaction that can lend credibility and guidance to both story and storyteller.

Carr at microscope examining MMA 29.23.25. Image by Tricia Wilson Ngyuen.

What do these objects tell us about the way in which the uses of particular colours or other materials interlinked with identities, values and emotions?

My first thought when looking at the more “showy” embroideries was that some of the work was done because the maker could, perhaps a universal agent in creative processes.

The metal threads in the sweet bag (MMA 29.23.15) include multiple colors of silk and the iridescence of the feathers in the insect motifs created complex and shimmering effects that are visible at close range but would have been most visible to the maker.

The enabling factors in the evolution of material culture, especially with respect to textiles, can become obscured or misinterpreted with the passing of time. Practical accounts of production strategies and marketplace realities, contemporary to the time and place of manufacture, can help interlink identities, values and emotions by clarifying conditions and opportunities at a particular point in history. However, the object itself carries unique physical information evoking a non-verbal response, core information independent of historical interpretation.

Which embroidery has fascinated you most during the past years?

The gloves with gauntlets embroidered with parrot and weeping eye motifs.

The embroidery on the gauntlets is degraded and although much remains, at first look what registered were the losses. I am accustomed to close examination and the power of clear macro-images but in this case the microscope altered my initial response to the embroidery. The moment I put these under the microscope what I saw was not what was missing of the embroidery but what remained. Given the overall losses in the embroidery, the remaining silver and gold elements are in excellent condition and firmly in place. Many variations were possible because of the maker’s very skillful handling of very pure silver. Multiple reflective planes result in complex interactions in the already complex buildup of color in the layered silk and metal threads.

The iridescent pearls add even more depth to the overall composition.

The degradation in these gloves also reveals much of the underlying support for the embroidery. Scraps of paper from receipts, pattern books etc. were layered and formed into board by wetting and drying under pressure. The tabs cut from the board both supported the weight of the embroidery and kept it perfectly extended. The now separating layers literally de-construct the finished board, reverted into assorted documents, albeit in scraps, that were very much a part of the maker’s world and provide a prosaic support for lavish work.

Luxurious elements were used with fluidity and the extent of the variation indicates the abundance of skill of the maker as well as the abundance of means required for such a commission. Luxury all around and experienced only at very close range.

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