With Cunning Needle: Putting It All Together

Linda Eaton is Winterthur’s director of collections and senior textiles curator. With Cunning Needle is the fourth exhibition she has curated from Winterthur’s rich collection, and she has enjoyed every minute of it.

Views of the exhibition

Unlike Athena, exhibitions do not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus; there is a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. As we head into the second month of With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery, I thought it might be interesting to describe just some of the behind-the-scenes activity that goes into making an idea into a reality.

Nat Caccamo and Doug MacDonald install cases in the exhibition

After the concept for an exhibition has been determined and the objects have been selected, every single one of them has to be carefully measured before the exhibition design can begin. This allows us to determine whether all the objects will actually fit in the gallery, what walls and cases need to be specially built, and which existing cases will work with each object. The designer for this exhibition was Doug MacDonald, who used to be on the staff at Winterthur, but now works freelance from his home in California. Exhibition staff members Amy Marks Delaney and Nat Caccamo chose the colors (which are drop-dead gorgeous), and Amy designed and produced all the graphics (labels, title treatment, etc). Doug, Amy, and Nat are all artists in their own right, and it certainly shows with each exhibition they produce. Nat is the person who turns the design into a reality, and we were lucky to have Kristin Willet and Heather Hansen also helping with this installation.

Staff members install the exhibition

Textiles are a bit more difficult to display than things like paintings—in addition to any conservation treatment that may be required, they need to be pinned or stitched to a backboard, or a mount has to be created especially for that object. This is the role of our friends and colleagues in the textile conservation laboratory: Joy Gardiner, Joelle Wickens, and William Donnelly. They cleaned and conserved the needlework in the show for months as well as made special mounts and stitched or pinned the pieces in place. The ultimate irony is the fact that little of their work ever shows.

Textiles Conservator Joy Gardiner (middle)

Another piece of the exhibition puzzle that’s often not recognized is the importance of good lighting. Because textiles can be damaged by light exposure, the exhibition needs to look good with low light levels. Mack Truax is a magician in this regard, assisted by Vicki Wasserman and Philip Scarpone. The installation was a little behind schedule due to Hurricane Irene, so our lighting specialists had to work their magic in less time than usual.

With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery focuses on the Plimoth Jacket—a remarkable 17th-century-style embroidered jacket made with accurate materials and techniques by an enormous team of talented and skillful people. The exhibition considers four aspects of historic needlework in relation to the Plimoth Jacket: design, materials, techniques, and makers. Don’t miss the amazing video about embroidery and lace-making techniques created by Tricia Wilson-Nguyen, one of the leaders of the Plimoth Jacket project, and her brother Chuck Wilson of Smudge Animation.

The Plimoth Jacket, photo by Ed Nute, courtesy of Plimoth Plantation

This is the first of several posts about the With Cunning Needle exhibition. Stay tuned for more—writing exhibition labels are like writing haiku; there is so much that I couldn’t fit in!

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