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Culture

Restorers race against time to preserve Germany's cultural treasures

Time ravages precious tapestries, textiles and other cultural assets. Experts have to learn the antiquated techniques to preserve and replicate them for future generations. In Germany, there's plenty of work to be done.

A woman works at a loom

Delicate tapestries can take up to a year to restore

Seven hundred hours of stitching require a lot of patience. Christine Bargenda has been working on one old tapestry for about half a year now. The huge tapestry in the State-Owned Textile and Tapestry Manufacturer in Halle is covered by a blanket, and the seamstress is hesitant to talk about the piece's origin for fear of attracting thieves.

The list of references reveals that the small manufacturer has restored a number of valuable tapestries over the years, the oldest dating back to the 14th century. Sometimes, several of the 12 employees work on one piece together in order to finish it as quickly as possible.

A hole has a story to tell

"We don't darn pieces as it was done in earlier times. Today everything is secured very carefully," said Bargenda, the oldest employee in the manufacture, which was founded in 1946 in what was then East Germany.

Dye works at the State-Owned Textile and Tapestry Manufacture in Halle

The Halle factory dyes its own yarn

The historical value of each piece takes precedence over functionality: Since a hole can be evidence of a historical event, it isn't necessarily covered up or repaired, explained conservator Andrea Knüpfer.

"A man's waistcoat, worn by an officer during a parade in the 18th century for instance tells a story if a ricocheted bullet hit the officer by accident. Of course you won't treat this one like a moth hole," said Knüpfer. "You might also leave the blood stain in the fabric, since it's more exciting to exhibition visitors."

But historical accuracy can sometimes result in conflict with the customer. In addition to museums, foundations and churches, private clients who own historic textiles are among the customers, and they are more interested in using the piece, said CEO Dirk Willmann: "And they want the gap to be filled."

Pleasing the customer is important to Willmann, who took over in 2009 and has pushed the manufacturer to develop a more profit-oriented mindset; in the past, it had deficits of hundreds of thousand euros every year and relied on state subsidies.

Replicas have their place

Sometimes the factory is called on by museums and private clients to replicate historic textiles and tapestries, rather than restore originals. As many weaving techniques have been lost over the centuries, creating replicas can be quite a challenge.

One customer from Hamburg owned a Bauhaus style tapestry and planned to donate it to a museum. But since the piece had been with the family for 80 years, he didn't want to part with it completely and decided to keep a replica. For one square meter of tapestry, work can take up to 1,300 hours, depending on the kind of fabric, said Willmann.

Dirk Willmann

Willmann wants to hire more employees to work with fabrics

Conserving originals comes first

Replicas will always be considered a substitute as they can never compare to the original work, said Beate Kneppel, who works at the conservation department of the Bavarian Administration of State-owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes. "That's why conserving historic originals comes first."

In the southern German state of Bavaria alone, there are 45 palaces, castles and residences with rich cultural assets. "A lot has been destroyed over the centuries and the last World War. In some of our palaces almost everything was lost, so naturally they were replaced by replicas," Kneppel said. But whenever possible, originals are put on display.

Kneppel explained the Bavarian Administration is trying to convince the general public to appreciate original pieces, even when they're faded. "If a textile is some 200 years old, there are definitely signs of wear and tear, but it just tells us so much more," she added.

Preserving cultural assets at their original locations is a particular challenge that Kneppel's organization has to deal with. When centuries-old curtains hang in front of a castle window instead of in a temperature-controlled museum case, they wear more quickly.

Neuschwanstein

Neuschwanstein is one of Bavaria's historic castles

"We constantly have to fight with non-museum conditions such as light, dust and visitors touching the textiles," Kneppel said.

Skilled restoraters, like Kneppel's team and the Halle tapestry manufacturer, are still in high demand. Halle says it has so many projects at the moment that it won't be able to take on any larger commissions until spring 2012.

Author: Sarah Steffen

Editor: Kate Bowen

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