Constant Sewing—Conserving Artifacts for the new k.d. lang Exhibition at Studio Bell

September 18, 2017

On July 11, 2017 the National Music Centre (NMC) launched a special exhibition dedicated to Canadian singer-songwriter k.d. lang. Big, Big Love: k.d. lang on Stage, looks back on lang’s life as a performance artist, tracing her evolution from cow-punk country singer to contemporary crooner.

As an artist known for her unique taste in clothing, it was an exciting exhibition to put together. Lucky for us, NMC had access to almost all of lang’s wardrobe throughout her career—from thrift-store finds and kitschy custom-made outfits, to unique designer pieces from her live shows and music videos.

A look at Big, Big Love: k.d. lang on Stage. Photo credit: Jamila Kanji.

To get this collection ready for exhibition, we began by thoroughly cleaning the outfits to get rid of any mould that had accumulated after years in storage. Claire Neily, a trained artifacts conservator and NMC’s Manager of Collections, removed all traces of mould by delicately vacuuming the textiles—brushing the dust and spores into the vacuum with a small paintbrush, after fitting the nozzle with a screen in case any beads or threads came loose.

Claire suits up, ghostbuster style, to safely clean mould from the textile artifacts. Photo credit: Hayley Robb.

Next, Claire got to work stabilizing the materials in the selected outfits for display.  The aim here was not to make the object look like new, but rather to slow down the rate of deterioration and prevent further damage. We never want to hide the fact that an object has been used and handled throughout its life.

Claire used a number of techniques to conserve the textiles for display, including surface cleaning, bleaching out stains, humidifying and flattening creases, filling gaps in the material, mending tears, and even replicating missing buttons.

This green scarf was tested first to make sure the dye wouldn’t run, then washed and flattened with an iron to remove the creases. Photo credit: Hayley Robb.

Loose threads on lang’s Olympics outfit were stabilized with couching stitches to hold them in place (left). Holes in a red velvet suit were mended using extra fabric, custom-dyed to match the suit’s color (right). Photo credit: Hayley Robb.

One of these things is not like the other! The fourth button from the very top is actually a replica, which Claire hand-painted to colour match the top three buttons. Photo credit: Hayley Robb.

Claire repaired a large hole in the shoulder of this quirky farm animal shirt by dying and distressing a piece of felt to match the original fabric, and lightly stitching it in place. Can you spot the repair? Photo credit: Hayley Robb (left) and Jamila Kanji (right).

After conservation treatment, the next step was to mount the textile artifacts on mannequins for display. Though this may seem like an easy step, a lot of work went into making the figures look as realistic as possible. Hand-made fabric arms and legs were constructed to fill out shoulders and pant legs, and foam skirts were sewn onto mannequins so that skirts would fan out properly and not fall flat. Even magnets were placed in the linings of jackets and sewn onto mannequin torsos so that the outfits would close properly. All of this is done to best represent the clothing as k.d. lang would have worn it herself.

Archivist Meghan MacKrous and Collections Intern Cassandra Curtis mount mannequin figures on their stands for dressing (left). Meghan sews buttons onto each mannequin to attach the fabric arm puffs (right). Photo credit: Hayley Robb.

Claire, Meghan, and Cassandra attach stiff foam skirts to mannequin forms. Photo credit: John Leimseider.

Claire steams the wrinkles out of k.d. lang’s “Angel With a Lariat” dress before it goes on display (left). Claire and Cassandra mount the “Miss Chatelaine” dress onto its mannequin (right). Photo credit: Hayley Robb and Meghan MacKrous.

Though this was a textile-heavy exhibition, not all the artifacts shown were clothing. Also on display was the original 3D diorama used to create the album artwork for the 1987 album, Angel with a Lariat. When we first received the diorama, it was missing a little statuette that sat in between the plinth and the toy cow. Collections Intern Cassandra Curtis was able to create a replica for display, using a clay modeling material.

Cassandra constructs a replica statuette for exhibition using the album cover for reference. Photo credit: Meghan MacKrous.

The ‘Angel with a Lariat’ diorama before treatment (left). Close up of Cassandra’s replica model (centre). The finished diorama on display with the replica model (right). Photo credit: Hayley Robb (left) and Meghan MacKrous (centre and right).

Come see our handiwork, and k.d. lang’s spectacular collection of stage outfits, now at Studio Bell!

Big, Big Love: k.d. lang on Stage is on display in the National Bank Private Banking 1859 Special Exhibitions Gallery on Level 5 of Studio Bell and is running now until June 1, 2018.


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About the Author

Hayley Robb

Hayley is an objects conservator, specializing in the care and treatment of decorative art and historical objects. At NMC, she is responsible for the recovery and reorganization of the electronic parts collection damaged in the flood. Born and raised in Calgary, she is happy to be back in her hometown after 6 years in Ontario.

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