Abridged version

Our professional expertise is based on a groundwork of more than 150 years of experience. The walls of our workshop rooms within St. Marienberg convent are as strong as the equipment is modern and the professional expertise of our staff is acknowledged by experts of the field. Large washing and low pressure tables, efficient suction facilities, LED lightning, magnifier lamps and, of course, the responding safety equipment – this infrastructure also enables us to take on large-scale projects.

Long version

High above the roofs of the Lower Saxon district town of Helmstedt lies St. Marienberg convent. It has housed the parament workshop Helmstedt for more than 150 years. This makes it one of the few still remaining textile centres of competence in Germany. Among insiders, the workshop enjoys an excellent reputation. This is also a success for textile designer Ute Sauerbrey and certified conservator Sabine Kißler. And, of course, their co-workers! “In one way or another, we are all crazy about fabrics, threads, forms and colours”, is the way both women describe themselves and what it is they do. Behind strong convent walls, tradition and competence merge with modernity and commitment.

The expertise of the Helmstedt parament workshop is twofold. On the one hand, decorative textiles for mostly ecclesiastical spaces are being manufactured – following their own or the design of renowned artists – within both large and technically sophisticated equipped workshops. The latest being altar hangings, designed by glass manufacturer Günter Grohs, Wernigerode, for the re-erected Paulinerkirche in Leipzig. Aside from this and because of the conservation of the great palatial tent of the Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin (lasting more than six years), the parament workshop has made a name for itself in connection with the preservation of textile cultural goods which reaches far beyond Northern Germany.

Besides the professional know-how and the relevant experience, the textile specialists are also the only ones who have the necessary spatial infrastructure as well as the technical equipment for large-scale projects at their disposal, up on the Helmstedt Marienberg. This can be said for both new manufacture and conservation, it starts with large washing tables, includes low pressure tables as well as large suction facilities and does not end with the safety measures. If necessary, Sabine Kißler and Ute Sauerbrey can rely on a number of experienced external textile professionals when it comes to very rare work. And in order to buy fabrics, it is not unlikely that they drive all the way to Paris.

Centre of excellence for textile treasures

Even though it may not be obvious right away, the district town of Helmstedt is full of tradition. Founded in 1576, the Academia Julia was the first Protestant-orientated university in Northern Germany and remained so for more than 250 years, one of the most famous professors was Giordano Bruno who was later burnt as a heretic in Rome. Helmstedt has not been a university city for a long time and since the reunification the city has lost even the last remnants of its former national political importance. During the German separation, with the A2 and the railroad line Hannover-Braunschweig-Magdeburg-Berlin, at least the lifeline for the provision of Berlin went straight through the city. With checkpoint Alpha, the US Army had an important base here. The German unity has surmounted the one and made the other superfluous. Only the parament workshop (founded in 1862) as a centre of excellence for modern paramentics and textile conservation has stood the test of time.

When church congregations want a new altar or pulpit hanging manufactured, pastors need a new robe, parents are looking for a special christening gown, then connoisseurs focus preferably on Helmstedt. Because for all of the above, the parament workshop which is located at St. Marienberg convent is one of the very first addresses, professionally speaking. As well, artistically high-quality tapestries for public spaces and textile gift articles are manufactured here. However, the Helmstedt specialists regularly enter into the glaring light of the public with their spectacular conservation projects. They especially made the headlines with the large Ottoman tent of the Saxon king Augustus II the Strong, which is now on exhibition in the “Turkish Chamber” at the castle of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, the precious tapestries at Jever castle as well as the elaborate conservation of the interior of the golden carriage of the Schlossmuseum Sondershausen.

Great public recognition

“Our staff were occupied with the Ottoman tent for more than six years”, describes the abbess, also the principal of St. Marienberg convent, Mechtild von Veltheim the scale of such a contract. At times, up to thirty embroiderers, tailors and seamstresses worked next to the restorers on the Ottoman palatial tent which is twenty metres long, eight metres wide and six metres high. The fabric was tattered and nobody really knew what to do with it. Besides, the former GDR suffered because of a chronic lack of money anyway. Perhaps it was only chance which saved the tent from following the way of everything perishable, the last stations of which, most commonly for textiles, are called doormat and floorcloth. However, after the reunification the important object was taken out of storage. The Helmstedt experts who were asked for a first evaluation, together with the conservators from Dresden, opted for the conservation of this unique treasure.

The resonance was, unexpectedly, quite grand. It fell on sympathetic ears in the Saxon state capital. That is something which Mechtild von Veltheim and textile conservator Sabine Kißler, trained at the respective college in Cologne, do not really experience in this way anymore. It becomes more and more difficult for the professionals of textile cultural goods to make themselves heard. Because, in the hierarchy of works of art which are worthy to be preserved, textiles more often than not end up on the lower ranks. For the people of modernity, they have mutated into disposable products, if not that than at least into goods with a very short half-value time. In former centuries, this was very different. Textiles consisted of a generally recognised, high social value. “When kings wanted to express a special appreciation for their peers”, says Sabine Kißler, “they gave highly valuable silk to them”. Since that time, a recollection has taken place and it does happen sometimes that textile show-pieces upstage the treasures made of silver, glass or ceramics.

Know-how even for large-scale contracts

However, the bread and butter business of the Helmstedt artisans are new manufactures. Just like with the current order for the re-erected Paulinerkirche in Leipzig, they even work with the designs of renowned artists. In most cases, however, the design of a specific piece is created by textile designer Ute Sauerbrey. Whichever might be the case, the result is always a unique item which is delivered by the Helmstedt workers– hand-made, of course. And always executed with the highest quality. Just like with the current order from the Saxon fair city, it is sometimes the case that the needlework is dominant and sometimes the embroidery, and every so often a client may prefer weaving. The Helmstedt workshop offers everything. The competence of its staff reaches across the entire spectrum of textile manufacturing techniques. This does set them apart from other suppliers.

Besides the professional know-how and the relevant experience, the team up on the Marienberg is also the only one that has the necessary spatial infrastructure as well as the technical equipment for large-scale projects at its disposal. This can be said for both new manufacture and conservation, it starts with large washing and low pressure tables as well as suction facilities and does not end with the safety measures. If necessary, Sabine Kißler and Ute Sauerbrey can rely on a number of experienced external textile professionals when it comes to very rare work. Fabrics, threads and the relevant diverse accessories are a highly complex, and even more than that, an extremely sensitive entity. Lighting, humidity, warmth, oxygen, dust, environmental pollutants and mechanical demands will afflict it. Colours made from plants will interact with the supporting material, but not always as expected. And fabrics are expensive. Today, the running metre of Lyon silk can cost up to 1.000 euros.

Working with an all-round perspective

Already just buying the fabric is tough. The number of wholesale dealers, which are traditionally called publisher within the industry, and which have the desired quality and the sought-after colours in stock becomes smaller every year. Until a short time ago, the regular supplier of the parament workshop in Helmstedt was a publishing house in Bremen. But it closed its gates. Since then, it has become necessary for Mechtild von Veltheim und Ute Sauerbrey to actually drive all the way to Paris to buy the fabrics for some orders. By the by, colours and thus the art of dying play an important role when manufacturing paraments. The experience of the dyer cannot be replaced by anything else. “The different materials”, explains Ute Sauerbrey, “absorb the colours in very different ways, which is way the results can differ quite a bit.” Because colours made out of plants are a natural product. In most cases, chemical dyes are in use today, with conservation preferring very lightfast reactive dyes. No matter how sophisticated, no software would be able to guarantee the same kind of dying when concerning different batches. That is why everything depends on the hands and the eyes of the dyer.

When designing an altar hanging, Ute Sauerbrey has to consider many aspects, the liturgical occasions, the changing lighting conditions, the materials, forms and colours already present within the nave, the piety and the wishes of the respective congregation. “In the end, the supporting material, the appliqués, the sewing thread, the possible embroideries”, says the textile designer, “have to create a unity.” And a distinct and non-interchangeable one at that. Because paraments are always an element of visual proclamation as well, a proclamation though, which does not appeal to the mind, but to the emotions, as Sauerbrey points out. Her work requires both a wide range of cultural and theological understanding and a comprehensive professional knowledge about the impact of material, colours, forms and symbols. This also holds true for the manufacturing of robes and stoles.

Art expert, craftsman, scientist

The consultation of clients also plays an important role for Sabine Kißler. That is why she needs, just like Ute Sauerbrey, a large amount of empathy, admittedly not for creating a particular design, but for the artisanal rescue of textile treasure, which suffers because of the ravages of time. And while the products of Ute Sauerbrey may actually bear her hallmarks, Sabine Kißler must always step back behind the intentions of the original masters, even though she has made them her own. But that is not all. Just like a detective, the Helmstedt conservator has to procure clarity about the textile structures, the dye mixture and the manufacturing techniques. Which thread was used? Which mixture of dye was employed? Which glue was used? That is why conservators like Sabine Kißler are not just art experts and craftsmen, but also, to a high degree, scientists.

In most cases, no, in all cases, this starts with the very first step, the cleaning of an objects. It is not a rare occurrence that textiles are only held together by the dirt of the centuries. If at all possible, dry cleaning or at least cleaning with steam is preferred today. Wet scrubbing reaches quite deeply into the fabric structures. Not every object would be able to survive this. With some objects, even the gentlest treatment would lead to their final destruction. “If that’s the case, only the manufacture of a replica will do”, Sabine Kißler points to the final way out. This, by the way, is also used, when textile gems are meant to fulfil a function and this would be harmful to the original. 

Highly physical demands

“Sometimes, especially when it comes to tapestries”, Mechtild von Veltheim intervenes, “the only thing that’s left are some images of an object and a tapestry nail with a few cloth fibres still accidentally clinging to it.” This has to be enough for Sabine Kißler and her co-workers. And it is. Even though her and Ute Sauerbrey’s departments are strictly separated, the co-workers –tailors, seamstresses, embroiderers, conservators and weavers – work in both areas of new manufacturing and conservation. What is needed for such an occupation? “In one way or another we are all crazy about textiles”, is the answer I receive. Patience is a second very important quality. In the case of a dress of the Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden, about 70.000 (!) original palettes had to be sown on. Both entity and detail have to be kept in view. “The workers have to be able to work as a team”, adds Ute Sauerbrey. Ultimately, more and more workers have to work on larger projects simultaneously. Despite this, it is the overall goal to achieve an optical unity.

In most cases, the job demands a certain capacity for suffering of those who carry it out. Back and neck musculature, eyes, hands and fingers are drawn upon above-average. Even though all rooms are equipped with the latest in LED lighting and all workers have magnifier lamps, the exertion is still quite high. A limited visual faculty for colours would actually lead to an inability to work. Nobody counts how often a seamstress pierces, lets loose and loops up again the fabric with a needle. But the calluses on the fingers are statement enough. Concentration must never dwindle. The last stitch after months of hard work must be placed just as precisely as the first, no matter if it is pulled-thread, couching, cloister stitch, appliquè technique, goldwork or any other embroidery, Satin or overlock stitch. All have to comply with the requirement to work goal-oriented.

No anxiety about the future

For Ute Sauerbrey and Sabine Kißler, there are two more tasks. This is on the one hand the disdainful economic calculation and, on the other hand, the exact documentation of everything they and their co-workers have done. “It is our aim that our work can be traceable by a third party at every point in time”, Kißler describes the demands of the conservation. “In the case of paraments this has to do with possible future mending”, is how Ute Sauerbrey puts it. Mechtild von Veltheim is aware of the challenges which lie before her and her co-workers. Congregations moan about decreasing revenues. Attempts to establish the workshop in the fashion industry turned out to be quite difficult because of better wage cost conditions in emerging nations. In addition, a realignment of the professions within the textile craft makes the training of professionals harder still. Despite this, the people up on the Marienberg in Helmstedt are optimistic. Quite soon there is going to be a hiring interview with a textile conservator from Spain. That is how far the expertise of the parament workshop at the Helmstedt Marienberg has become known.

Hans-Martin Barthold
11th August, 2015