The bonnets are ancient accordions in dark silk, and the calot is a waterfall of lavender. The Mongolian hat is a golden peak rising from a ruff of fur, and comes with a little set of earmuffs to match. The Textile Lab at the de Young stores and maintains these hats and nearly 500 more, all part of the Museums’ huge textile collection.
For decades the hats had occupied wooden shelves filled with striped hatboxes donated by I. Magnin, once San Francisco’s premier luxury department store. As plans were made for a new de Young building, a survey revealed that mounting and storing these hats in the new space would be a significant undertaking.
The project is still ongoing, and much of the work is done by volunteers, many of whom have worked at the Museum for decades. These include including Barbara Nitzberg and Barbara Authur—affectionately referred to as “the Barbaras”—who have over 54 years of combined volunteer experience. The Barbaras have had a long interest in weaving, sewing, dying and other textile arts, and they’ve worked on all kinds of projects over the years, from tapestry conservation to weave analysis. But they love this collection of hats—their “old friends” as they sweetly refer to them—and so we asked them to show us a few particular examples of their work.
This bonnet, also known as a calash, was acquired by the museum in 1901. When the volunteers assessed the hat, they realized that the accordion shape could collapse on itself, stressing the fabric and delicate ribs. To maintain the right shape, they carved a lozenge-shaped form from Ethafoam, a stable material used in conservation.