A stitch in time saves history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 January, 1993, 12:00am

DIANA Collins literally pieces together swatches of history for a living.

Clients pay gladly for the promises she doesn't make. Her success rate, however, gives those who wish to repair the past or conserve the present, hope.

''I work at a snail's pace,'' explains Collins, one of a handful of textile conservators in Hongkong. That she is primarily self-taught makes her unusual.

''When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them, they usually don't know what to say next. One man at a party asked me if that meant I mended trousers.'' Well, sort of. But most of the robes and accessories with linings, threads or seams in need of attention have a pedigree. Spending months to repair loose threads on a 300-year-old silk robe is not uncommon.

Nor is taking days to replace the lining of a Chinese costume from Liberty's of London. On her work-table currently is a jacket with scarf. Her client from Kyoto, Japan estimates it is over 1,000 years old.

Age or value has nothing to do with the level of attention she gives. ''People save or collect for many reasons. A 15-foot heirloom Chinese embroidery may be worthless in terms of market value. But it represents three generations to one family,'' explains the Australian.

The textiles wrapped in tissue or lying in repose in the built-in drawers of her airy, sun-strewn studio arrive without a deadline.

''Estimating when it will be ready or the cost is harder than doing a colour-fast test. Individuals are more patient than galleries.'' Clients include local art dealers and curators. One private collector from the United States brought her a Ching dynasty robe.

The threads needed to be stitched down, or patched. What looked like tattered, tobacco-coloured pieces of rag were textiles she washed for a dealer in Tokyo.

''They came from an excavation. We're trying to find out how old they are,'' she adds, her fingernail delicately touching a jagged edge. ''Probably 15th or 16th century.'' Her tools are surprisingly less sophisticated than the work - curved dental needles from a surgical supply store in Ohio, sewing needles so fragile your eyes hurt just looking at them, a rice polisher for surface cleaning.

She owns four different types of mini-vacuums but the black plastic brush cleaner for records she treats with extra care. ''They don't make these anymore.'' A favourite gift to colleagues are electricians' forceps.

Doing a colour-fast test is as nerve-racking as splitting the imported two-ply thread used for repairs.

''It's like planning a ballet. Every step is thought-out before you do them. Most methods are reversible. Washing is not.'' The former science major from Sydney traded physiology books for textiles when she took a course in quilting just for fun. When the teacher referred to Amish quilts as rubbish, Collins decided to become her own teacher.

When a girlfriend repairing some Ching costumes invited her to assist, she became hooked. That was seven years ago. Learning comes from dogged research and net-working with professionals and institutions.

Collins, her husband and two sons have lived in Hongkong for 13 years. The six kimonos she rotates on a wooden stand in her living room (''three good ones, three not so nice ones'') she considers as her revolving art collection.

Japanese textiles are collectables, ''something different from the Chinese things I work on.

''Old textiles cannot be handled like a bed-sheet. You can't bunch them up. You can't even rest an elbow on most of them. They're too fragile for the pressure.'' Teaching clients how to care for collectables goes with the work.

One client who spent thousands of dollars for a silk embroidered rank badge, hoped to save money by having a picture framer mat and frame it.

''He glued it to a wooden board. Three weeks later, she discovered the piece had grown mold and started to dissolve. The reason why, I discovered later, was grease. His hands were dirty.''