An Aria in Hats, Lace and Silk

Through hundreds of hours of hands-on volunteering, Sue Engstrom is giving the public, scholars and students something she never really had in her own days as an undergraduate at UW-Madison: Access to one of the most diverse and valuable textile collections in the country.


Sue Engstrom working on a mount
Sue Engstrom in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection building a mount

Sue Engstrom isn’t a lacemaker, yet today she can tell you plenty about tatting and cutwork and mezzo punto. She’s never been one for hats, but she’s now seen more styles than many milliners. And though not a Verdi fangirl, her talent with needle and thread – what artisans call “hand skills” – recently helped preserve one of the most remarkable homages to opera in the Western world.

No, Engstrom isn’t a textiles scholar (at least not formally). And despite years learning to sew as a child (ten years in 4-H will do that) and, later, years making her daughter’s clothes (plus a smidge of quilting on the side, mostly fascinated by the history and patterns), she doesn’t think of herself a seamstress. What she is, is a problem solver. A team player. A natural historian and lifelong learner. And all these qualities have made her an MVP of HLATC – the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection at the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology.

Connecting with the Collection

Engstrom’s life did not, at first, lead her deep into the world of collectible and historically important textiles. She followed her older sister’s footsteps graduating from the School of Human Ecology (SoHE). She worked for years in retail (framing and interior design), then as a bookkeeper (a small clothing retailer). It wasn’t until much later in life that a mutual friend connected her with Bobette Heller, then SoHE’s director of development.

Bobette Heller seated and smiling

“By virtue of her extraordinary commitment, as both a behind-the scenes volunteer and member of the HLATC Development Committee, Sue has gained invaluable insights and knowledge of the Collection, and as a result has become one of its most passionate and generous advocates.”
 – Bobette Heller, Special Assistant to the Dean, School of Human Ecology

By that time, Engstrom had become a financial supporter of SoHE and the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Heller invited her to join the development committee for the Collection, what was then in the early days of a renaissance. When Engstrom had been a SoHE student herself, Professor Allen had just retired, and nearly all of the textiles she’d personally amassed for decades and then gifted to the school were nestled in storage. There simply was no way to make them accessible while also preserving them for future generations.

That began to change when the collection got a permanent home in SoHE’s newly constructed Nancy Nicholas Hall. Thousands upon thousands of textiles needed to be unboxed, re-documented and moved into their new climate-controlled, UV-shielded storage facilities with the care and finesse due a collection to rival that of any museum. Engstrom went all in.

Installation view of textile objects
Installation view of “Appliqué to Zardozi: A Celebration Sampler” in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery in Madison, WI, 2019 (Photo © Andy Manis)

Hats, Lace and Bedspreads, Oh My!

There were the hats – more than 500 of them, from kippahs to bonnets to elaborately stoned ceremonial headdresses that weigh more than most babies.

The hats project alone took the better part of a year. Each piece had been tucked away in tissue, but Engstrom worked with the staff, to create interior support structures for each, every one of them custom.

Engstrom would hand-cut and build the shape from archival foam, then finish it with hand-stitched batting and muslin, to ingeniously perch on a paperboard tube that easily slips on and off a pegged base. Along the way, Engstrom also photographed interior labels to go with images of the hats’ exteriors, adding vital new records to the Collection’s database and expanding an important resource for researchers.

Lace bonnet with floral detail
cap. France, 1855-1965. Metallic thread, silk, 16 x 26 in. Gift of Evelyn Dolven. 1989.06.008.

There’s the handmade lace. So. Much. Lace. Two stacks of boxes two feet square and six feet high. Engstrom was fascinated, and – for no reason other than the drive of an energetic, curious mind – dove deep into the history of lacemaking and lace forms, creating her own notebooks on the subject as she went about unboxing them and methodically photographing each piece in high-zoom detail, again creating visual records that had, until now, been absent from the Collection’s considerable database.

Textile with embroidered scenes from operas
bed cover (“opera quilt”). France, 1901-1909. Linen, metallic thread, silk on silk, 122 x 104 in. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Oliver E. Kuechle. E.A.E.1242a

And then there was the Opera Textile – “Opera Quilt” among friends – as mysterious as it is stunning. It depicts scores of scenes from six famous touring operas, and at nearly ninety square feet, this “bedspread” is larger than the minimum legal size of a bedroom in Manhattan. Once thought to be the work of a small covey of French nuns (and a first-prize winner at the 1900 World’s Fair!), scholars now believe it was more likely made in the Great Lakes region, possibly around 1910. Though its provenance is unconfirmed, it remains an extraordinary example of handmade lace and hand embroidery from the early 20th century.

The embroidery was done on silk panels that now suffer from a condition known as “shattered silk,” so named because the metallic salts once used in dyes to give the fabric weight and drape slowly break down the fibers over time, making them prone to disintegrate into powder with handling. Engstrom and another volunteer, Betsy Tuttle, spent more than a hundred hours stabilizing this unique work of art. By meticulously hand-stitching a sheer archival nylon atop the delicate silk, they enabled the piece to be exhibited and gave it new life for scholarship and education.

Embroidery of a male and female figure
DETAIL bed cover (“opera quilt”). France, 1901-1909. Linen, metallic thread, silk on silk. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Oliver E. Kuechle. E.A.E.1242a

Extraordinary Gifts

As remarkable as her work with hats and lace and the Opera Textile have been, they’re still not the whole story. Engstrom has helped with exhibition mountings, safely affixing rare pieces to specialized mounts. Has applied her tiny, uniform, precisely- tensioned stitches to stabilizing delicate pieces for generations to come of scholars, students and admiring gallery visitors.

She is disarmingly modest about these contributions. She says she’s always believed in the mission of SoHE, which she simply describes as “to apply learning to living” to improve people’s lives. She has always loved textiles and the way they embody our stories and relationships, from the wedding dress she made for herself to the quilts she inherited from her grandmother. She describes the work she does with the HLATC as “relaxing.” It may well be, but for SoHE and the world, it is so much more.

“She throws herself into everything she does with just an extraordinary amount of dedication and vigor,” says Carolyn Jenkinson. “She checks out books and does her own research, she trains herself on different techniques – always above and beyond what’s required for the project.”

Carolyn Jenkinson in a white shirt and smiling

“For some of these projects – the hat mounts, the Opera Textile and some of the mounting projects for exhibitions – we literally would not have been able to do them if Sue hadn’t stepped in to share her time and her skills.”
–        Carolyn Jenkinson, Collections Manager, Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection

It’s a level of interest that Jenkinson admits is a gift to her at a personal level – a kindred spirit she can, in her words, “nerd out with” – but the ultimate winner is the Collection and SoHE itself. “When Sue does something, she does it 110 percent,” Jenkinson says. “It’s a character quality that I so much appreciate in her, and it makes her contributions that much more meaningful and valuable.”


Sue Engstrom and all of us at SoHE and the Center want to also acknowledge the friendship and support of Katie Sweeney, now deceased, who donated her Irish lace collection and inspired Sue’s interest in unpacking and archiving that imposing tower of history told in lace.