Thursday, August 19, 2021

In Memoriam - Linda Eaton

It is with an extremely heavy heart that I let the needlework community know that our friend and great champion of textiles, Linda Eaton, passed away last night.  She was private about her battle with cancer but for the limited number who knew, she was as witty and hilarious as she always was - irreverent until the end in a way that had always endeared herself to others.  Linda was a consummate professional and intellectual but she never let that get in the way of her humanity and wickedly funny sense of humor.   

Linda was a mentor of mine and friend and I will miss conversations and debates with her immensely.  My last zoom call with her had us laughing from the gut about the need to jail break her out of the rehabilitation home she was at after a fall so we could go off and look at needlework together.   She was keenly interested in everything and helped me frame experiments to the end, firing off challenging questions to thoughts on historical needlework in between our laughter about her jokes regarding life's misfortune. 

She was a rare individual who made the transition from textile conservator to curator, one reason why we bonded over our love of deep scientific examination of objects.  She was the biggest champion of the need to engage the community of people who practice the craft and business of textiles in the study of historical works.  Not only learning from those who do but supporting many research projects and books on those who lead by teaching or designing.  Business wasn't a dirty word to Linda and I think her work celebrating the contributions of Erica Wilson in her last exhibition and co-authorship speak to this.  She understood that the history of textiles is also a history of female entrepreneurship.

Linda was one of those 'make things happen' people in ways that most embroiderers will never fully understand her impact.  She knew how to work the system and I say that in the most respectful way possible.  If you had a wild idea to bring people together, exhibits to life or research that should be done; the first person you would reach out to was Linda.  She was the best at recognizing the potential of ideas and helping you to get them moving and done.  As I sit here and contemplate the stories that should be told I am awed at the impacts and projects that she made happen and find it hard to choose the stories to tell - from those personally impactful to those that will change the way history is written.  From the establishment of the Sampler Archive project with Lynne Anderson, to the bi-annual symposiums that gave voice to those doing significant research in the field of embroidery, and her gracious acknowledgment of modern embroiderers by exhibiting our works alongside those of historic embroiderers; she has left a legacy that can't be understated.  And that is just in the field of embroidery - yet she is equally known in printed textiles, quilts, costume, flags, and other areas of textiles.

Linda showing a visitor at Hancock Shaker 
Village the motif she just struggled over
This photo of Linda, who traveled to Hancock Shaker Village in MA, to stitch on the Plimoth Jacket is one of my many favorite memories of her.  She was determined not only to aid the project with her labor but to experience the process in a way that would inform her curation.  So it was not a surprise that when the original exhibition the project was intended for was canceled due to financial problems, I knew exactly who to call when the Plimoth Plantation president asked me to see if we could find a way to get it exhibited.  I remember calling Linda and asking where would be the right place - she was so well connected - and she immediately recognized the power of the textile and said "Let me call you back in 30 min!!".  I am not sure whose arm she twisted and tied in knots in those 30 minutes, but she was quick back on the phone and let me know that Winterthur would be honored to exhibit the jacket.  I can't tell you how thrilled we all were with the care and vision she brought to not only the exhibition of the Jacket in the regular galleries but the exhibition and symposium she built around it.  She understood the need to bring some of the artisans to the Museum, such as Bill Barnes, to allow the collection of the knowledge and documentation from people.  

Linda with the Plimoth Jacket - at the handover
she showed up with an unmarked van at the
end of a secret train trip as if it was a big heist.
She always found a way to show humor in
every situation - making life fun
I cherished the phone calls from her to debate and collect ideas for her symposium every other year.  She was the ultimate in a collaborator and was so willing to see outside of the traditional.  I remember the super excited email I received from her after I sent her video of Janet Brandt's casket.  She had been toying with the idea of exhibiting a modern casket from my project, which she had whole heartedly supported with resources such as Xray time in the conservation department.  I sent her a short video and told her - THIS is the one she needed to honor with a place in an exhibition and she immediately understood she had to convince Janet to allow her to borrow it.  How many future embroiderers were inspired by the pieces she decided to exhibit?  

Linda was concerned that her beloved Symposium and Textile Department would be left in good hands and passed the torch to Laura Johnson, who will be an amazing caretaker of the legacy that Linda has entrusted her with.  Those of us who knew that Linda was retiring due to her illness wanted to honor her at the last symposium but understood her desire for privacy.  I wanted so badly to establish a fund at Winterthur in her honor for purchase of an object, but we had to refrain at the time.  I hope now, that those of you who greatly appreciated all that Linda did for needlework, will donate in her memory to Winterthur for the purchase of a textile object.   

I have added the memorial that Winterthur released today so you can read more about her and her amazing background below.  I know I am not the only one who feels deeply that she mentored and enabled my career, you almost can't talk to anyone in the curatorial and conservation community below a certain age and not meet someone who Linda mentored through the Winterthur program or her years working in the UK.  Personally, I have to thank Linda for believing in what I was doing and for not only helping with the projects I had conceived but elevating my profile by asking me to speak so often, bestowing on me credentials in the historical textiles field.  I couldn't thank her enough.  Even the stitching trial I will be starting soon with all my volunteer stitchers - Linda and I talked about this in depth just weeks ago.  Her superior and curious intellect contributing even as her body was letting her down.  

God bless you Linda, thank you from a grateful community who will be touched by all you did for hundreds of years.  

Winterthur Memorium

The Winterthur community mourns the loss of our friend Linda Eaton, the retired John T. and Marjorie McGraw Director of Collections. Linda passed the night of August 18, 2021, after a courageous battle against a long-term illness. Linda’s contributions to Winterthur and the field of textile arts and history were numerous and invaluable. Her impact and influence are immeasurable.  


Linda is recognized around the world for her leadership in the field of interdisciplinary textile scholarship. Over more than 30 years at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, Linda oversaw the acquisition, interpretation, care, and exhibition of the museum’s textile collections, which includes nearly 20,000 furnishings, articles of clothing, rugs, quilts, and needlework. A specialist in textile conservation as well as textile history, she advanced technical and scientific knowledge of textiles broadly.  


“Linda was one of those rare individuals who could speak with authority on detailed and technical matters one moment and in the next could sweep you away with her profound appreciation for the artistry and craft of an item,” said Chris Strand, the interim CEO of Winterthur. “She shared this gift through her teaching, her mentoring of staff and students, and the creation of our most popular and engaging exhibitions. All of us will miss her passion and her friendship.” 
Eaton has shared her knowledge and expertise through teaching hundreds of graduate students in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She inspired future curators by widely sharing her enthusiasm with everyone from kindergarteners and her graduate students to serious quilters, stitchers, designers, embroiderers, and general audiences. Hundreds of loyal followers attended her regular needlework conferences at Winterthur.  


Linda curated popular and scholarly exhibitions about embroidery such as Quilts in a Material World; Needles and Haystacks: Pastoral Imagery in American Needlework; With Cunning Needle: Four Centuries of Embroidery; The Diligent Needle: Instrument of Profit, Pleasure, and Ornament; and Embroidery: The Language of Art, as well as Betsy Ross: The Life Behind the Legend, co-curated with Dr. Marla Miller. Linda curated the popular Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes, and she was an instrumental partner in one of Winterthur’s most memorable exhibitions, Costuming THE CROWN in 2019, the only exhibition of costumes from the popular Netflix series.  


Her publications include Quilts in a Material World: Selections from the Winterthur Collection (2007), and Printed Textiles: British and American Cottons and Linens, 1700–1850 (2014), a revision of Florence Montgomery’s seminal 1970 book. Linda’s latest publication, Erica Wilson: A Life in Stitches, co-authored with Anne Hilker, was released in December 2020.  
“Linda must hold the record for number of scholarly publications and exhibitions emanating from Winterthur,” said Tom Savage, the former director of external affairs at Winterthur and a longtime friend. “Her Quilts in a Material World book and exhibition placed Winterthur’s extraordinary collection in a global context. There was nothing parochial about her approach. She knew the wide world of textiles internationally and brought that vast knowledge to the study of the most minute topic. Her update of Florence Montgomery’s Printed Textiles gave this landmark work new life as the publication of record on the topic. Two generations of scholars benefitted from her tutelage at Winterthur as conservator, then curator of textiles and McGraw director of collections, and her star pupils now head noted collections of textiles.” 


Linda’s students and mentees care for renowned collections at such institutions as the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Te Papa Museum in New Zealand, as well as Winterthur. Linda was also a founding board member of the North American Textile Conservation Conference and a member of the board of Textile Society of America. 


“Linda arrived in 1990 as the Head of Textile Conservation and was initially my supervisor,” said Joy Gardiner, head of Conservation for Winterthur. “She quickly proved an excellent mentor to me and so many others, and she became a long-term good friend for my family—a wonderful presence and influence in our daughter’s life. Linda was a textilian to her core and a staunch—one might even say fierce—advocate for the objects made from fibers and the people who created them. In her generous sharing of this advocacy in teaching, publications, workshops and exhibitions, she fostered an expanded appreciation of the medium at Winterthur and well beyond. Her influence will be long lasting.” 


Outside the museum and the classroom, Linda served as the volunteer president of the Arden Craft Museum Board, which preserves the unique history of three communities known collectively as The Ardens. Linda’s leadership helped to transform the museum into a center of the villages that offers year-round programs and attracts researchers from around the country. 
Eaton trained at the Textile Conservation Centre and the Courtauld Institute of Art before working for the National Museums of Scotland. Linda arrived at Winterthur in 1991 as a textile conservator. She became curator of textiles in 2000 and was promoted to director of museum collections and senior curator of textiles in 2009. Eaton was named the John L. and Marjorie P. McGraw Director of Collections and Senior Curator of Textiles in 2012. She retired in December 2020. A curator of textiles position was recently created in her name.


  1. Oh Tricia.
    I never would have known this extraordinary woman without you. Thank you for making that happen. Linda and I kept in infrequent contact through email and I treasured every exchange with her. My knowing her was way too brief. I’m probably not making much sense right now, this is too sudden and sad to process right now. But thank you for letting all of us know. Janet

  2. I remember well the first time I was able to attend a Winterthur needlework symposium. The scholarly look at my hobby was eye opening and fascinating. I remember Linda’s enthusiasm and humor and I know she will be missed by many. Thank you for writing a lovely tribute.

  3. I'm sorry about your friend and mentor. I can only hope to get to Winterthur someday to see some of the lovely things she worked hard to bring in and conserve. The needlework & history world lost a great talent.