I don’t think I have mentioned here that I’m volunteering at a local history and craft museum. The museum, the Shelton House, has a small, but excellent collection of locally worn clothing. Because small local museums are usually strapped for cash and volunteers, I suspected they would welcome my help working on the clothing. I was right.
My main function right now is cataloging the clothing. The museum was started in 1980, but not until the recent director came four years ago was there a serious attempt to catalog the collection. It was started as a museum of North Carolina crafts, and the bulk of the collection is made up of local crafts. There are other textiles, including quilts, handwoven coverlets, and even a work by my favorite folk artist, Granny Donaldson. I need to do a post on her sometime soon.
Once I got into examining the garments, it became obvious that some of them needed a bit of conservation. I asked the director if I could work with them to do some mending, stabilization, and cleaning. My first project is the dress you see above.
Yes, this is the same dress. I started by giving the dress a through exam and determined that the fabric was strong enough for a wet cleaning. Since the dress is all cotton, this was an easy decision to make. Cottons of that era usually respond well to cleaning.
I’m not a professional conservator, but I have attended classes and workshops on textile conservation. Still, I wanted to be extra careful having been entrusted with this dress. The rule when it comes to cleaning is to start with the most gentle process. With wet cleaning this means a rinse of water. After several plain water rinses, I knew I needed to add gentle soap. The key is patience. I probably rinsed this dress thirty times before the rinse ran clear.
To say I am happy with the result is an understatement! I knew there had to be a crisp, white dress under all that grime.
Part of the process was to look through my collection of antique catalogs in order to pin down a date. The tiers on the skirt along with the surplice front sure look 1915 or maybe 1916 to me. I don’t know if you can see the pink embroidery on the edges of the tiers and sleeves. After looking at so many of these dresses, it occurred to me that the dress originally probably had a pink sash.
So I used a piece of modern satin to construct a sash. I have my eyes open for a piece of wide pink antique ribbon, but for now my creation will have to do. At least it has the correct look.
Close examination shows that the dress had been shortened at the waist, and the sleeves had also been shortened. I returned the sleeves to the original length because it amounted to simply pulling out a basting stitch. I decided to leave the waist as is. As you can see above, it’s a bit of a mess, and it looks to me that the possible sixth tier had been cut.
Also, when I took the after photo I forgot to put on the little matching scarf.
All in all, the dress is in excellent shape. How on earth did that little piece of net at the neck survive the stresses of being on a hanger all these years?
A word about local museums: They do a remarkable job with little resources. They are usually run by people with a passion for the past. The workers do not always have the necessary skills to manage a huge variety of objects, especially in a specialized field like textiles. That’s why I am slow to criticize some of the things I’ve seen in many small museums. So if you have a nearby museum that could use some help, I encourage you to reach out to them.