White Circa 1915 Dress at the Shelton House Museum

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.


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21 responses to “White Circa 1915 Dress at the Shelton House Museum

  1. miamicoconuts

    Beautiful dress and excellent job!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Deb C - Hampshire, England

    There is a brilliant series on the BBC, Secrets of the Museum, which focuses on the work of the Victoria & Albert Museum and they recently cleaned a dress in a very similar way to that you described, including removing a stain. Not sure if you can get the series in the US, but I am sure it would be of interest to you, especially as there is a fair amount of focus on their clothing collections / exhibitions and conservation.


  3. jacq.staubss@yahoo.com

    Just beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful work, Lizzie, for a lovely reveal!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dorothy

    Wonderful, it looks terrific

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Vicky Loebel

    How lovely to see this bit of history come back to life. Thank you for all your conservation efforts and blog posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow! What an amazing transformation and how lovely to have restored the dress to its original beauty.
    I have some vintage cottons I would like to clean and would appreciate knowing which soap you used–I spent hours on google trying to find a gentle pure soap that would be safe for old cottons and was left not knowing which one would be best.
    Also this post reminded me of the many local museums in the SF Bay Area that I need to visit!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Laura

    That is amazing work. So beautiful. How was the edging done? Hand? Machine? Your efforts were surely appreciated. It is perfection wrapped in a ribbon.

    Lacis in Berkely, CA has extensive resources for not only lace conservation, but i have found antique silk satin ribbon there. They have mail order, but the conservator type people will speak to you on the phone as well. They also carry every textile technique book ive ever seen or heard of. Oh, and their button collection, modern, vintage, and antique, was quite impressive a few years ago. I have not been in person for quite some time.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Bravo! I am so happy for you and the museum! I too have see my fair share of “sins” at small, local museums that make me cringe, but as you say, many work with so little resources and some may not know any better. You did an amazing job on this dress! So impressive!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Kathleen

    Where did you take classes in textile conservation? That sounds very interesting!


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