Thursday, March 2, 2017

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Bringing a 200 Year Old Treasure Back to Life

Hey Ya'll!

Abby here and I am so excited to share with you all something that just came into my possession earlier this week.

Here she is all laid out on the work table 

Look, I know she's a bit plain and simple, but when I pulled her out of the box on Monday I squealed and then cursed a little bit in disbelief. You see, this dress showed up in a large box of antique clothes that my mom found while antique shopping in my hometown. While she was there, the dealers were so desperate to get rid of the clothes that they just kept pulling out piece after piece. My mom was texting me the whole time, and when this little green number popped up in my messages...well..it just looked a mess. I couldn't really see anything exciting about it in the photos, but since it was an entire ensemble I figured it would be worth having...even if it was some weird Edwardian era thing.

...but my mom...she dropped a big hint, "Abby, it might be 1830s, I don't know...it's hard to tell, but it has mutton sleeves..."

Actual footage of green dress while my mom was shopping

More actual footage...this makes me cringe now to see that skirt dangling like that...

I didn't really believe her, to be honest. Why would I? How on Earth could there be an 1830s dress in some random antique store in Kentucky? It made no sense. You see, I'm a bit jaded as a millennial antique hunter. I grew up listening to my mom and grandmother tell stories about all the amazing things they could find at antique stores and flea markets in the 1970s, before the flea markets filled up with Happy Meal toys and crew socks. It has always made me sad how over priced and hard to find good antiques can be nowadays. While we've all heard the odd "I found a doozy" story here in the States, I always felt like it was the impossible dream for me.

That day though, that day was different.

My mom was wrong. It's not an 1830s dress that she picked up in her large  antique clothing haul.

It's 1820s...specifically we believe the dress is from around 1825...give or take a couple of years.

It's even earlier than what she had hoped against hope for. Lauren and I are still in a bit of a shock about it.

Me in my lab coat of courage...being very excited!

When we got her, she was this wrinkly, crease ridden mess of a thing, but the fabric was in incredible condition. There are very few holes in the entire garment, and only one shatter point. Everything else is actually pretty fantastic.

While I've had some curatorial and conservation training and experience over the past few years, I am in no way an expert. I did know one thing though - I needed to get rid of the sharp creases. Crease = Shattered fabric. I did not want that to happen.

So with that in mind, Lauren and I washed our hands, put on our white lab coats of courage, and set to work. We decided to mount the green dress on Lauren's Frankenlily and steam the dress back to life.
Steamer vs. Creases of Doom

We were both a bit terrified, but I had faith that the textile would hold up to this treatment. I wouldn't have even attempted it if I thought she would be destroyed.

As I started to steam her...something interesting started to happen. What was once a soft handed and lightweight plain woven silk, started to have body again. As I steamed the dress the sizing in the textile seemed to have reactivated, and all of the sudden we had a super crisp silk gown on our hands. It stopped us in our tracks.

What is happening? Is this ok? Did we just kill it? What is this? Is this just real life? Is this just fantasy?

Caught in a landslide of feelings I grabbed Textiles in America and flipped to the page about Lustring silk. It states:


A light, crisp plain silk with a high luster. "A taffeta which had been stretched and, while under tension, smeared with a syrupy gum. This dressing was dried with the aid of a small braizer and gave the material a glossy sheen." (page 283)

While still a bit wrinkly, you can see how the pleats in the skirt have a lot more body to them

After reading those couple of lines, we both started to relax a bit. The gown's fabric has all the characteristics of pretty black and green changeable lustring that has lost a bit of its sheen. It seems like a little bit of steam reactivated the gum in the textile and changed its hand instantly. What we also noticed is how this crispy finish helped with holding the puffy sleeves and skirt out and away from the body. Awesome!

We couldn't help but pose her with our Brontes

Currently, the little beauty is still on Frankenlily, relaxing a bit. In my next post about her, we're going to discuss how we came to the conclusion that she is from c. 1825. Then, we're also going to another post on how to examine extant garments to gain a better understanding of period construction, and other bits of information. Basically, I'll walk you through how I like to study original garments through the eyes of a maker as a way to add to my knowledge bank.

This little bit of trim on the back is the only bit of decoration (other than the standard piping) on the gown.
So here she is! Our 200 year old treasure! I can't wait to share more about her with you all, including all of those juicy interior shots! If you have any questions you'd like for me to answer specifically leave a comment & I'll try to answer them or work them into the next blog post!

<3 <3
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24 comments:

  1. How do you stabilize the shattered part of the silk?

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    1. The most common method I have seen is to stabilize the fabric using netting. My quick research seems that nylon netting is the preferred choice. I'll probably be doing that on the shattered part of the gown, just to prevent it from spreading. If I do decide to add netting, I'll photo & document the process and share it here. :)

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  2. I cannot get over how incredible this is!!!!

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    1. Girl...you're telling me...she's so fantastic!

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  3. That's such a great find, and you've done a very nice job mounting her!

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  4. This is amazing! Congrats! I have an unrelated question but thought that I may as well ask it under this post. I found a fabric I love for an 18th century dress and it's so pretty but it's also super light weight. I was wondering if you had any tips for what/how I should line the fabric to make sure it is sturdy enough for a robe a l'anglaise. The fabric is cotton, if that helps. Thank you so much and I can't wait to hear more about the green dress.

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    1. Thank you! Standard lining for an 18th century gown is going to be a medium weight tight woven linen. If your fashion fabric is light ground, use a white, if it's darker you can use white or natural linen. :)

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  5. Actually, you might have better results if you use silk crepeline to stabilize the shattered area. This is a standard conservation material.

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    1. Yeah I'm looking into it...trying to decide if crepeline will be a better option than a fine nylon net. I found a couple of scientific studies that compare the two, and I'll use them to make my decision. :)

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  6. I was just about to also write in - use crepeline, and the 'hair silk" to sew, with a very fine needle. You will soon find out if the fabric can take a needle. It is the standard in textile conservation (though it is veryvery expensive these days ...). (We get it from Talas, which is in Brooklyn, but also on-line).

    Also, when you check the interior seams, you will find if it was "costumed" in its later life ... though from your pictures it looks as though the shape of the bodice and the slope of the shoulder is intact. Quite a lucky find ... one many a small museum or historical society would be happy to have.

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    1. Hi! Like I said above, I'm going to look into which option (crepeline vs. nylon net) would be the best for this situation. I have found a couple of scientific studies comparing the two, so I'll look those over and think about my needs/cost/etc to make my decision. I found conservation website that sells the two, and like you said, they're both expensive! eek! I'll check out Talas too!

      As for interiors, I've already checked. There's no signs of later alteration, other than the skirt seems to have been shorten, but that appears to be of the period and not a later alteration. The wool at the bottom might also be a period mend, to protect the hem, but it's a bit tricky to tell for certain, since the wool at the hem is in such good shape -- I can't see what's going on inside. I'll talk more about this in a later blog post...

      It is a lucky find...for sure...I do think it belongs in a museum in the future, but I am going to be very persnickety about where it goes. I've been into too many small museums and historic societies that have terrible textile storage. While I'm not a conservator by trade/training... I did learn how to store costumes from Linda Baumgarten, and I know that once I get the correct storage box and more acid free tissue paper to store and pad her out in, that storing her in this dry Nevada climate will be a safe environment for her until she can go on to her next home. :)

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  7. Please take us deep o tge construction! Looking at the close-up of the trim detail; is it a bound edge with piping?

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    1. Will do! More pictures and more in depth construction! It's my favorite thing about historic clothes anyways. :D

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  8. Oh um WOW! What an amazing find. Can't wait to see more about her!

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  9. This is a truly amazing find, but I hope you checked for arsenic!

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  10. How exciting to find such an old piece in such pristine condition! I can't wait to see more details!

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  11. How do you go about finding a museum for something like this? I have my great grandmother's wedding dress from 1899, but can't find a museum that wants it. Do you have any suggestions?

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    1. The scope/focus of the museum will affect what they're interested in taking. Local history is usually a big motivating factor for historical societies, but this can involve where something was sold or produced, not just whether the person who owned it was from the area. For instance, the Connecticut Historical Society is really interested in items made with Cheney Brothers silk or sold at the G Fox department store, as well as items from prominent CT families. You might have more luck at the state level, as far as historical societies go, since they're probably larger and better funded than local ones. But there are quite a few textile centered museums, especially here in New England, so the origin of the fabric might be a good place to start widening your search.

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  12. What a terrific find! The transformation that steam made, just wow. Thank you for sharing!

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  13. Congratulations on the great find! I've never heard of "shattered fabric" before, can you explain what that is?

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  14. Wow, that is a gorgeous find! I am so excited to hear more about it in your next posts.
    The Artyologist

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  15. This is amazing! Really looking forward to hearing more about this dress.

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  16. Amazing find, and thank you both for sharing!

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  17. Replying to Virginia Burton above - check with the Fashion Archives at Shippensburg University - Dr. Karin Bohleke is the Director. They currently have a wedding dress exhibit. They specialize in Gettysburg and central PA clothing but might be able to give you a lead.

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