Bringing a 200 Year Old Treasure Back to Life

Hey Y’all!

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… 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

One Comment

  • Astyork

    December 14, 2023 at 5:35 AM

    The blog’s devotion to period footwear and extras is really honorable. Appreciative for the canny substance — thank you, blog.americanduchess, for bringing the tastefulness and appeal of past periods to the very front of contemporary style


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