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Wedding Dress Preservation Ins & Outs

Back in January, I preserved a wedding dress for a friend of mine that got married in 2017. I set my phone up to create a timelapse of the total time it takes to box a wedding dress archivally, and set to work. That timelapse didn't exactly capture what I wanted it to, but hey, it's in moments like these where we learn, and how to improve for next time!

There's several steps that I take when I preserve a dress, and then there are several things that I don't do.

For one, I don't clean dresses.

Believe me, I wish I did. There's lots of things to take into consideration, mainly the materials of which the textile is made and how they'll react to the cleaning agent. You can't just use bleach and call it a day, especially where most of the fabrics used today are completely man-made.

I'm still hesitant to start cleaning for clients, as I don't want to be the one to tell a bride that I've destroyed the only physical representation of her marriage! The cleaning agent (which is also special, and not regular detergent), might counteract with the plastic beading or with the finishing agents used on the fabric, etc. Being a conservator (that's one of the things conservators do - clean), is like being a mad scientist of sorts: testing the materials in a beaker to see if dyes run, they melt, etc. I'm not there yet.

But, to hopefully allay my fears, I have signed up to take an Introduction to Textile Conservation course this summer (2020), and while I doubt I'll learn to wet clean, I will learn how to stabilize textiles to arrest any deterioration that may be happening not visible to the naked eye. Until then I'll be practicing washing and cleaning on various organic (i.e. cotton, silk, linen) and man-made materials (i.e. polyester, rayon, nylon) and seeing how it goes!

Secondly, I only use museum quality materials.

This means specialty tissue paper, specialty boxes, and a little custom flare thrown in. The majority of dry cleaners that preserve wedding dresses offer a sealed cardboard box (which many say is 'acid free') with a plastic see-through cover, dime-store tissue paper, and a cardboard bust on which a dress is mounted to keep a female body shape. Brown cardboard is NEVER acid free and leaves hideous stains as it begins to break down. Additionally, safety pins, which are metal, are used to attach the dress to the cardboard bust, which will rust, and cause an unsightly orange stain on the pristine white of the dress.

Third, I do everything I can to prevent hard creases in the fabric.

Preservation of historic clothing, while not necessarily rocket science, does involve patience and an attention to detail. The ultimate goal is to pack the dress (or uniform, or christening gown) into an acid free and lignen free box with as few creases or folds as possible. In an ideal world, everything would be set in a box that required no folds whatsoever, but none of us have the luxury of that kind of storage! So instead, I use larger boxes to create as few folds as possible. Most dry cleaners that do preservation offer a 'one size fits all' box.

With bustle, folds are stuffed with sausage rolls and mushrooms (total tissue technical terms) in an attempt to stop creasing from happening, but over time the sausages will deflate with the heaviness of the fabric. A good unfolding and repacking is best for all historic clothing! If the item is folded for extremely long periods of time (sans fluffy tissue sausages or mushrooms), the fabric will rip or disintegrate at the hard crease.

Adding a sausage roll to the inside of the bust.

Finally, I create a custom dust cover for the exterior of the archival box.

This dust cover is made from unbleached and unsized muslin. Sizing, a compilation of chemicals, is added to almost all fabrics as a finishing agent, and can harm textiles over time. The dust cover is completely personalized to include names or monograms, dates, and any other number of things, including thread color. Unfortunately, I've had more frustrations with my embroidery machine than anything, so I don't exactly market wedding dress preservation too much anymore. I apply all of the concepts above not only to wedding dress preservation but any sort of historic dress (or even modern!) preservation - military uniforms, christening dresses, 1920s dresses, etc.

Here's my failed timelapse - about halfway through you can actually see what I'm doing :D Next time I'll get it right.

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