AncestorNews: Caring for Grandma’s Wedding Dress

AncestorNews: Caring for Grandma’s Wedding Dress

Advice and online resources for taking care of old textiles.


AncestorNews: Wedding Dress Revisited

A few months ago, I wrote about receiving my grandmother’s wedding dress and my concerns over its preservation. Several of you wrote and asked for more information. Ask and ye shall receive.

I spoke with Aimee Newell, curator of textiles and fine arts at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. The village, which occupies 200 acres, contains collections, exhibits and programs of everyday life in a small New England town during the years 1790 to 1840. I figured someone there would know what to do, and I was right.

Here’s what I learned from Newell about preserving textiles: Historical fabrics are extremely fragile and need to be handled with great care. Obviously, she doesn’t recommend washing them because of their fragility, as well as the harshness of current-day detergents. In fact, she noted that as far as preservation goes, we modern-day folks wash our clothes far too often!

I asked her about the wisdom of displaying the dress or keeping it stored in an archival box. “It’s a question of whether you want to store it in a way that will preserve it for another 500 years or be able to enjoy it now,” Newell said. If I wanted to put it on display, her main concern was that it not be exposed to direct sunlight.

The dress has some stains that I’d like to have removed, but I’m not sure if it’s wiser just to live with them. She suggested contacting the American Institute of Conservation and asking for a textile conservator in my area. Conservators, she said, will look at the garment and create a treatment proposal plan. If I decide to go in that direction, she advised making sure the conservator took photos of each step of the process and included it in my final report. Prices of such professional treatments range from about $200 to five-figure costs.

What about storing the dress at home? “Remember: Fabrics like the same climate we do—not too hot and not too cold,” Newell advised. Don’t put them in the attic or basement; instead, keep them at a constant room temperature. If stored in an archival box, be sure to pad the folds with acid-free tissue paper in order to prevent creases. Furthermore, Newell suggested opening the box occasionally and checking for signs of bugs. Lastly, she advised not storing textiles in plastic because there’s a condensation problem.

If you have any other suggestions about how you’ve stored fragile textiles, please write and let me know. I hope this helps all of you who have preservation questions. A handy book on the subject is Preserving Textiles: A Guide for the Nonspecialist by Harold F. Mailand and Dorothy Stites Alig (Indianapolis Museum of Art). Check out these Web sites if you want to know more:

• Old Sturbridge Village

• American Institute of Conservation

• Archival Products

• Preserving Textiles

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