Inside the textiles conservation studio: conserving a 1740s printed dress

This 18th-century cotton dress has just visited the Textiles conservation studio, getting ready to be displayed in our new Fashion and Style gallery which opens Summer 2016. Made of Indian block-printed cotton fabric, the bodice and elbow-length sleeves are lined with linen. This style of dress was worn open down the front, and it would have been worn with a stomacher and petticoat.

The front of the dress before conservation treatment
The front of the dress before conservation treatment.

When the dress was brought to the conservation studio, it was very soiled, stained and creased. The hem was extremely grubby. There were several areas of damage, including long tears on the skirt which had been very roughly sewn together with thick cotton thread, damage to the back neck edge and splits in the pleats on the front of the bodice. There were also many small finely darned areas.

Long tear on back of skirt before conservation
Long tear on back of skirt before conservation.
Reverse of long tear showing the rough stitched repairs. This stitching was cut and removed.
Reverse of long tear showing the roughly-stitched repairs. This stitching was cut and removed.

After photography, examination and documentation to record the condition of the dress, it was surface cleaned using a low-power vacuum cleaner to remove loose particulate soiling. As the dress was so soiled and creased, we decided that it would benefit from wet cleaning. Prior to wet cleaning, the roughly-stitched repairs were removed from long tears on the skirt. These tears were temporarily sandwiched in two layers of nylon net to hold in place during cleaning.

After testing all the colours to check they would not run in water, the dress was carefully wet cleaned in a cold washing solution specially formulated for textile conservation.

The dress was laid out flat in wash bath and very soiled areas gently sponged with natural sponges.
The dress was laid out flat in a wash bath and very soiled areas were gently sponged with natural sponges.
Much yellowing and soiling was quickly flushed out into the wash water.
Much yellowing and soiling was quickly flushed out into the wash water.
After rinsing the dress appears much cleaner.
After rinsing, the dress appeared much cleaner.

Printed dress 12

After wet cleaning. the dress was laid out on a table and excess water removed with blotting paper. Hair dryers blowing cold air and a fan were used to aid drying. Careful drying at this stage ensures the fabric dries smooth and uncreased.

The sleeves were padded with soft nylon net to reshape them.
The sleeves were padded with soft nylon net to reshape them.

Damaged areas of the dress were then stitched onto patches of specially dyed fine cotton fabric to give support. Fine silk thread was used for the stitching.

A support patch of fine cotton muslin is positioned on the reverse of the long tear in the dress, pinned in position then stitched in place.
A support patch of fine cotton muslin is positioned on the reverse of the long tear in the dress, pinned in position then stitched in place.
Split in the fabric on the back neck edge, before conservation
A split in the fabric on the back neck edge, before conservation.
Split in the neck edge was supported onto cotton voile with an overlay of fine nylon net to provide further support and protection to this vulnerable area.
A split in the neck edge was supported onto cotton voile with an overlay of fine nylon net, to provide further support and protection to this vulnerable area.
The frayed edge of bodice lining which is detached from the printed fabric, before conservation
The frayed edge of bodice lining which is detached from the printed fabric, before conservation.
The detached edge of bodice lining encased in nylon net and re-stitched to the printed fabric, after conservation.
The detached edge of bodice lining encased in nylon net and re-stitched to the printed fabric, after conservation.
Dress after conservation
The dress after conservation

Now that the conservation treatment has been completed, work can begin on preparing the mannequin for display. A stomacher and petticoat will be made to support the shape of the dress and to give it the correct historical silhouette. Come and see the printed dress in the Fashion and Style Gallery in 2016.

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