The Archive Lady: Cleaning and Storing Antique Clothing

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The Archive Lady shares her tips and tricks for preserving antique clothing including wedding dresses and christening gowns!

Dianne in Texas asks: “I have what I think is my grandmother’s wedding dress from 1912. Made of cotton, not fancy. They were marred in Floyd, Texas. I would like to safely store it. And I would also like to know if I should gently wash it before storing? I’ve cleaned a baby christening gown in a formula made for antique clothing and it came out beautiful. Went from yellow to original white.

1912 Wedding Dress, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Dianne has asked a question that I suspect many of us have thought about from time to time regarding our antique clothing artifacts. As genealogists, we are always concerned about preserving our ancestors’ documents and photographs, but many of us have antique clothing that once belonged to our ancestors that we should be preserving. In Dianne’s case, she has her grandmother’s old wedding dress and a baby christening gown, and she wants to make sure she is cleaning them properly.

Most archivists and preservations will tell you that nothing should be done to fabrics that will harm or destroy them. With that in mind we should be careful with what chemicals and cleaning solutions we use on them. If we can preserve the textiles without using any kind of cleaning agents on them, that is the best practice. Dianne would like to know if she can gently wash the 1912 cotton wedding dress that was her grandmothers. My advice would be to not wash the dress because it could literally come apart in the wash, even if on a gentle cycle. Garments that were made during this period can be very delicate and we need to protect them.

Most archivists and preservations will tell you that nothing should be done to fabrics that will harm or destroy them. With that in mind we should be careful with what chemicals and cleaning solutions we use on them. If we can preserve the textiles without using any kind of cleaning agents on them, that is the best practice. Dianne would like to know if she can gently wash the 1912 cotton wedding dress that was her grandmothers. My advice would be to not wash the dress because it could literally come apart in the wash, even if on a gentle cycle. Garments that were made during this period can be very delicate and we need to protect them.

Christening Gown, Houston County, TN. Archives

Dianna also asked about how to safely store the wedding dress. For most fabric items you will need archival tissue paper and the correct size archival box for storage.

First, put a layer of tissue paper in the bottom of the box. Then put your fabric item on the tissue paper. If the item is large, such as a quilt or a piece of clothing, it is okay to fold it but put layers of tissue paper between the folds making sure that none of the fabric touches itself.  I also like to put extra tissue paper as a “filler” in the box so that the item doesn’t move around in the box. Just ball the tissue paper up and put it around the item and that will keep it still in the box.

Then place the box in a dark, cool, and dry storage place. With fabric items I like to take the archival box and place it in another box such as a plastic tote which can be sealed, this is to deter moths and insects which can destroy fabrics.

Dianne in Texas asks: “I have what I think is my grandmother’s wedding dress from 1912. Made of cotton, not fancy. They were marred in Floyd, Texas. I would like to safely store it. And I would also like to know if I should gently wash it before storing? I’ve cleaned a baby christening gown in a formula made for antique clothing and it came out beautiful. Went from yellow to original white. IMAGE 1912 Wedding Dress, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons Dianne has asked a question that I suspect many of us have thought about from time to time regarding our antique clothing artifacts. As genealogists, we are always concerned about preserving our ancestors’ documents and photographs, but many of us have antique clothing that once belonged to our ancestors that we should be preserving. In Dianne’s case, she has her grandmother’s old wedding dress and a baby christening gown, and she wants to make sure she is cleaning them properly. Most archivists and preservations will tell you that nothing should be done to fabrics that will harm or destroy them. With that in mind we should be careful with what chemicals and cleaning solutions we use on them. If we can preserve the textiles without using any kind of cleaning agents on them, that is the best practice. Dianne would like to know if she can gently wash the 1912 cotton wedding dress that was her grandmothers. My advice would be to not wash the dress because it could literally come apart in the wash, even if on a gentle cycle. Garments that were made during this period can be very delicate and we need to protect them. IMAGE Christening Gown, Houston County, TN. Archives Dianna also asked about how to safely store the wedding dress. For most fabric items you will need archival tissue paper and the correct size archival box for storage. First, put a layer of tissue paper in the bottom of the box. Then put your fabric item on the tissue paper. If the item is large, such as a quilt or a piece of clothing, it is okay to fold it but put layers of tissue paper between the folds making sure that none of the fabric touches itself. I also like to put extra tissue paper as a "filler" in the box so that the item doesn't move around in the box. Just ball the tissue paper up and put it around the item and that will keep it still in the box. Then place the box in a dark, cool, and dry storage place. With fabric items I like to take the archival box and place it in another box such as a plastic tote which can be sealed, this is to deter moths and insects which can destroy fabrics. IMAGE Preserving Wedding Dress, Courtesy Gaylord Archival Products Be sure to include documentation in the box to explain in detail all pertinent information about the item. If it was handmade, include the name of the person who made it. Also, if applicable, include the "chain of ownership" of the item and how it has been passed down in the family and which ancestors owned it before it was passed down to you. The more information you include in your description, the better! Preserving the fabric of our ancestors and the stories that go with them should be part of every genealogist’s journey to document our families.

Preserving Wedding Dress, Courtesy Gaylord Archival Products

Be sure to include documentation in the box to explain in detail all pertinent information about the item.  If it was handmade, include the name of the person who made it. Also, if applicable, include the “chain of ownership” of the item and how it has been passed down in the family and which ancestors owned it before it was passed down to you. The more information you include in your description, the better!

Preserving the fabric of our ancestors and the stories that go with them should be part of every genealogist’s journey to document our families.

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If you have a question for The Archive Lady, please send them via email and I could use your archival question in an upcoming edition of The Archive Lady column. Melissa Barker, a.k.a. The Archive Lady E-Mail: melissabarker20@hotmail.com


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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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