Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Methods and opinions differ as to the preservation of the fragile coverings of the past, though most experts will agree that in the care of apparel, the less that can be done the better. Purists opt for conservation, which means doing the minimum of cleaning and repair. To them, once a garment that moved on a human body is retired, it never again should be subjected to strain, heat, light or humidity.

When ironing antique dress or similar clothing, try to pad the ironing board and cover it with well-washed, unbleached cotton. Avoid coated covers and steam irons as lace and ruffles can catch in the holes. Try rubbing your iron with beeswax, then carefully remove it, and use a pressing cloth and distilled water. Restoration specialists are a remarkably patient breed, deft and seemingly eagle-eyed.

Should you dry-clean? Opinions differ. Most collectors and Museums avoid it, if possible, because of the drying effect on the fibers. On the other hand, some professional restores have learnt from other experts on how to use Dry Cleaning equipment and materials carefully, say that this method is almost preferable to washing because fibers do not swell in solvent as they do in water. In other words, if you are going to dry-clean a period item, it is best to give it to someone with a thorough knowledge of the complexities of textile chemistry.

Though there is no agreement on the care of antique clothing, it is obvious that museum curators, wearing plastic gloves while they tenderly handle clothing in the air-and-temperature-controlled vaults, and customers, pawing haphazardly through racks in shops with names like Yesterday's Memories, do share a common interest in beautiful things. Unfortunately, the clothing in the shops probably won't last another generation. Much quality apparel of the past is being destroyed in the present.

At the Metropolitan Museum, a senior restorer may at times oversee a staff that includes fifty-five volunteers, many of them retired milliners. They thread almost invisible needles with strands drawn from a fine lawn handkerchief; reweave a shredding cobweb of tulle with infinitesimal stitches; re-sew beading the size of a pinhead. Particularly bad areas are "sandwiched" between gossamer layers of mesh for support. Many garments survive because their linings took the brunt of oils and perspiration; they can be relined but special attention must be given to underarm portions suffering from "pit rot," a coarse but accurate term. The worst spot for dresses of the 1920s is the middle of the back, stained by the hands of gentlemen who no longer wore gloves for dancing.

Experts in the field caution that preservation of antique clothing is an extremely complex area, with techniques depending not only on sewing skill but on chemical know-how. Some guidelines that the private collector or house museum can easily follow, include:

  • Don't let clothing come in contact with wood or ordinary paper, which contain acid.
  • Store the clothing in acid-free tissue paper or boxes, or wrap it in a muslin sheet that has been washed without bleach. For whites, "there is no bleach like sunshine," Miss Lawrence said.
  • Use plenty of mothballs, either placed in a muslin bag so they don't directly touch fibers, or in a paper cup on a closet shelf. Shake out clothes and replace mothballs every six months.
  • Avoid storing clothing in damp basements or attics subject to damaging extremes of heat and cold. If you must use the basement, place boxes or trunks off the floor.
  • When handling clothes, wash your hands every half-hour to keep the oils from your hands from getting on clothes.
  • Never starch anything that must be stored; the folds may crack.
Restoration is more audacious, but even then one must approach the work with care and consideration. For example, washing is an irreversible process and vacuuming may be all that's necessary. Use gentle suction and a clean crevice nozzle, first flattening an area of fabric with a square of fiberglass insect screening and its edges bound to prevent snagging.

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