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I have a blouse and petticoat that was made by my great grandmother for her confirmation (in her teens). I have been keeping it in my cedar chest but I wonder if there is anything more that I can do to preserve it. I expect that it would have been made at the turn of the century and I think that it is a loosely woven muslin.

I would appreciate any help that you could give me.

Although I have not seen the garment you describe, it sounds very much like your great grandmother's confirmation dress could date from 1900 to 1919. I have seen many confirmation photographs, having previously worked with historical society whose collection was housed in a 1901 Lutheran school. Female confirments of this period generally wore two piece dresses, a bodice and skirt, made of cotton muslin (or lawn) with or without lace inserts. Usually a fresh flower corsage (given by her proud parents) was pinned on the bodice and in the right hand, the confiment held a certificate of confirmation. Since photographs were often taken and the church often keeps confirmation records, it would be nice to do a little detective work to find out the date of the dress.

Now back to your original question. How to preserve the dress? Or how to keep it in mint condition? The most important thing to do first is to conduct a through examination. Cover a table or your bed with a clean sheet. Make sure your examination area is clean and well lit. Take the confirmation dress out of the cedar chest and carefully unfold it on top of the clean sheet in your "examination" area. Make sure your hands are nice and clean before the handling the costume. Dirty, sweaty hands can make marks so easily on old fabric. Wear clean cotton gloves, if you have a pair, just like the museum curators do. Handling the fabric as little as possible, take a good look at what you have. What are you looking for? You are looking for any signs of insect infestation, mold, and discoloration. Chances are the dress was put away laundered and you will not find any pest infestation or mold. If you do, you need to contact me again. Those are major problems and must be addressed right away.

There is a good chance that you may find some areas of discoloration. Cedar chests are great for keeping creepy crawlies out, but they are made of wood and the acids from the wood tends to leach out and darken fabrics. My Grandma kept things her cedar chest but they were always wrapped in clean cotton sheets or wrapped in acid-free tissue (due to my influence). The dress may also have some starch that might be turning it a bit yellow. Since the dress is most likely made of cotton, you should wrap it in an old clean sheet and return it to the cedar chest, provided everything else checks out OK during your examination (i.e., no bugs and no mold). Now if you want to take things a step further, you can purchase special archival materials, the kinds museums use, in which to store the dress. Museum's purchase special materials like acid-free boxes and tissue paper in which to store and preserve treasures like yours. Acid-free boxes and tissue paper are manufactured in such a way to remove discoloring and disintegrating wood acid like the kind found in unsealed woods (like the inside of a cedar chest) and inexpensive card board boxes. To find out where you can buy acid-free materials, call your local museum or historical society. Often they will sell you acid-free materials and show you how to properly box a garment by folding as little as possible and padding out the folds. Or, you can write me back and our next "ASK MISTY" will cover the topics of how and where to purchase archival/acid-free materials and how to properly fold things into an acid-free box. OK?

I hope this answer helps.


Michelle "AskMisty" Oberly has worked for many years in the education and museum fields. For nine years, she was a senior faculty member at Ray College of Design (now the Illinois Institute of Art) teaching fashion history and textiles. She also worked as executive director for the Mt. Prospect Historical Society, Mt. Prospect, Illinois; curator of costumes at Germantown Historical Society, Germantown, PA.; and guest curator at numerous exhibits at local history museums. She has lectured and organized workshops on the preservation of historic clothing and textiles for a number of historical organizations. Oberly currrently lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania and is writing a "help" guide for collectors of historic clothing.

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