Need to restore a baptism gown
June 20, 2007 9:01 AM   Subscribe

I need guidence on restoring an Antique Christening Gown in the Southeast US...

My family is blessed to have an antique christening gown that was made in 1880 and has been worn by most of the family at their baptisms ever since. It is a beautiful piece but very fragile and getting more so every day. I want to have it professionally restored so that my grandchildren will have it, if not to wear then at least to treasure. Any ideas on how to do this? I googled 'linen restoration Atlanta' but didn't get much back. I'd like to stay in the Atlanta area but would be willing to travel with it for the right person. Cost is no object, this is a priceless treasure to me. Please give me any tips or experiences that you might have with this sort of thing. Thanks!!
posted by pearlybob to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe put in a call to the Atlanta Art Conservation Center. If they can't help you, they probably can point you to someone who can. From their website:
The Atlanta Art Conservation Center (AACC), a nonprofit organization and subsidiary of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, treats objects ranging from family photographs, antiques, and heirlooms to some of the most important paintings, sculpture, and works on paper in the southeast. The AACC is located just inside the Perimeter off Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and serves a small consortium of regional collecting institutions, as well as individuals and corporations. The AACC is also a resource for information on all aspects of collections care.

Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

Contact Information:
Phone: 404-733-4589
Fax: 678-547-1453
I found this by googling for the High Museum.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:10 AM on June 20, 2007

The AIC (American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works), of which I am a proud member, is the professional organization for conservators. Their site is chock full of info, particularly the AIC Guidelines for Selecting A Conservator. It will tell you what to look for, what to expect, and help you find a listing of conservators in the area.

If you want the object to last as long as possible, it's probably best not to let anyone wear it. A responsible conservator will not "fix" it so that it is sturdy enough to be worn again, but will stabilize it so that further deterioration will be minimized. But with proper care, you should be able to have it as a keepsake for generations to come.
posted by doift at 9:26 AM on June 20, 2007

Where do you line up on the Ship of Theseus paradox? Or the story of Grandfather's old axe, which has had umpteen new heads and even more new handles? I would get the dress remade so that it can be worn, rather than put it in a box. Apart from any other consideration, only one family member can own the heirloom, all the cousins can share in a tradition of wearing the remade gown.
posted by Idcoytco at 12:39 PM on June 20, 2007

Idcoyto makes an interesting point. I'm not sure what s/he means by "remade" in this context but I would still argue against altering the actual historical garment by patching, reweaving, etc. Too much of that kind of work will diminish the historical significance of the object, and cause it more damage in the long run. A possible compromise may be having a skilled (and careful) seamstress make a replica of the dress that can be worn by future grandchildren, and have a conservator preserve the original. Best of both worlds.

Apologies if I misinterpret what you meant by "remake," Idcoyto.
posted by doift at 1:03 PM on June 20, 2007

As usual, we don't know enough. Does this garment really have any wider historic significance? It is an easy answer to say no-one should ever ever touch this piece again, but I would not take it out of family use lightly, there is a real loss there. If history is important, the best use of this garment may be to instil into this family a feeling for continuity, for "one-ness" with the past. Careful photo documentation may well be adequate for historic purposes -- it would be useful in any case.

What is the state of the fabric? Could the garment still be worn over a liner carefully crafted to be slightly smaller so that seams are not strained? Could a less fragile piece of the fabric be used to form a front panel attached to a new gown? Is there some embroidery that could be reused? Maybe there is a bow of ribbon that is in better condition, that can be carefully detached, and temporarily sewn to a new dress by stitching over not through its fabric, before being replaced in the box until next time?

A replica is one way to go -- either an exact copy, or a modern design taking inspiration from the original. Was the original an expensive purchase, the work of an expert, or a labour of more amateur love? It may be best to get a member of the family to make a meaningful replacement, rather than commission an expert.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:01 PM on June 20, 2007

It's true, we don't know enough. A consultation with a trained conservator looking at the actual object would be a very good place to start. The conservator will be able to give you suggestions about how to proceed. They should act according to the AIC Code of Ethics, which states in part that conservation treatments should ideally be reversible. If the garment is very fragile, most treatments that allow for continued use will not be reversible and will often cause more damage over time.

However, the decision is ultimately up to the client, and if you want to keep all or part of the garment in use, a conservator should be able to give you options on how to do that while preserving the object as well as possible. You should do what you feel is best for your own situation and family, but since it is important enough to you that cost is no object, getting as much skilled advice as you can will only help you.

A useful read: Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms and Other Prized Possessions, produced by the Smithsonian Institution.

Somewhat relevant personal anecdote: I have my grandmother's wedding dress from 1927. I always thought I might wear it for my own wedding, but decided against it after my textile conservation training. The dress is in fairly good condition now, but another wearing would weaken it substantially. I would rather have the dress intact for all of my grandmother's descendants to see and touch than risk losing it forever so one person could wear it once.
posted by doift at 3:17 PM on June 20, 2007

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