Preserving/cleaning an old wedding dress

My mother was going through some old junk from the basement/hole-in-the-ground in preparation for moving, and found the wedding dress worn by her great-grandmother and her mother, wrapped in plastic bags and put in a box. The dress is in remarkably good condition considering where it was and for how long, and we’d like to keep it that way.

It’s going to need a little work, though, and I hope someone here will know how to safely take care of this stuff (Lissa?) It looks like it wasn’t cleaned after my grandmother wore it - the train and the wrists are a little dingy; also the beadwork (kind of a beaded floral design with fringe in the center of the bodice, the only beads on the dress) on the front is missing a few beads. It seems like we should be able to get it cleaned without too much trouble, but obviously we don’t want any more damage done to it. What do we need to do to get it cleaned? And the beadwork, can it be repaired without being redone?

Can you call a local wedding shop and see if they recommend someone?

Once it is cleaned and mended, look for an archival, acid-free box to store it in.

Good luck - sounds like a worthwhile project to restore such a wonderful family keepsake!

We rarely clean any textiles which are in our collection. Often, the fabric is too fragile to stand up to it, and dry-cleaning chemicals are not archival. Without actually seeing and touching the gown, I can’t tell you how best (if you even SHOULD) clean it. What I suggest you do is contact your local museum or historical society and ask them if they have a textile expert in residence, and if not, if they have the number of someone. It should only be cleaned by a professional who’s used to working with old fabrics.

Likely, they’ll tell you to leave it alone. Yes, sweat and body oils will discolor and possibly even damage the material, but sometimes cleaning it can do even more harm.

Don’t store it in a plastic bag. Plastics “off-gas” which can stain the dress, and it also doesn’t allow the material to “breathe.”

What you need to do is get an acid-free clothing box. ( sells them, and there are other retailers on the internet.) Get one of the longest ones. Wrap the dress in a clean white cotton sheet* and use the sheet to pad out any folds in the gown. You can also stufff the sleeves slightly with acid-free tissue paper or cotton batting (like what is used to fill quilts and stuffed animals.)

As for the beadwork, we tend to be very conservative with repairs at the museum. We don’t want to replace anything with modern parts, in other words, so we wouldn’t add modern beads just to fill out a missing portion.

Oh, sorry. That * was supposed to be followed up with this footnote:

Wash the sheet in hot water as you would normally do, but run it through two rinse cycles to make sure there’s no soap residue left. Don’t use any dryer sheets or any fabirc softener.

A couple of other notes on storage:

  1. Don’t put any mothballs or any other kind of insect repellent inside the box with the dress. If you’re really concerned with infestation, put them around the outside of the box.

  2. Store the dress in an interior closet of your home. That is the place most likely to be stable in humidity and temperature. (Rapid changes cause a lot of harm to textiles.)

  3. Take the dress out of the box periodically and re-fold it, using the sheet to pad out the folds. This way, you avoid getting creases. Fabric fibers tend to break at creases.

  4. Always make sure to wash your hands before handling it, to make sure you don’t get any skin oils on the fabric. Even better if you would wear gloves.

  5. Make sure you lable the dress. Mark the box, and put in a letter describing the dress’s history. (Best if you write it on acid-free paper in pencil.) You may know that it’s grandma’s wedding dress, but your grandkids might not.

  6. Make sure there aren’t any pins stuck in the dress anywhere. They tend to rust.

  7. Dust can be cleaned from the dress by using a paint brush and a low-powered vaccum. Try opening a vent on the hose of your household vaccum, and stretch a piece of pantyhose over the nozzle so it won’t suck the fabric inside the hose. Use the brush to gently flick the dust off of the dress.