Preserving and storing a wedding dress requires long-term care and chemistry

June 12, 1991|By Janice Smith | Janice Smith,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Modern wedding gowns come in various styles, colors and prices. But no matter what they look like, they all have one thing in common: the bride's sentimental attachment.

It's because of this attachment that many brides choose to wear their mother's or grandmother's wedding dress.

These heirloom gowns require special handling from the time they're removed from their storage containers to the time they're put back into them. And the older the dress, the more challenging the restoration and cleaning process.

"The best thing is not to try to clean the dress. It might just fall apart," said Renee Erwin, collections manager of the Fort Worth (Texas) Museum of Science and History. "I would have a conservator look at it. Conservators are professionals who have the chemistry background to deal with conserving fabrics."

Sam Kite, who owns a dry-cleaning business, agrees that a 100-year-old dress should not be washed or dry-cleaned unless it is done by a professional.

"We hand-clean very old dresses by soaking them in water with special chemicals," he said. "The yellow color will always be there though on the older dresses. If it's around 20 years old, we have a bleach that will get out the yellow."

The rusty yellowish spot may or may not be a true stain in the sense of something being spilled, Erwin said. Instead, foxing -- caused by the inherent acidity in the fibers combined with gases in the atmosphere -- may be the culprit.

"We're all aging, and items also age, so this is all part of that process," she said. "Some of the foxing is from people handling the fabric. The museum uses white cotton gloves to handle all fabrics."

To combat the foxing and other cleaning problems, the bride should make arrangements to have the dress cleaned as soon as possible after the wedding.

"Have Mom or Sis do it early while the bride is on her honeymoon," Kite said. "If champagne is on the dress it usually won't show for two to three weeks. When the sugar caramelizes, it makes a yellowish stain. If the bride waits six months, then we can't get it out with dry-cleaning and it must be wet-cleaned."

The cleaning process also involves checking the gown for loose pearls, threads, buttons and other problems. Once the dress is cleaned and pressed, it is ready to be stored permanently.

This process, called heirlooming, involves storing the gown on a hanger in a heavy plastic bag or wrapping it in acid-free tissue in a vacuum-sealed archival box. The process can cost anywhere from $90 to $150, Kite said. Commercial cleaners can perform this service, or the adventurous bride can do it herself.

"The bride who wants to save her gown needs to weigh how important the item is to her for sentimental or historical reasons to see how much effort she's willing to go to," Erwin said.

Most professionals agree that hanging the gown results in stress to the fabric and should be avoided if the gown is to be saved for future brides. The best storage method is to wrap the gown in acid-free (made without alum) tissue and place it in an acid-free archival box. It is necessary to use acid-free storage containers because a tree's natural acidity will eventually cause foxing of the fabric.

Line the box with the acid-free tissue (to alleviate stress to the fabric), then carefully fold the gown into the box.

"Take the acid-free tissue and wad it up to make a sausage roll out of it," Erwin said. "Lay these rolls inside the folds so that there is no sharp, knife-crease edge. These edges will damage the fibers by causing them to break down."

The dress should be stored in a cool, dry area away from fluorescent light. Ultraviolet light will destroy silk very fast.

The dress should not be stored in the attic, garage or basement because of extreme temperature and humidity changes. Avoid storing in wooden dressers -- even cedar chests -- because the wood gives off gasses and is highly acidic, which affects the dress, Erwin said.

Probably one of the better places for it is under the bed, mainly so it won't be tripped over. Because molds grow there, the area should be vacuumed more frequently.

"The trick more than anything is the humidity in the house," Erwin said. "The ideal temperature is 65 degrees with a humidity level of 48 percent. Humidity that gets over 55 percent for any length of time will grow mold.

"During a rainy season, purchase a thick plastic bag and buy silica gel -- the little crystals that come in a new purse -- to absorb the humidity out of the air."

Silica gel comes in two colors, royal blue and white. The blue is an indicating color. When the blue silica gel turns pink (approximately every two weeks), it's time to replace or recycle it.

Bake the gel in an oven at 300 degrees for three hours to restore it. Erwin suggests mixing a few blue crystals in with the white to reduce the cost.

Bag the silica gel in white net pouches and place directly in the box. Place the box in the plastic bag to keep the newly created environment sealed. Industrial plastic garbage bags are difficult to get, Erwin admits, and large garbage bags are not airtight enough.

"However, if you can only get the regular large black garbage bags, use three or four and make sure you use a tight closure. Either twist tie or tape to seal all the air out," Erwin said.

The gown should be refolded approximately every six months to prevent stress to fibers in any sharp folds.

"It's inconvenient, but if the bride wants the dress to last 100 years, this is what she has to do," Erwin said. "And the acid-free tissue should be changed every five to 10 years."

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