Costume collectors take note!

This is a long overdue review of a great little book that came out in 2016, Managing Costume Collections: An essential primer, by Louise Coffey-Webb. This book provides nothing less than a personal course in collection management. Written to apply most directly to costume collections of museums and rental agencies, it has much to offer those of us with even a modest collection of textile items. It’s full of step-wise advice addressing all aspects of handling, storing, and keeping track of what you have, to keep your collections in good condition, accessible, and safe

Importantly for many small organizations, which often have limited professional staff, this book tells you where and how to get started organizing and managing a collection. Louise’s book tells you what you need to consider, in the order in which you need to consider it. Everything from how to take an inventory (and what important things you can accomplish while doing one), to record keeping methods and collection policies. For instance, Louise suggests smart ways to ensure that information about associated items and ephemera are not lost, and that they remain linked together. She illustrates her points with real-world examples from her own career managing significant costume collections, and helpful photos supplement the text.  Her many examples will keep you from forgetting to prepare for important “what if” situations that you may never have thought of. 

This book provides quite a bit of important conservation advice for collectors and managers, on topics like celluloid degradation and its sticky consequences,  and offers clever suggestions  to minimize the costs associated with using archival materials. There is lots of useful info on pest management, vitally important in any textile collection.  Louise points the reader to other useful sources in books and online, while providing good advice about the reliability (or lack thereof) of online sources for accurate information. 

Lastly, Louise’s book provides handy samples of labels, worksheets, and other organizational tools to get you started, a useful glossary, and a list of suppliers. Any institution or individual with more than a handful of textiles in their collection would be well advised to pick up a copy, either through Louise directly, via Amazon, or elsewhere. I’m very happy to have mine!

A Texas family heirloom

The month of May saw me performing ‘stealth conservation’ on an interesting quilt from Texas, believed to have been made at least a hundred years ago. It had been handed down to the great granddaughter of the maker, and its conservation was to be a lovely surprise gift  from her husband, to celebrate the birth of their first child.

Texas quilt before conservation

It had an interesting, asymmetrically pieced top, assembled with a mixture of hand sewing and machine stitching. A central area of nine-patch blocks was edged with blocks combining fabrics in diagonal bands of varying size. Many of the fabrics were plaids and checks, with a sprinkling of florals and solids. The backing was a lovely deep pink cotton, and the entire piece had been hand quilted in a pattern of overlapping arcs.

“Inherent vice” damage to black threads


The quilt was in pretty good shape for its age, but had several areas needing attention. A number of  fabrics with black or brown areas had fallen apart, leaving holes, as in the solid black area of the plaid shown at left.

More vice!



In areas where only some of the warp or weft yarns were black, as in the gingham fabric at right, many of the black yarns had disappeared, leaving the white warps and wefts behind. This weakened fabric had, not surprisingly, failed entirely in spots, and some quilt batting had been lost.

What was going on here? If you have old quilts, you are likely to have seen this before – losses and breaks only where fabrics are dark brown or black. This phenomenon is referred to as inherent vice. Something integral to the material is causing it to fail over time. In the case of fabrics like these, the most common cause is the use of iron mordants during the dyeing of yarns or fabrics. Mordants are materials used to help “fix” dyes to textile fibers, and many brown and black colors were achieved using metal salts as mordants. Metal ions remain associated with the dyed fibers, and they oxidize (rust!)over time. The natural aging of cotton fibers generates acidic breakdown products, which  only speeds up this corrosion.

For this quilt, the decision was made to replace only those fabrics whose overall structure had failed, For small areas of loss, as in the pink and black plaid sections, a hair-thin filament thread was used to consolidate weakened areas by anchoring them to an inserted black support fabric. Compare the photo of the plaid above to the same area after consolidation, and the shredded gingham above to the block after fabric replacement:

Missing sections of cotton batting were replaced as repairs were made. Hand quilting was reinstated wherever it had to be removed for repairs, using the original needle holes where possible. After a gentle wet cleaning, this heirloom was ready to be passed on for another generation.

Rebirth of a crib comforter


Work in April was mostly centered around the rescue of a family heirloom that had seen better days. A baby’s crib-sized comforter came to the studio, entirely missing its back and edges, leaving its wool and polyester batt just in its sacking cover. A few remnants of the top perimeter edging remained, faded from light purple to pale pink.

Before treatment

After treatment









Only five of the 12 flower motifs, which had been assembled using “English” paper piecing from small hexagons, were intact.

Flower motif before treatment

Others had lost 10-60% of their fabric, and many had lost some or all of the black buttonhole stitch embroidery on their borders. There were a number of brown and yellow stains, particularly on the white panel supporting the flower motifs. After discussion with the client, the decision was made to separate the motifs from the front panel, allowing them to be treated separately. Stains were reduced on both, using a variety of conservation and spot-cleaning methods, and the majority of disfiguring stains were removed or greatly reduced. To further improve the appearance and strength of the front panel, it was reversed and supported with a layer of ivory cotton batiste.

Hand paper piecing with new fabrics

I made templates to match the individual hexagons used in pieced motifs, and hunted down appropriate restoration fabrics (largely 1930’s reproduction prints). Custom dyeing was used to age some of the new fabrics, to better match the originals. Hand paper piecing was then used to recreate missing and damaged sections, and to incorporate them into restored motifs. Additional hand stitching was used to consolidate and reinforce some areas of original fabric and some piecing seams; weak fabrics were consolidated to additional backing layers of cotton fabric.

Adding back the restored flowers

The completed motifs were attached in their original positions by hidden stitching to the supported top panel, stitching through both the panel and the batiste layer to further strengthen the assembly.(My dining table was pressed into use for this…)The buttonhole stitch embroidery was then reinstated, using three strands of black cotton embroidery floss, and reusing the holes left by the original embroidery threads.

Washing the comforter batt released accumulated soils

The thick batt was gently wet-cleaned and rapidly air-dried on perforated supports. This worked well, removing a lot of dusty soiling that had accumulated while the comforter was stored away.

A light purple 100% cotton fabric was sourced, pre-shrunk, and used to recreate the top borders and comforter back. Six strands of matching embroidery floss were used to replace the original worn yarn ties  passing through all layers, at the center of each of the 12 motifs.  Eight additional tie points were added along the edges of the top panel to reduce shifting over time.

Going home….

The comforter went home clean, stable, and ready for a new life.




A lady, a dress, a portrait, and a stately home.Part II

In my last post, I described conservation work undertaken on the 1868 brown velvet dress of Margaret Maria, Lady Verney. The plan, to display the dress as it appeared in a well-known portrait of her at Claydon House, would also require both an appropriate mannequin and a bit of costume reproduction.

Customizing a mannequin

A papier-mâché form closest in size to the dimensions of the dress had already been ordered as a base. When it arrived at the studio, it became clear that the shoulders were a bit wider than Lady Verney’s, and that this width would need to be reduced to avoid strain on the garment. So now I had to take a hacksaw to a very expensive form!

Original form                         Cutting back                           New fill                            Re-adhering fiberfill

After surgery, I re-fitted the canvas cover, and began padding out the base. Polyester fiberfill was attached to the canvas base cover in layers, to build up the correct dimensions to both support the dress and to take the place of the period undergarments that would have been worn in 1868. Historical research suggested that a small bustle would have been worn under the skirt of this style of dress, so additional padding was attached at the back of the figure to create the same effect on the skirt drape. (If this display form had been needed for use with more than one garment, an alternative approach would have been taken, using a separately constructed pad that could be tied on to the form before mounting the dress.)

Adding bustle volume

Padding out the base cover

Center image shows a small, removable bustle

When the majority of the custom padding was completed, a top cover of heavyweight polyester jersey was constructed to provide a smooth base for the dress itself. This cover was draped directly on the form, fitted tightly, and attached while under tension

After test fittings of the dress, I added further padding under folds in the dress fabric (see arrows on the photo of the mannequin’s back). This padding was not intended to mimic the body contours, but rather to cushion and support the fabric, preventing creases from setting and reducing drag on the garment structure over time on display.

Draping mannequin cover

Padded supports for folds








Building a petticoat

To support the dress skirt a quilted petticoat was constructed. Here you can see it being designed on the mannequin. When complete, it had a drawstring at the waist and could be removed. Much of the sewing on the petticoat was done by Helen Minocki Brooks, who was then working at Claydon House, and came to the studio to assist with the project.

Draping quilted petticoat, with pinned plumb line

I made arms for the mannequin from washed muslin stuffed with polyester fill. These were made to be removable, so that the dress could be put on with less strain.

Lastly, to support a fold of in the skirt, in a drape similar to that shown in the Richmond portrait, Ksynia Marko, Director of the Studio, came up with the idea of ending one arm with two discs of acid-free card, covered in muslin. I sewed these on, attaching the outer disc along two-thirds of its circumference. This left a gap between the two discs, into which a skirt fold could be tucked, protected by a small piece of Mylar. To avoid permanent creasing, this was only to be used occasionally, and for short periods while on display.


Well, the dress was looking good, but the ruffled wrap (known as a fichu) worn with it in the Claydon portrait was no longer in the collection. I undertook to reproduce a similar one, from cotton voile. Historical research suggested that this was most likely to have been an ‘Antoinette’ fichu, a style that was fashionable at the time of the portrait, with long ties crossing in front and hanging down in the back.

I needed to make over 27 metres of bias ruffle! But it came out pretty sweetly.

Creating ruffles

Finished fichu









And here she is, displayed below her portrait in Claydon House.

I highly recommend a visit to the blog of the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio, in Norfolk, to see some of their fantastic work on historic items.

And if you enjoy a dose of (mostly American) history with your conservation, be sure to check out the blog at Museum Textile Services, in Massachusetts. The director, Camille Myers Breeze, is both a well-respected conservator, and a real history buff.



A lady, a dress, a portrait, and a stately home. Part I

Here’s a satisfying project I worked on in England, at the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio, where I was fortunate to land a “placement” a while back.

Portrait of Margaret Verney by Richmond

Portrait of Margaret Maria Hay-Williams, Lady Verney, by Richmond, in 1869, at about the time of her marriage. The portrait hangs in Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. Image courtesy of the National Trust.

The lady
The dress in question was made for Margaret Maria Verney, neé Hay-Williams (1844 –1930), a biographer and historian, and a promoter of higher educational institutions in Wales, where she spent some of her youth and a good portion of her adult life.

In January of 1868, at the age of 22, she married Edmund Hope Verney, 3rd Baronet, and moved to Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, the Verney family seat, where shortly thereafter her portrait was painted by Sir William Blake Richmond. Portraits by this artist of other family members and of Florence Nightingale, a relative by marriage and frequent visitor, are displayed at Claydon House. The brown velvet dress worn by Margaret Verney in her portrait was sent to the Textile Conservation Studio for evaluation and conservation. Claydon House staff hoped to create a new display featuring the dress, mounted near this portrait.

The dress
It had been stored away in a box at Claydon, after having been loved and worn over a long period. There are photographs of Lady Verney still wearing it, far into middle age, and it had sustained some damage and plenty of wear. When I explored it carefully a few things became clear. Alterations had been made to the dress, as might be expected from its long period of active use. The train shown in the Richmond portrait was no longer present; the skirt had been cut back to its current circumference and the hem re-bound. The waistband had been altered, and boning had been removed from casings in the bodice, leaving only two seams still supported by strips of whalebone.

Rip in dress bodice

Rip in dress bodice

An unsightly rip had opened up in the fabric of the bodice front, near a sleeve seam.

Several of the dress’ silk-covered metal buttons had lost most of their fabric covering, and the remaining threads on the most damaged buttons had slid off the surface, and were trapped at their backs.

Worn fabric-covered buttons

Metal buttons with remnants of fabric covering

Several of the dress’ silk-covered metal buttons had lost most of their fabric covering, and the remaining threads on the most damaged buttons had slid off the surface, and were trapped at their backs.

Distorted threads trapped behind buttons.



The first priority was the rip in the bodice front. I inserted a supportive layer of color-matched cotton twill, and used staggered rows of hand-stitched laid couching to repair and support the damaged area. I was able to coax back the distorted silk threads that had been pushed to the back of the dress buttons, using gentle humidification, and encapsulated them with two layers of silk crepeline, dyed to blend with the lost fabric covering. I found that placing and tightening two drawstring threads simultaneously allowed me to get the most even encapsulation of the button surfaces.

Making button covers

Making silk covers for buttons

Encapsulated button

Button during encapsulation.


After a few more minor repairs, the dress was ready for display, but this is where the work really began. A custom mannequin was needed to support the dress, and to display it as it might have looked when Lady Verney’s portrait was painted. I’ll show you that in the next blog post.

Until then, you can read more here about Claydon House.