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.