Conservation Cleaning of a Wedding Dress

14 December 2009 by Jessie Firth

Emma Jones previously mentioned in 60 year old sweat on a wedding dress – a conservation challenge the preparation of Miss Platt-Hepworth’s wedding dress for the exhibition Of Love and War. The decision was made by the curator Rebecca Britt to keep the staining as evidence of use. While the staining is important to keep, the fabric was not as lustrous as it once was. The dress has a pattern of pretty daises made from cream silk woven with numerous silver threads. A lot of the silver plating on the metal threads had tarnished and been damaged; this has exposed the copper substrate of the thread and gives the dress a more golden appearance than it originally had.

Due to the presence of the metal threads, I discounted the use of many of the cleaning methods that a textile conservator might normally use such as washing. As any treatment with water could damage the silk or cause further corrosion of the metal I decided to use a solvent to ‘dry-clean’ the dress. Petroleum spirits was my chosen solvent as it is less toxic than a lot of the other dry-cleaning solvents. My tests also indicated that the lustre and handle of the silk would be improved, while leaving the historical staining intact.

Petroleum Sprits is an unpleasant chemical to use, so to ensure our safety we used gloves and respirators. The bath was set up in a large fume extractor in the Large Technology Conservation Workshop, which is usually used to paint tanks!

When historical textiles are being treated it is important to be very gentle so as not to damage the fabric. So for this wedding dress a large bath was used to prevent creases and folds.  During ‘dry-cleaning’ the dress was very gently sponged by hand to move the solvent through the fabric without moving the fabric too much. Once rinsed with more of the solvent, the dress was lifted out of the bath on a nylon netting supporting sling and placed on a hammock (made of more netting) to dry.

The following photographs show Sarah Clayton, Senior Textile Conservator, and myself, ‘dry-cleaning’ Miss Platt-Hepworth’s wedding dress in Petroleum Spirits and the dress drying.

Sarah Clayton and Jessie Firth ‘dry-cleaning’ Miss Platt-Hepworth’s wedding dressMiss Platt-Hepworth’s wedding dress drying after 'dry-cleaning'

This was a successful treatment; the fabric is fresher and more lustrous after cleaning, whilst the historical stains remain intact. It is now very important that we use gloves when handling this dress, to prevent the natural oils and acids from our skin tarnishing the silver threads again.