American Family Archives | Preserving Wedding Dresses & Heirloom Fabrics
So, folks, while this installment of our inclusive American Family Archive series of informative (and humorous!) blogs is gonna be focused on wedding dresses, wedding shoes, and other related bridal artifacts (see pix, above), the SAME materials and procedures described here can be used to store ALL SORTS of textiles and family heirloom fabrics and garments (see pix, below).
Yup, you can use the info below to safely store ALL of your important or sentimentally valuable heirloom fabrics including christening gowns / baby clothes / military uniforms / high school or college varsity letterman’s sweaters or jackets (remember those? – careful, you’re dating yourself! – see pix on the above left) / quilts / fine linens / grandma’s old lace / Uncle Lloyd’s Bowlarama Dine & Bowl bowling shirt (see pix on the above right) / even table cloths you still pull out and use for holidays and special occasions.
Whatever type of textile YOU wish to safely and archivally preserve, consider these storage tips and materials to preserve your wedding dress or other fabric artifacts for a lifetime (or two or three!).
And with that, we’re off!
1. Find Your Wedding Dress (or Other Fabric Artifact) and Get It Out of That Old Junky Box!
Wedding dresses are something to be valued and treasured. They are often considered one of the most important garments a woman ever wears.
Although some women may want to donate or sell their dress, a good many others want to keep them to pass down or share with a family member.
Fortunately, there are a number of preservation techniques and materials that you can use to keep your (or your mother’s / grandmother’s / great-grandmother’s) wedding dress in the best condition possible.
Sibley’s department store in Rochester, New York, (right hand photo) was founded in 1868.
By 1939 it was the largest department store between New York City and Chicago.
Sadly, it was bought out and eventually closed in the 1990s (weren’t they all).
Too bad, as it was cool, especially at Christmas. Fond memories of all that.
First, though, a bit about boxes. More often than not, your mother’s or grandmother’s (or great-grandmother’s!) old wedding dress and other heirloom fabric artifacts are currently stored in either the box they originally came in (see the flimsy, non-acid-free cardboard Sibley’s box from 50 years ago on the left), or in cheap plastic bins purchased just about anywhere (see the christening gowns, baby shoes and blankets on the right). The acids in old cardboard boxes and the damaging gases emitted by cheap plastic bins (that awful “plastic” stink you smell when you open one) can actually damage delicate wedding dresses and old fabrics.
2. Get the RIGHT Storage Box and Archival Materials (and CLEAR / CONCISE Instructions!)
Now we’re talkin’ folks! This Textile Storage Kit comes with EVERYTHING you need to store wedding dresses and other textile / fabric items, including:
• an acid-free Textile Storage Box (the flat gray thingy)
• acid-free Un-Buffered Archival Tissue (more on that important topic below)
• two (count ’em, TWO) pairs of White Cotton Inspection Gloves
• a reusable moisture-absorbing Desiccant Canister
• a large Polyethylene Bag for storing your finished kit (to be used on the OUTSIDE of the box, see below)
• clear & concise instructions / checklist on just WHAT ya need to do (click here to see them)
Okay, so by now I’m sure you’re thinking “Hey Lance, just how is that flat pile of strangeness gonna save my (or Great-Grandma Mildred’s) wedding dress from the ravages of time, and just how long is this project gonna take???”
Well, let’s walk through it in pictures (see below)—bing, bam, boom, DONE! – and usually in an afternoon—a great investment of time for such an important and cherished family artifact! But, before we start, please consider doing the following ahead of time:
• Clean Your Dress (or fabric artifact)
• Examine Your Dress (or fabric artifact)
• Photograph / Document Your Dress (or fabric artifact)
• Find and Set Up a Workspace
3. Clean Your Dress
Before preserving and storing your wedding dress or any other family heirloom textile, gently wash it (rubber ducky optional) or get it professionally cleaned. This is important, as even invisible stains from sugar (from wedding cake frosting that hubby squashed in your face) or champagne (hey, it’s a WEDDING, no further explanation needed) can oxidize over time and permanently discolor your dress. Make sure you ask for your gown to be cleaned but not “heirloomed,” which is a “preservation” process that shouldn’t always be trusted.
Certain cleaners may use a “wet” process to clean your dress, while others may just dry clean it. Ask your professional cleaner questions to determine which process is best for your particular dress / its material(s) / its beadwork or ornamentation. If they don’t seem to know the answers to your questions, go someplace else (cuz they’re clueless chumps – avoid ’em when it comes to important stuff like your wedding dress).
4. Examine Your Dress
Before you archivally store your dress, it’s important to take a close look at it. Always remove jewelry such as rings, watches, and even belts BEFORE you handle your dress or any other fabric artifact, as you don’t want to inadvertently snag it.
Many gowns have a lot of material, which means a thorough inspection is necessary. Make sure there are no stains or other soiling on the dress that were possibly missed during cleaning. You may also want to look for any minor tears or rips that may have happened during the ceremony / party afterward. If you notice these small issues now you can easily have them remedied instead of waiting for several decades and handing down a gown that may no longer be in pristine condition.
Whenever you handle your dress or fabric artifact, be sure to wear white cotton inspection gloves (you know, the ones that came with your Textile Storage Kit). These gloves are designed to handle delicate items and can help prevent any oils or dirt on your hands from carrying over onto the dress—even though you’ve already washed and thoroughly dried your hands (you did that, right?).
5. Photograph / Document Your Dress (and Other Heirloom Textiles) Before Storing It
Consider photographing and writing a description of your dress / shoes / ring pillow (if you have one) / veil / and other stuff AHEAD of archivally storing them. This will serve as a visual record / inventory of what you have, and allow you to include details about the dress or artifact and its history.
As an example of this written documentation:
“Mom (Mrs. June Q. Hotchickenwings) and Aunt Zelda (mom’s sister Miss Zelda B. Crabbrain) helped me (Ms. Alice B. Sputnik, nee Hotchickenwings) pick out this wedding dress in April of 1997 at Adolph’s Wedding Emporium and Auto Repair of Flyspeck, Wisconsin. Alice B. Hotchickenwings and Alfonso R. Sputnik were married on August 34th, 1997 in St. Miketyson’s Church, Flyspeck, WI.”
Quick, easy, and full of family history! Perfect for future genealogists, too!
Store copies of these photos and/or written documentation in acid-free Flap Envelopes or archival Polyethylene Bags and place them in your Textile Storage Kit with your dress and accessories. This will allow you to remember important facts (and visualize your stuff) without having to unwrap it all!
6. Find and Set Up a Workspace Where Your Dress and/or Artifacts Will Not Be Disturbed
As mentioned in our full blog on Setting Up a Great Work Space (Part 3 in our American Family Archives series of blogs, of which THIS blog is Part 11 – go and look at the other ones), find a space where you can set up a folding table. You can also work either on the dining room table or on the (recently vacuumed!) floor, but lay a clean sheet down ahead of time on all of these surfaces to ensure that things stay nice.
While laying out the Archival Tissue that comes with your kit / laying out your dress and accessories / wrapping and folding stuff / and placing everything in your archival Textile Box really doesn’t take all THAT long to do, you will still want a workspace that will remain undisturbed by others in the household or by the pet cat / dog / ferret / turkey buzzard should you be called away to answer the door for the dudes from Publishers’ Clearing House with one of those really big checks they show up with.
But seriously folks, now it’s on to an expanded “infographic” on what to do next—and please do follow the instructions included with your Textile Storage Kit, which you can take a look at here if you haven’t already.
7. Preserving Wedding Dresses & Heirloom Fabrics – By the Numbers
Step 1: Get yourself an archival Textile Storage Kit. It has everything you need to store your wedding dress and accessories (or any other priceless family heirloom fabrics like Uncle Lloyd’s bowling shirt – see pix above).
Step 2: Assemble your Textile Storage Kit box. This takes only a minute or two. Super easy. Even I can do it!
Step 3: Trim the archival tissue that comes with your kit (regular scissors will do quite nicely) to the size you need and lay this sheet out on your clean work surface / lay your dress on top of the tissue / and then lay another trimmed sheet on top of your dress (see pix).
Step 4: Fold the edges of the bottom sheet of archival tissue in over the dress.
Step 5: Gently (and loosely!) fold the dress in its protective tissue. You do not want to squash the dress into the smallest shape possible as this will increase the likelihood of “over-creasing” and “stressing” your dress. A light, loosely folded touch is the ticket here, folks. Fold your dress so that it fits into the archival textile box whichever way is best for the size of dress you have. (BTW, the yellow thingy at the bottom of the pix is a tape measure – your size will vary.)
Step 6: If you have a veil or train or any other bridal accessories, repeat the same steps described above with regards to archival tissue and loose folds.
Step 7: Once your wedding dress and bridal accessories are wrapped and folded, place them loosely (seeing a pattern here, folks?) in your archival tissue-lined textile box (see pix for a sense of how to line your box). Fill in empty spaces with loosely wadded-up tissue.
Step 8: Place the reusable desiccant canister that came with your Textile Storage Kit either on top of your folded tissue or along the interior side of your box and close the box. The desiccant canister is “reusable” in that it can be placed in an oven and “dried out” for reuse (full instructions on this procedure are included, and can also be seen here). After everything is battened down, place the entire archival box in the polyethylene bag that accompanied your Textile Storage Kit. This bag serves as yet another layer of protection as it will help keep moisture off / out of the box in case there is a leak or a water issue while in storage. (Please Note: DO NOT place the wedding dress or fabric directly in this poly bag, as the fabric needs to “breathe.”)
Step 9: If you have other bridal accessories (i.e. shoes, ring bearer pillow, etc.) that won’t fit in your box due to the size of your dress, or if you are concerned that spiky heels might damage your fragile dress, consider ordering additional Un-Buffered Archival Tissue, a second desiccant canister, and either an acid-free Artifact Box or a Metal Edge Short Top Box (see pix below) that will fit your needs, and then repeat the procedures described above to wrap and box these items. (Please Note: There are two types of Archival Tissue available – “buffered” and “un-buffered.” Some organic fabrics – like silk and wool – SHOULD NOT be stored in “buffered” tissue. When in doubt, always go with Un-Buffered Archival Tissue.)
By following the steps above, you’ve turned this… …into THIS!!!
Step 10: There is no Step 10. Boom! You’re done! (Well, almost.)
8. Don’t Mess Up by Storing Stuff in Your Attic or Basement!
More often than not, people store wedding dresses and other irreplaceable family artifacts in attics or basements. This can actually harm delicate fabrics and other items, as attics are susceptible to wide temperature and humidity fluctuations (not to mention leaky roofs), while basements can expose your garments to floods, molds, leaky water pipes and leaky water heaters.
Rather than either of these two household locations, consider storing your wedding dress and other fabric items (and ALL your important, archivally preserved family artifacts, photographs and letters) in a closet or on a shelf in your “living space” (cool / dark / dry), rather than in attics or basements.
If you’ve been following this series of American Family Archive blogs (and you should cuz I told you so, ’nuff said), then you know I repeat this whole spiel on “no attic or basement storage” over and over again. This is why (pix from our recent Archival Disaster Horror Story contest, go here to see the fully-illustrated blog on the “winners”):
9. Lastly, Check On Things Every Once in a While
Once you’ve stored your wedding dress or heirloom fabric artifact away, it’s important that you check on it from time to time. Aim to take it out of its box once a year to air out the material and keep folds flexible.
You should also check on your desiccant canister and “recharge it” if indicated (the little round window on it turns pink – see what to do here).
For all the work you’ve just accomplished, you could in fact harm the very items you’re trying to preserve if you don’t do these sorts of things on a more-or-less regular basis / every so often.
So, as they say, “that’s all, folks!” You’ve got your wedding dress and other heirloom fabrics all squared away in museum-quality materials, and the whole family (Mr. & Mrs. Hotchickenwings / Mr. & Ms. Sputnik / Aunt Zelda / Uncle Lloyd / the clueless dry cleaner chumps you avoided) are all very happy!
OK, I gotta go now, cuz the dudes from Publishers’ Clearing House are due here any minute with one of those big checks they drag around, so I’m gonna go and wait for ’em by the door, just as I have for the past 20 years.
If you have any questions on how to store your wedding dress, bridal accessories, or other heirloom fabric artifacts, or you would like more information on any of our museum-quality archival storage and presentation materials, please contact us here at Archival Methods. We’re always there to help with any archiving, storage, or presentation questions you may have.
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