By Lidia Plaza
This week, we discuss the detailed methods we are employing to rehouse our costume collection. Support the Maryland Historical Society by participating in our Adopt A Box! program. For as little as $100 you can help preserve these treasures for future generations.
Boxing a garment is often the best way to store it, especially if the item has structural weaknesses or other issues. However, care must be taken in the process of boxing the object to ensure that it is truly happy in its new home. A poorly boxed garment can become wrinkled over time, and those creases will weaken a textile, often leading to tears. For example, the costume collection was previously housed in boxes, but garments were folded and stacked with other garments on top. This housing, combined with the storage space in Pratt House has lead to increased fragility and splitting in some costumes.
Our method uses archival boxes and allows each dress to have its own box so that it can happily live in the new housing. This not only prevents damage but can extend the life of fragile costume objects.
Every textile needs to be assessed individually to determine the best method of housing, however similar items often require similar kinds of housing. As a significant number of the objects in our collection are dresses either as a single item or as a bodice/skirt ensemble, we've developed a set of techniques for boxing voluminous skirts and boned bodices, which can often be tricky to get into an archival box.
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The first step is to lay the dress out flat to determine how the garment naturally falls. It is always best to pack a garment in such a way that follows the natural form of the object as much as possible. This is a good time to pick out the box you are going to use and plan out how you are going to pack it. For example, if multiple things are going to be placed in the box, then the heavier, sturdier items should be placed on bottom while lighter, more delicate things should be placed on top.
At this point we line the box with a Tyvek "sling." We place these sheets of Tyvek between each item with a little excess on each side so that if items need to be removed from the box, one can handle the Tyvek instead of the directly touching the garment.
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Next the bottom garment needs to be prepared to be placed in the box. With a dress, typically the skirts go on the bottom. Skirts can be tricky to get into a box because of their volume. I personally like the "wave" method of storing skirts, because it supports the natural folds and pleats of the skirt. The basic idea is to weave rolls of tissue over and under the folds of the skirt. The goal is to naturally support the skirt and eliminate folds or creases that could weaken the fabric. It's often easiest to start "the wave" from the center back seam.
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Once the rolls reach the outside of the waistband, it is often a good idea to fold the sides in (see below). When folding over the sides of the skirt, a roll of tissue is placed in the far edge of the skirt for support. A roll of tissue is then placed adjacent, but on top of the skirt to support the fold. Only once these archival tissue rolls are in place can the skirt sides be gently folded over.
If the front of the skirt still has volume, more rolls can be added to the top. In this case, the wave-like pattern is repeated for the front.
After the skirt has all tissue rolls in place, the skirt can be placed in the box. Obviously in this case the skirt doesn't entirely fit in the box. Ideally every skirt would always fit in the box, and if time and space allowed we would make a custom box for each object. However, as we have many dresses to tackle this summer, the standard archival boxes sizes are used. The solution, in this case, is to fold the bottom of the skirts over.
A sheet of tissue is placed between the fold and then an extra roll of tissue supports the fold. Again, we want soft, supportive curves instead of tightly folded lines.
Lastly, a large roll of tissue is added to support the waistband of the skirt. If needed, more than one roll can be added. Once the skirts are safely tucked in the box, a Tyvek sling can be placed over the skirts.
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Now the bodice can be rehoused. This bodice is fairly sturdy and doesn't require much more than the standard supports however each object is different. First, rolls of tissue paper are added to support the sides of the bodice. Then a main-body roll is placed in the middle. Lastly, small rolls are added to the small sleeves. In other cases, Tyvek sleeves are sewn and inserted into the sleeves. For more information on that, please refer to my earlier post on our rehousing process. If the bodice required it, more rolls could be added to support the torso and shoulders.
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For more information on our Adopt A Box! program, which includes admissions to a lecture about our Costume Collection and an image of the garment you have adopted, click here.