Thursday, November 21, 2013

To clean or not to clean...

I definitely cringed a little today when I saw a lady drop off (what I assume was her daughter's) beautiful, all-lace wedding gown at the dry cleaners. She was very specific about a "certain way" to zip and unzip the gown properly. I wanted to be like "Lady, that's the least of your worries."

As you know, I have a background in textiles and apparel. I have a M.S. in Textiles and I'm finishing up the last year of my Ph.D., so I guess that technically makes me an expert...whatever that means. Obviously, when it came time for me to look into properly cleaning and preserving my gown, I did a lot of research. There are many different companies out there and each one has slightly different methods, techniques, and ideas for the proper way to clean (and preserve) an heirloom garment...however, from my schooling, research and experience, this is essentially what I have come to believe:

For proper cleaning and preservation, each stain (some visible, some not) needs to be identified and treated properly. Makeup, champagne, cake, perspiration, deodorant, etc. all affect fabrics differently. For example, sugar stains, if left untreated, and chloride salts (sweat), will oxidize over time and appear as brown spots months or even years later, causing irreversible fabric deterioration. This is why it is so important to find someone who is experienced in the proper cleaning methods.

Dry cleaning, while appropriate for most natural fibers, can be detrimental to certain dyes and finishes. Some dyes and finishes will dissolve in standard solvents. Beads or buttons made of certain plastics can become discolored. Aqueous solutions can cause certain fabrics to shrink. Gelatin-based sequins can dissolve. That's why it is important that the person cleaning and preserving your gown know what he or she is doing. It's important that they identify the composition of all the materials in your gown before treatment. Certain notions are outsourced to different manufacturers, meaning, your dress could be made up of a certain type of button or lining, but the way each piece was made might be different...and therefore one method of cleaning may be fine for one section of buttons, and then may completely ruin another section.

After cleaning, it is important to understand the proper way to store heirloom apparel. Acid-free, acid-free coated, lignin-free sealed, air-tight, boxed, bagged, hung, blah blah blah. Personally, I think it is better to hang a garment than it is to fold and box it. My reasoning is that museum professionals and costume historians have been hanging costumes and gowns for years. (Ideal storage conditions call for laying a garment flat...but that is not always the case for large or bulky garments.) Folding/creasing, etc. weakens and abrades the fibers over time. It is also important not to leave a gown in a dry-cleaner's plastic wrap or plastic garment bag. Plastics are an enemy to textiles. It is best to store your gown in a muslin bag that is naturally acid- and lignin-free, and as always, the bagged gown should be kept in climate controlled conditions (such as a window-less closet). 

Photo taken from an August 2012 exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore entitled, "The Wedding Dress: 200 Years of Wedding Fashion from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London"

There many companies that offer cleaning and preservation that give you back your dress in a nice little display box...but your "lifetime" warranty is void as soon as you open the box. The problem with this is, you can only see the top portion (bust) of your dress. How do you REALLY know if it's clean or not? You can't exactly open it up to inspect how the heck did they stuff the whole gown and train into that tiny little box? Here is an interesting read from The Wall Street Journal. They tested four companies that preserved four gowns from four brides. I found the article and its results to be really informative and helpful.

Ultimately, what a bride chooses to do with her gown after the wedding is up to her. Some sell it. Some trash it. Some hope to preserve it and give it to their daughters as an heirloom. If you want to clean and preserve it, it's important to take into account what you invested into the dress originally (money spent on the dress itself, alterations, etc.) and what you want to get out of it ultimately. Then go from there and decide what you want to spend on the process. Obviously, if you spent $300 on the dress, you're probably not going to want to spend $400-$600 to clean and preserve it. Although, the value could extend beyond that $300, since you are emotionally invested in it.

the Bride


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