From Grey to ‘White’ – Wet Cleaning Henrietta Woodcock’s Wedding Dress

Assistant Conservator Rachael Lee has just finished washing one of the dresses mentioned in the first Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 blog post and it’s looking really good!  Here she outlines the process of wet cleaning, which many of the garments in the exhibition will undergo before May.

First worn 165 years ago, this wedding dress, which was worn by Henrietta Woodcock on the occasion of her marriage to John Bell on June 28th 1848, will soon be on display in the upcoming exhibition Wedding Dresses 1775-2014 exhibition.
 

Previous display of the wedding ensemble of Henrietta Woodcock

Organic materials naturally degrade and years of soiling can become ingrained, so it was not surprising to find that what was once a ‘white’ wedding dress was now badly discoloured. The dress is comprised of two parts, a silvery white satin dress and embroidered cotton net overdress. It was found that the overdress was particularly dirty, as over the years it had acted as a barrier, keeping the satin dress relatively clean by comparison.

In order for the dress to be displayed in a stable and aesthetically pleasing condition it was determined that the two parts would be separated in order to wet clean the heavily soiled overdress. This also meant removing a sprig of wax orange blossom that was attached to the front of the bodice.

Detail of the dirty hem of the wedding dress

Unlike today’s domestic cleaning methods, an interventive conservation treatment like wet cleaning is a very lengthy and complex process with many factors to consider: is the object robust enough to withstand washing? Will fibres be lost or deformations occur? Ultimately the pros must outweigh the cons when undertaking such a treatment.

Wet cleaning would reduce yellow acidic deterioration products, neutralise fibres and slow further degradation.

In the wash! The dress was cleaned using conservation grade detergent, for a total of 2½ hours.

Rinsing detergent out of the wedding dress

Drying the wedding dress on a suspended rail

Image of the dirty, unwashed hem of the wedding dress

Photograph of the cleaned hem of the wedding dress

After a lengthy yet very successful treatment, the overdress now resembles something much closer to its original condition when first worn in the mid 19th Century. The garment has been stabilised and is now ready for further treatment. The next stages will be supporting the weak areas in the net, consolidating the sprig of wax orange blossom and mounting the dress onto a figure ready for exhibition display.

Rachael will update soon on the progress of this wedding dress – and I for one can’t wait to see the finished before and after images, to show just how big a difference her work has made.

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