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Wash day at the Museum

Wash day at the Museum

By Siobhan O'Donovan, Ian Langston and Kate Blair
Thursday, 31 August 2017

War brides were inventive when it came to finding fabric for their wedding dresses – discarded silk parachutes were one of the more creative sources. Just as much innovation was required by Auckland Museum's Conservation team as they cleaned and repaired a 1940s-era parachute silk wedding dress for display.

A romantic discovery

Joan and Eric Chapman on their wedding day.

Photo courtesy of Wayne and Linda Chapman.

Joan Corbett and Eric Chapman were married in June 1946. They met when Eric was stationed at an air force base in New Plymouth, keeping up correspondence while Eric was stationed in Guadalcanal and Bougainville and Joan worked in the Land Army. Eric picked up a silk parachute from a stockpile when he was demobilised from the Pacific at the end of World War II. Confident he and Joan were going to be married, Eric thought the parachute would make a great wedding dress.

Joan’s mother, Myrtle, made the dress. It features a typical 1940s silhouette with its diamond-shaped waist, padded shoulders, long sleeves and full skirt. Sixty nine cotton doily medallions were added for decoration, mostly in the train but also at the waist and on the shoulders. The voluminous train echoes the garment’s former life as a parachute.

Condition of the dress

The dress was in good condition apart from a few small tears, extensive creases and some yellowing of the silk.

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In 2015, Joan and Eric’s son and daughter-in-law, Wayne and Linda Chapman, donated the wedding dress to Auckland Museum. Then in 2016, the dress was selected to be displayed in the War Weddings case, but there was a lot of work to be done before it could go on show. 

To start with, we assessed the condition of the dress. The fabric had yellowed over time but the dress was remarkably robust with only minor tears and a few small stains.

There were two main conservation issues. Firstly, yellowing is usually an indication of increased acidity in the textile’s fibres – an acidic textile is a fragile textile. The second issue, the presence of numerous storage-related creases in the textile, posed a risk to the long-term stability of the dress. Creases can split a fragile fabric as easily as sharp scissors will cut it. So we decided to wash the dress to reduce both the creasing and the acidity of the fibres.

Washing antique textiles is not an easy decision. As conservators, we take a ‘less is more’ approach. Many considerations come into play, such as how will the textile fibres behave when wet, and are the dyes colour fast?

Having carefully examined the wedding dress, we determined that, with some preparation, it would be strong enough to undergo the washing process and, as the silk was not dyed, there was no risk of colour bleed.

Building a bath

Next we had to work out the logistics of physically washing the dress, including designing a bath. 

The sheer size of the dress was the first challenge to overcome. When laid out, the dress measures about two by four metres. We would be working with a large volume of water. A suitable bath needed to be big enough to contain the dress and strong enough to hold the volumes of water required.

Using a 3D modelling system, we came up with a basic concept. The design had a cross-beam structure, with marine ply walls and flat ply bed. These plans were then interpreted, tweaked and built by Auckland Museum display technician Paul Nimmo.

The bath was lined with layers of polyethylene plastic and a large piece of polyester gauze. The gauze layer allowed us to lift the dress out of the bath for the drying phase of the treatment. Water was added using a sprinkler, and a plug hole in the opposite end allowed controlled draining of the water. This water delivery and removal system also gave us the option to have running rinses, with water being added and drained simultaneously.

The bath with the dress lying on the table in front of it waiting to be washed.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

The chemistry of doing the laundry

Given that we do it all the time at home, most people think of clothes washing as an innocuous activity. However, on a molecular level, wet cleaning is one of the most stressful and invasive treatments a textile can undergo. It's time to delve into the chemistry!

Chemically speaking, water is an aggressive solvent because it has strong positively and negatively charged areas on each molecule. This is what makes water so good at cleaning – it attracts dirt particles or soils and takes them away from whatever it is you’re cleaning. On the flip side, these polar molecules can draw out residues so quickly that it can cause damage that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Because of this, we need to be careful about the kind of water we use.

Pure deionised water is often used for conservation cleaning as it contains no salts or minerals – compounds found in tap water that can deposit in a textile after washing and cause discolouration. However, recent conservation research suggests that deionised water can be too aggressive so textile conservators are adding salts back to make it gentler.

Before washing the dress, we measured the electrical conductivity of the silk fibres to gain an understanding of how many salts were present already from the wearer's sweat or previous washes. As a result, we added the salt tri-sodium citrate to increase the conductivity of the deionised water and bring it closer to the conductivity of the dress. This helps the water to draw out soils and salts, but not quite as quickly as pure deionised water. We also added citric acid to the water, which acts as a buffer to prevent large changes in pH occurring as acidic soils are released.

Even though water is a good cleaner, it does have some limitations. We often use a detergent to attract soils and bundle them up into microscopic balls called ‘micelles’. A wash bath filled with a water-detergent mixture has countless microscopic micelles, all helping the water molecules to drag dirt away from a textile and then scooping them up into little parcels. This is why the addition of a detergent makes washing more powerful than just water by itself.

An ideal conservation detergent doesn’t foam too much and can be easily rinsed out of a textile.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

But how do we decide which detergent to use? There are many domestic and commercial detergents out there, and the choices can be overwhelming. An ideal conservation detergent is effective at low temperatures, because cold water causes less damage to fibres than hot. We also want something that will efficiently remove soiling at low concentrations, doesn’t foam too much and can be easily rinsed out of a textile, because we don’t want to leave residues behind that can embrittle and discolour fibres over time.

With such strict criteria, there are only two conservation-approved detergents available in New Zealand. The first is Orvus® WA paste, an anionic detergent in which the main ingredient is Sodium Laurel Sulphate. The second is Triton X-100®, a non-ionic detergent used for various applications in biochemistry laboratories. To make the most of both types of detergents, we decided to use a mixture of Triton X-100® and Orvus® WA paste.

With the bath and the bath water ready, it was time to take another look at the dress.

Temporary support

Before the dress could be washed we needed to provide temporary support for the small areas of damage, predominantly located around the doily medallions.

There were small tears on the dress, mostly around the doilies on the edge of the train.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

This was done by sandwiching the damaged areas between two layers of nylon netting and stitching them together through the interstices of the fabric – the gaps between the warp and weft. It might not look like there are any gaps in the fabric, but the weave of the parachute silk is actually quite loose and a very fine needle can slip between the threads that make up the fabric. We used hair silk as stitching thread. Cotton would have been too thick and had the potential to leave evidence of the stitching in the form of small holes created by the warp and weft being pushed apart once the thread was removed.

The netting is temporarily holding the tear at the hem together and is supporting the damage at the top.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

The temporary supports would be removed at the end of the washing process and more permanent supports put in their place.

Wash day

The day of the wash lasted more than 11 hours and occupied the time of three conservators and a band of other willing helpers from across the Museum.

After arranging the dress on top of the gauze in the bath, the bath was filled with the deionised water. (with tri-sodium citrate and citric additives). This pre-soak water was then drained and the wash solution (containing the detergents) was piped through to the bath. We sponged the dress methodically for about 10 minutes, before draining the wash solution and beginning the first rinse.

Four rinses were required to wash away the surfactant from the dress, each taking more than an hour to complete. As the water from each rinse was drained from the bath, the pH of the water was tested. Continual monitoring of the pH allowed us to maintain an overview of any changes that were happening to the dress during the cleaning process, and ensured that we could make adjustments to the water to bring the pH of the dress to a more neutral level.

After the final rinse, the dress was lifted up from the bottom of the bath using the gauze on which it was resting. Fans were placed strategically around the bath to assist with the drying process. Microfibre cloths, which had been washed prior to use, were pressed onto the underside of the dress, both by staff standing around the bath and by one intrepid conservator who climbed into the bath and under the dress to reach the middle.

Conservator Ian Langston lying in the bath blotting the underside of the dress.

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A hairdryer (on the 'cool' setting) was also brought into action to assist with the drying process. The thick, cotton shoulder pads were also re-shaped. Finally, after more than 10 hours of washing and drying, the dress was ready to be put onto the dress form. Scrunched up netting was inserted into the arms, between the shoulder pads and the silk of the dress to help shape the dress while it dried overnight. This also helped to prevent the still-wet shoulder pads causing tide lines on the dress as they dried.

Post-wash stitching and making some undergarments

A slip was needed to provide modesty and structure to the dress.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

The final steps in preparing the dress for display involved making a slip and replacing some of the temporary supports with more permanent ones.

The Museum enlisted the help of its textile volunteers – a couple of lovely women with vast experience with vintage clothing and textiles – to make a slip to go under the dress. The parachute silk is extremely see-through and we felt that, in addition to providing the form with some modesty, a slip would provide a bit of structure to the dress that it was lacking on its own. The slip was made of two layers, a silk outer layer and a calico inner layer. The silk would ensure that the dress slipped over easily and the calico provided opacity. It was thoughtfully constructed so that the seams would not be visible to the visitor and was based on a vintage pattern.

More permanent support of the fragile areas on the waistband was required following the washing of the dress. The temporary nylon netting was removed and replaced with a patch of silk crepeline – a light, open-weave silk. Laid thread couching was used to strengthen the damaged areas. Couching stitch is described in The Textile Conservator's Manual as one of the most important stitches in conservation.

It is used to hold down broken and worn areas of fabric to a new support with the minimum of stitches, and gives the flattest form of join when piecing in new fabric or rejoining an object which has been cut through." 

Because of some weak areas of fabric on the left side of the waistband, a couple of short pieces of ribbon were also stitched into the outside of the waistband seam to tie the waistband shut rather than use the original hook and eye closures.

Finally we gave the dress form arms, around which the cuffs of the dress were secured. We also placed a small amount of padding in the bust and hips, encouraging the dress to sit on the form as it would have on Joan Chapman in June 1946.

The dress is now on display on Level Two at the entrance to the WWII Hall of Memories - to read more stories about Wartime Weddings, visit our On Display section.

Joan Chapman’s wedding dress – conservation complete.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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