Christening Dress, 19th Century, Cotton and Linen Lace, 37 x 19 in. Treatment by Textile Conservator Iola Gardner
This christening dress came to us with a remarkable history, having been passed down in the client’s family for many generations. It was beginning to show the signs of use that well-loved pieces often do. The fabric and lace had darkened over time, and the two layers of the dress were heavily creased, with numerous tears, splits, holes, and missing areas of embroidery (see fig. 4). As an important family heirloom, this fragile dress was treated with special regard by our Textile Conservator Iola Gardner. The client was kind enough to share the story of the dress and The Center’s role in its preservation for future generations:
“The linen and lace christening dress has been in our family ever since it was worn by my grandmother in 1890 in Chicago. It is a two-piece dress (slip underneath), very long, and ornate, made by the Sisters of Good Shepard in Chicago, Catholic nuns who supported their work with young women in trouble by sewing fine pieces such as christening gowns for women in Chicago society.”My grandmother’s six younger siblings were baptized in the dress, and their children and grandchildren of five succeeding generations. The most recent, a great- great granddaughter was baptized a few weeks ago at Old Saint Patrick’s Church in Chicago.”The dress had become fragile and discolored over the decades. Age alone had its effect, as well as the increased size of today’s babies. But we continued to use it because of its importance in the religious tradition of our family. We had long talked about getting it restored, but I could not find anyone local who could do this.
“I heard about The Conservation Center from an appraiser at a local “Antiques Roadshow.” I brought the dress to them, and explained that the family wanted to keep using it, not put it in a box somewhere, and asked what they could do to restore it. The people I dealt with were very professional, frank and upfront about what could be done. They could clean the dress and they could repair the lace. In places where the linen frayed, they could delicately stitch it up and back it with similar linen. It would not be perfect, but it would be noticeably better. They gave me a time frame and a cost.
“I contacted my sibling and my cousins, my children and nieces and nephews- from a very big family asking if they would contribute to this project. I struck a chord. Contribution poured in. I signed the contract and work began. The center gave me progress reports along the way, and three months later I picked up a magnificently restored christening dress, much whiter and cleaner- looking, lace and linen repaired. It is still fragile and no doubt will continue to fray as we use it, but I think it will last much longer in its restored condition.”
Figs. 4 and 5: Before and After Treatment Detail Photographs
The Dress was in extremely fragile condition when it arrived at The Center. After consulting with the client, The Center’s Textile Conservator created a treatment plan that made it suitable for continued use and took into consideration the historic nature of the piece. The repaired dress was returned to the client in an archival box that can be used to protect and house the piece between christenings.
“Christening our babies in this dress, first worn over 120 years ago, reminds us of the faith that is so important in our family and provides a strong bond for those of us who have worn it.”