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Care and Storage of Antique Clothing & Textiles

Ca 1874 2 Pc Dress

Circa 1874 Victorian Bustle Dress

First, let’s define what an antique textile is. The generally accepted definition of “antique” is any item that is over 100 years old. That makes all Victorian and Edwardian clothing antique. Clothing from the 1920s is quickly becoming antique, as well. But it just makes good common sense to include any fragile textile or garment that is collectible and/or meant to be kept over time in this definition.

When you visit my website, you will notice that with antique or particularly fragile items I state that “measurements are given for reference only since a garment of this age should not be worn”. Certainly, there are dresses that might be carefully worn such as some Edwardian era dresses and Flapper dresses. But generally speaking, 70+ year old fabrics will not hold up well to wear. Remember, once an antique dress is damaged, it is gone for good and a piece of history has been lost. These items really can’t truly be repaired and they will continue to deteriorate. We can attempt to conserve what remains but we can never restore it to its original state.

The very best way to enjoy and appreciate the lovely clothing confections of times past is to collect and carefully display it. If you really want to wear an antique gown, it is best to reproduce it as faithfully as possible. It’s amazing how much you learn about fashion and the way a gown was worn just by learning how they are constructed. Reproduction sewing patterns, sized for today’s bodies are available. You can also purchase vintage patterns (mostly post 1940). If you don’t sew, I can direct you to seamstresses who specialize in historical sewing.

Let’s say you finally own that beautiful original antique gown that takes your breath away. How should you care for it, so that you can protect your investment and keep it for future generations to appreciate?

Here are some important things to consider:
• Air
• Light
• Clean
• Storage Method

AIR – Antique garments should be kept in the type of air that makes YOU comfortable! Not too humid and not too dry. Old clothing is often found stored in the worst possible location of a home – the attic or the basement! Try to find a storage area in a closet on an inside wall of your living space.

Humidity will cause the most visible damage quickly. Obviously musty smell and mold are caused by humidity and dampness. Extremely dry air causes fibers to become more brittle.

LIGHT – UV rays aren’t good for you and they aren’t good for fabrics, either! Light causes fading and also contributes to the breakdown of fibers.

Obviously, if you store your antique gown in a closet, you have the ultimate protection from UV rays. But if you choose to “store” your dress by displaying it in your home be sure to keep it out of direct sunlight. Even filtered sunlight can be harmful, so it’s best to keep it as far away from a window as you possibly can, unless you are fortunate enough to have windows with UV filtering. (The effectiveness of UV filtered windows does decrease over time, so it’s still best to keep your antiques away from windows.) Try to find a dark corner and maybe even place a dressing screen between your dress and the window – just another layer of protection.

Did you know that florescent lights also give off UV rays? Now that many people are switching to the CF light bulbs, this is something to keep in mind. Although they do give off small amounts of UV rays, incandescent bulbs are much safer for textiles. Use them in your lamps where you display your antique fabrics.

If you have small antique items such as fans, handkerchiefs, gloves, lace and similar items grouped together in a shadowbox display, be sure they are protected with UV protected glass.

CLEAN – I know, that seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? But we’re talking about a little more than the obvious dirt and dust … from which, of course, you should protect your antique gowns.

Unless you happen to find antique clothing in an attic, you will probably only have to deal with the issue of common house dust and body oils from handling.

If you display your gown in your home it will, without a doubt, collect dust. Simply add a can of compressed air to your housecleaning supplies and every week when you clean, carefully spritz the air across the areas where dust collects. (If you clean more often than that, shame on you. If you do it once every 6 months, I won’t tell on you if you won’t tell on me!)

It’s also advisable to use 100% white cotton gloves that fit you … well, “like a glove”! This prevents the transfer of anything that might be on your hands to your textile. If you are uncomfortable handling your textile with gloved hands, at least make sure to wash your hands and rinse well with clear water. It’s best to air dry your hands because traces of fabric softener will remain on your hand towels and end up on your hands. Picky, picky stuff, eh?

You’ll also want to display your antique textiles away from kitchens, where they would be exposed to grease and chemicals in the air. And of course, the bathroom with its high humidity would be a bad idea. But don’t forget your dressing table area. Perfume overspray, hairspray, cosmetics … there are a lot of things that can stain and damage your textiles.

If you do come across some antique clothing that is old, dusty, and musty there are a lot of things that need to be done to preserve it. There are specific ways to clean items that have been ignored for a century or so. They can be very detailed and care should be exercised when doing so. The Costume Society of America does have a specialized booklet entitled “Your Vintage Keepsake – A CSA Guide to Costume Storage and Display” that you can order through their website.

One more word about cleaning antique textiles: The dry cleaner can be your best or worst friend. It depends on the age and fabric content of your item.

“Dry” cleaning really isn’t. Your clothing is just being washed in chemicals. Yikes! Antique textiles are really too fragile to come into contact with chemicals and some lighter fabrics have even been known to have dark spots appear from being dry cleaned. Also, traces of the chemicals will remain in the textile after cleaning and will contribute to deterioration.

That said, the dry cleaner can be your best friend prior to storing modern synthetic fabrics. They’re already mostly chemical anyway! What you don’t want to do is store a special dress, like your wedding gown, with even a tiny spot of champagne or cake frosting because the stain will eventually turn brown and the sugars are food that attracts critters – the rodent kind AND the insect kind. Don’t pay extra to have your gown put in a box with a viewing window and blue tissue paper. Why? The window allows destructive light in and the blue dye on the paper can transfer to your white gown, and it really does not prevent yellowing at all!

STORAGE — There are a couple different ways to store your antique clothing and textiles. The safest, most conservation-minded method is flat storage in acid-free containers. The good news is that most people find it easier to store boxes than to find hanging space in closets.

We are hearing a lot about acid-free papers and “archival quality” items for heirloom documents and scrapbooking, now, but it is equally important to use proper conservation materials with your textiles. Acid-free cardboard boxes and papers are the most common materials used for textile storage and protection.

When a product is said to be “acid-free” it means that it is made without acid producing contents such as lignin, which comes from wood pulp. Acid-free products have a neutral pH unless calcium carbonate has been added to make them alkaline, and then they are called “buffered”. Buffered storage is good for plant based fibers such as cotton and linen. “Non-buffered” remains completely neutral and is good for storage of protein (animal) fibers such as wool and silk.

Since many antique fabrics contain a blend of plant and protein fibers, we recommend the use of non-buffered papers. Non-buffered papers are safe for storing all types of fibers.

Plastic storage containers are generally considered inappropriate for textile storage because many are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is not chemically stable. Dry cleaning bags, garment bags, and totes are quite often made of PVC. Polypropylene and polyethylene are acceptable plastics for archival storage, but since not all plastics are labeled, it’s safer to stick with cardboard, which “breathes” as well.

Cedar chests may repel moths and carpet beetles, but as a chest ages, the oils that produce the distinctive aroma dissipate and the less it repels insects. At the same time, the wood gives off acid as it ages, just the way an untreated cardboard box would. So while we love cedar chests and the memories they represent, they’re not really good storage for your true antique textiles.

Sometimes we have heirloom wedding gowns with accessory items their owners wish to store with the gown. Leathers, plastics, and synthetic fabrics and other items should be stored separately from textiles. To be sure that the items are kept together for posterity, simply note on the outside of the storage boxes information to tell future generations that items belong together.

You’ve probably heard that you should roll quilts to store them, and this is also a good idea for storing shawls, scarves, and handkerchiefs. Dresses aren’t so easy to roll, so we carefully fold them, padded between layers with acid-free tissue paper. It is also recommended to re-fold once a year, which also gives you the opportunity to inspect your gown for any insects or other problems that may have surfaced over time.

Should you decide to store your antique gown on a hanger, first consider the weight of the item. Mid-19th century and earlier dresses were usually made in one piece and had a small loop sewn at the waistband for hanging on a peg. Some of these dresses have a lot of heavy fabric in the skirt and can do some serious damage to the shoulder area of a dress when placed on a hanger today. Newer “antique” gowns, such as beaded silk Flapper dresses, are extremely heavy due to enormous amounts of glass beading. The threads holding these beads are now about 90+ years old and the stress of this kind of weight is magnified by gravity when stored on a hanger. It also puts the weight of all the glass beads on the shoulders, when on a hanger, so tearing is a danger when stored in this manner.

If you must hang an antique garment for storage always, ALWAYS use a padded hanger. Always! I can’t tell you how many garments I have been offered that are damaged beyond saving by hangers. You can pad a regular hanger with 100% cotton batting, covered with 100% cotton knit or muslin for the very best padded hanger. In a pinch, you can buy the satin covered padded hangers and recently I’ve found that Martha Stewart has a line of 100% cotton canvas covered hangers, which are preferable to synthetic satin. I don’t know what the content of the padding is so I would not be comfortable in stating that they would be of archival quality, but if you just can’t get around to making your own these are a pretty decent second choice.

Next, you need to make a muslin cover for the garment out of 100% cotton fabric that you’ve laundered (no fabric softener!) a couple of times. Just sew up your own garment bag with ties instead of a zipper.

What about storing your antique gown and displaying it at the same time?

Not a bad idea, as long as you remember to keep it out of direct sunlight, do the dusting thing AND don’t try to fasten a gown with a 22” waist over a dress form with a 26” waist! Ouch!

Dress forms are very hard to find that are small enough to properly display an antique gown. We’ve found some “junior” sized dress forms, presumably for use when sewing for teens, that have worked fairly well. But the best dress form is made with a soft 100% cotton body. The bodies are made of 100% cotton batting with 100% cotton knit covers so you can squish them down to almost any size. They can also be padded in the bust and hip areas.

And finally – one last thing to consider when thinking about the proper care of antique clothing: the decision to wear or not wear them. It is a very personal decision and one that can only be made by the owner of the garment. I think you know where I stand on this issue.  But here are some thoughts on the subject:

As modern women, we just don’t know how to wear the clothing as it was meant to be worn. And frankly, most of us are not nearly small enough. The size of our bodies today and the fact that we are used to total freedom of movement are, in my opinion, probably the biggest factors contributing to the deterioration of antique clothing that is worn.

Consider this:

The Victorian and Edwardian woman was corseted in some manner since her childhood and was accustomed to the limited movement. She did not necessarily feel constrained by her corset, bustle or petticoats. This is the life she knew.

Today, we are accustomed to moving freely – bending at the waist, twisting and turning, raising our arms, lifting and so forth. Our foremothers probably only enjoyed that freedom in their nightgowns.

So — IF you choose to wear an antique garment that you own:

DO make certain your own measurements are smaller than that of the dress. Respect the age of the fabric. It WILL be fragile, to some extent. If you attempt to wear an antique dress and your body is too large for the dress size, pulling on the fabric can seriously damage or destroy it. If you barely fit the dress, your movement can cause the same damage. So just be respectful. 

DO wear newly made undergarments proper to the period of your dress! They truly are the “foundation” for any antique OR vintage clothing you wear. Wearing the same type and amount of undergarments that the original owner of a dress wore will not only help you get the realistic look but the undergarments themselves will help protect your investment in an antique garment in the same way the undergarment protected the garment when it was new.

• A chemise or slip protects the inside of a garment from perspiration and body oil. A chemise is meant to be worn next to your skin and will protect YOU from your corset! A slip is worn over a girdle.
• A corset or girdle not only provides the proper shape, but it helps you to move in the way the garment was meant to be worn. When properly fitted – and proper fit IS the key – a corset is not uncomfortable unless it is tight laced. (Tight lacing presents certain dangers to health and Victorian women were warned of the hazards.)
• A bustle, if appropriate to the period of the dress, will provide the proper shape and keep dress hems from excess wear by holding them at the appropriate length so as not to drag (obviously, this does not apply for dresses with intentionally long trains).

As the lucky owner of an antique textile, we hope this information will help you preserve it for many, many years to come!

How To Buy Vintage Clothing That FITS Part 3

Wow! Time really got away from me last month! With such a late start to summer and way too much rain, I’ve been desperately trying to get the garden in. It’s been a struggle, for sure.

But .. here we go – the final post of the series

Part 3 of How To Buy Vintage Clothing That Fits

You MUST learn to take measurements of your body and of the garments. I know, most of us would rather not face the reality of the tape measure but it’s a necessary evil if you want to wear vintage clothing!

Know Your Measurements to get a great fit

Know Your Measurements to get a great fit

Always take into consideration YOUR problem area. Mine is my waist size. I know that if a dress has a waist measurement less than ……. I just don’t need to fall in love with it. I will NOT lose enough weight. (I might, but … let’s get real.) To use an extreme example: If my bust measurement is 38” and my waist is 32″, I know that I won’t be able to wear a dress with a 34” waist measurement even if it has a 38” bust measurement. (Just so you know … these are NOT my true measurements. Mine are worse. LOL)

On the other hand, if my bust measurement is 32” and my waist is 28” and the apple of my eye dress has a 38” bust and a 28” waist – I can try it on and if the bust is too large, you can have it altered to fit. Easy peasy! (Always keep in mind that it is easy to make a garment smaller, but it can be nearly impossible to make it larger.)

So let’s get real and get out our measuring tape. When shopping for vintage clothing you MUST know your measurements. (I said that already, didn’t I??) Not only your body’s measurements, but measurements of that dress/skirt or top or pants that you already own and love because it fits you perfectly. Compare those measurements. Yes, I’ve repeated that (again!) because it’s IMPERATIVE. If you love that vintage dress – you want to look great in it, and what’s better than feeling great and getting compliments when you wear it?

Here is how to find a vintage dress that fits:

It is considered best that someone else take your measurements because when you take your own measurements, it’s easy to get the tape in the wrong place without realizing it.

Here’s a video that Sandra Mendoza of debutanteclothing.com has done. It is excellent and will show you exactly what to do!

Here are the measurements you should take:

At minimum:
Measure your bust
Measure your waist
Measure your hips

Preferred:
Bust (fullest part)
Waist (smallest part)
Hips (fullest part)
Neck (base of neck)
Back Shoulders (on the back, across from the top of each shoulder where a sleeve would start)
Top of Shoulders (neck to top of shoulder)
Armhole (top of shoulder, around the underarm area)
Full Length (shoulder to floor)
Front Waist Length (shoulder to waist)
Front Skirt Length (waist to preferred hem length)

WRITE IT DOWN ON A PIECE OF PAPER (after you memorize it you can eat it or shred it so no one else will ever know).

NOW … be prepared to add about 2” EACH to the bust, the waist, and the hips. That’s for ease of movement. If your body and the dress have exactly the same measurements, you may feel too restricted to move without harming the dress.

That’s just the start.

Now go to your closet and find that dress or whatever that fits you perfectly. Measure IT. You’ll want to take these measurements, at minimum.

First, lay the dress out on a flat surface. Dress Measurements

Bust: Measure horizontally from the bottom of each armhole and double
Waist: Measure horizontally the obvious waist or about 6” below armpit
Hips The obvious widest area or about 8” below where you measured for the waist.

Back shoulder: Turn the dress to the back and measure straight across from top of shoulder seams

There are other measurements that can also be helpful
Sleeve length
Bodice length
Skirt length
Overall length
Your own special “problem area”

Now – compare your body measurements to dress measurements.

One more thing: take into consideration the shape of the dress. Example: A dress with a fitted bodice and full skirt will be more forgiving of hip measurements but a sheath dress will require a more exact measurement overall.

KNOW THESE MEASUREMENTS BEFORE YOU SHOP – at the very least the bust, waist, and hips.

And knowing your measurements is imperative when you shop online. Be sure you look at the shop owner’s policies, how they measure their garments (because everyone does it a bit differently ~ and there can be special measurements such as with raglan sleeves). Above all, if you have questions or need help, ask. That’s what we’re here for and we want you to be happy with your purchase.

Lastly, don’t hesitate to make alterations to the size after your purchase. We don’t hesitate to have modern clothing altered to fit and vintage is no different. Obviously, this will be easier if you purchase a dress that is larger than you need. One area that is very difficult to alter is the back shoulder measurement, so be careful there. Just remember that alterations almost always void return policies.

One caveat: on “antique” dresses – they are one of a kind fine historic examples that can never be replaced – it’s best not to alter them. Chances are, you paid a lot of money for this garment so you don’t want to devalue it or harm it. IF you are going to wear a fine historic dress (not ever recommended), make SURE it is VERY large so you don’t stress the fabric or threads.

How To Buy Vintage Clothing That FITS – Part 2

As promised … Part 2 of How To Buy Vintage Clothing That Fits: The Details

Our bodies are proportioned entirely differently than they were, even 20 years ago. There are endless reasons for this but consider this – until the 1960s, foundation garments were almost always worn. When you get up every morning and pull on a long line or a fitted, circle stitched bra and a girdle your body will naturally accept and retain the shape the foundation garments give. Clothing manufacturers made clothes knowing that these foundation garments would be worn with them – that is, the dresses were cut and shaped to fit a body shaped by wearing these items.

Wearing a corset like this daily, actually molds the body into a particular shape.

Wearing a corset like this daily, actually molds the body into a particular shape.

You can see this in photographs since cameras were invented. 1840s dresses have an elongated “ironing board” bust and waist shape, 1850-1895 were wide bust, small waist, 1900’s had the s-curve corset that forced the bust forward and the butt back. 1920s – flattened bust, no waist, no butt. 1930s – more naturally curved body and general use of a separate bra. 1940s/50s – uplifted bust and small waist. Late 60s – natural body shape/gradual disuse of girdles and naturally shaped bras – fairly shapeless dresses. We won’t discuss the 70s – the 2000s because by that time, anything goes.

Today, our bodies define the shape of the clothing we wear. It’s all about finding the clothing you CAN wear – some styles, I CAN’T wear. I have to find clothing with certain shapes/fit in order to give me the illusion of the shape I desire and that hide the wrong shape.

Do you remember in my last post when I said that I will refer to the back shoulder measurement when helping me decide which general size to call a dress? That’s because most of us have broader shoulders and we are not used to “fitted” clothing, meaning that today’s garments are made with extra “ease” for movement. Garment makers know that we are used to being free to move, where our foremothers were used to wearing, what we consider restrictive, garments. Smaller armholes did not feel small or tight to them. It felt fitted properly. (Remember, women didn’t regularly wear pants/sportswear until the late 50s to early 60s!) So if you feel just a little pinched in the armholes, don’t slouch! Do as your mama said! Stand up straight and pull your shoulders back. It just might surprise you! 

I say this because, if your dress fits, but still doesn’t look “right” – it may be because you lack the foundation garments that would have been worn when the dress was made. Make the effort to find either vintage foundation garments or modern garments that mimic that shape and you will probably be thrilled with the difference!

Next time … Part 3: The Nitty Gritty

Modern Clothing Sizes Make No Sense

I just ran across this from Tim Gunn on WhoSay and it goes so well with Part 1 of How to Buy Vintage Clothing that Fits, that I had to insert it.  Let’s call this Part 1a.

Seriously, the hip measurement of a size 8 at Banana Republic is the same as a SIZE 2 at The Gap?  And The Gap and Banana Republic are essentially the same company.

If this isn’t enough to convince vintage shoppers to take the time and make the effort to measure, measure, measure I don’t know what is.  J

Now REALLY …. Next time:  The Details (or just how to do that measure, measure, measure thing!)

 

How To Buy Vintage Clothing That FITS – Part 1

Once again, I must apologize for the delay. Had a little snafu during a WordPress upgrade followed by carpal tunnel surgery (yay!) … I can finally type again!

As promised, here is Part 1 of 3.

Vintage size 16 is NOT the same as modern size 16!

Vintage size 16 is NOT the same as modern size 16

Part I: The Basics

Do you know what your clothing size is? I mean, REALLY? Well, you say, sometimes I wear a size 10, but sometimes a size 12. It just depends. Maybe I’m strange, but I usually take at least 2 sizes with me to the dressing room, sometimes 3 – one size on either side of the size I *think* I wear.

When we have this much difficulty finding modern clothes that fit, how can we possibly expect it to be easy to find VINTAGE clothing that fits? Especially when it’s extremely rare for a vintage shop to have the same dress in multiple sizes. It’s just NOT gonna happen! Think of vintage clothing as OOAK.

Often, vintage clothing sellers will give an approximation of size – X-Small, Small, Medium, Large, X-Large. This is a helpful starting point because we all have an idea where we fall with this method of sizing. Please don’t ask a vintage clothing seller to tell you what size a dress is. We can’t. Modern sizes are very, very different from vintage sizes. I guarantee that I could barely get a leg in a vintage size 16, where a modern size 16 might be a bit big on me.

For instance: on this 1952 women’s pattern, Size 14 fits a woman with a 32”bust and 35” hips.

1952 Pattern Size 14

1952 Pattern Size 14

Now take a peek at the Standard US Clothing Size chart on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_standard_clothing_size . A 32” bust is a Misses’ size 6 on this chart. That’s a real eye-opener! So remember – think MEASUREMENTS, not size.

Shopping for vintage in person is, obviously, easier than online – unless you’re at a vintage fair where there is no place to try things on. Regardless, you need to know where to start. One thing you DON’T want to do is take something to the dressing room and rip or tear the dress or zipper because you started with a dress that looked big enough but … wasn’t. Always remember that the fabrics vintage clothes are made of are at LEAST 20 years old. The thread that holds it together is at least 20 years old. And a lot are pushing 100 years old. You can’t expect old fabrics and threads to take a lot of stress without tearing, ripping, or breaking. And keep in mind that you will be required to purchase an item you’ve damaged.

In my shop, my tags all list at least the basic bust, waist, hips measurements. Often, other measurements will be included so you’ll have a good idea if a garment will fit if you know your measurements. Usually I have estimated a modern size XS, S, M, L, or XL as well.


I made up a chart to help me decide which size estimate will be the most helpful. IN GENERAL, when dress measurements don’t quite match up with my chart, I lean toward basing my estimate on the waist measurement and then take into consideration the back shoulder measurement. EVERY SHOP IS DIFFERENT. But if you know your measurements and the measurements of a dress that will fit you properly, you’ll do just fine. And never hesitate to ask for help. Most of us sell vintage because we love it and we want you to, too!

Next time … The Details

News from Belle à Coeur Treasure Trove Vintage

Ta Da! I’m baaack! After a year-long hiatus … an agonizing year of having my website updated that turned into me going to school and learning HTML! (Turns out, it’s kind of fun … well, so far. LOL) I hope you’ll take a few minutes to check out the shop’s new look and let me know how you like it. It still has come bugs, but … these, too, shall pass.

Wedding Cupcakes

Wedding Cupcakes

So what’s happened over the past year? Not a whole lot. I kept holding off listing things, thinking the website would be ready. You know how it goes. Last year was a good year to step back a little, though, because both of my children got married! What a year! My youngest asked me to make their wedding cake to save money. This turned into wedding cupcakes. Months of testing recipes and decorations that fattened up the entire county! My oldest used a reception hall that didn’t allow outside bakery products, so I did their rehearsal dinner cupcakes. If you want to take a peek at them, I started a blog “Victim of Cupcakes” to keep track of what I was doing – and THAT turned out to be really fun, too! I’m a little behind on THAT one, too!

What does this have to do with vintage? Welllllll …… my personal vintage stash no longer fits!

Seriously, I HAVE to stay off Pinterest. I discovered Pinterest while researching cake recipes and decorations and it’s turned into yet another fun diversion. I’ve been pinning wonderful things from my shop, wonderful things from my vintie friends’ shops, recipes, jewelry, hints, recipes, shoes, recipes … See where this is going? My personal stash of vintage clothing no longer fits! Follow me on Pinterest so we can share all the wonderful vintage and recipes (I’m never going to fit into my clothing, am I?)

As to shop news, we just came back from the Chicagoland Vintage Clothing, Jewelry and Textile Show & Sale in Elgin, Illinois. Had a great time, visited with friends, made new friends, and sold a lot of goodies! It’s always interesting to see what’s “hot” from one show to the next. I sold a BUNCH of skirts and I don’t think I’ve ever sold a skirt at Elgin!

For the past several years, I have been asked to give a short demonstration/presentation on different vintage subjects. (Yep, that’s me in the video from last February with the Victorian corset, hoops, and underpinnings!) This time, my presentation was “How to Buy Vintage Clothing that Fits”. As promised, I will be breaking it down into a couple of blog posts so that those who attended can refer to it AND so can my readers! I’ll get started on that next week because this one is quickly getting away from me!

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