Caring for objects in museums is really important because it ensures they are preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Conservators at the Bowes Museum have spent the past 10 months painstakingly conserving and mounting 25 items of costume from the museum collection. These items are destined for display in the new Costume Gallery. In this series of blogs, we’ll be exploring in detail the specialist work they’ve undertaken. 

Christening dress 1750-1800

Barbara Morrison (née Lee) was the last person christened in this stunning dress in 1920. It had been passed down through her family. The Lee family are descended from William James Blacklock (1816-1858), one of Cumbria’s finest landscape painters. The museum has several of Blacklock’s paintings, drawings and watercolours in the collection.
White was worn for Christian christenings from the early 18th century to symbolise the child’s new life with Christ. A silk dress like this would have been an expensive status symbol. The dress also has a matching silk quilt. 


Hem before treatment

Before the conservators could start treating the dress, they condition checked it. This involved examining every part of the dress in detail checking for any problems. It took them 12 hours in total to treat this dress. 
The dress is made from cream silk and elaborately decorated with ‘S’ shaped silk rope tassel fringing. In this image you can see the fringing along the hem which has become distorted and entangled. The cream silk is also slightly yellow caused by soiling. The dress was conserved in 2001 but required again to remove the soiling and improve the appearance of the tassels. 


Cecilia Oliver and Kezia Cosson washing the dress

The conservators decided to wash the dress because of the yellow discolouration. As with all conservation processes it is important to test first. The conservators tested a small stain on the sleeve first with different detergents. They placed a sheet of Melinex inside the sleeve act as a barrier stopping any detergents from seeping into the fabric underneath. They tested by applying small pieces of blotting paper on the sleeve. One with water and the other two with different detergents. They decided to use one of the detergents to wash the dress. 
They immersed the dress in a bath of water to thoroughly wet it first and to see how it reacted to the water. They then briefly washed it in conservation detergent, as you can see in this image, sponging each side. They then rinsed the detergent from the dress. This removed some of the soiling and helped with the process of flattening the tassels. It made them easier to untangle and to sit flat on the dress as originally intended. They also stitched any loose tassels back down using a very fine silk dyed to match.


 Dress drying after washing

After washing the dress was placed flat on a towel to dry with conservation padding in the sleeves. Conservators ran a fan to speed up the drying process too.


Silk fringe before flattening 

Once the dress was dry the conservators had to tackle the silk fringing which was coiled up and distorted. 


Silk fringe being weighted down 

Small weights were added to straighten out the fringe. This was done section by section as you can see in this image. 


 Silk fringe after treatment

Here you can see the dramatic difference after treatment with the silk tassels untangled and lying perfectly flat. The dress needs to be handled with great care. It will be displayed on a flat padded support to avoid the tassels becoming misshapen.
The conservators also treated two small holes in the lining of the dress. They made a larger patch from silk dyed to match which they couch stitched in place using fine silk. Another area of weak fabric lining was covered with conservation netting also dyed to match. It was stitched in place with dyed yellow silk attached with herringbone stitch. 
When the conservators were examining the dress, they discovered some previous repairs which were possibly done many years ago by the family.