Making the big day last a lifetime

We sit down with gown preservationist jonathan scheer on how to make your gown last for generations

Q: What is your background training in textile preservation?

A: As a young collector of works of art on paper in the 1980’s I was encouraged to study conservation science by a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. I took his advice and studied at the Conservation Analytical Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution with an initial focus on paper conservation. I migrated to the study of textiles when I discovered that the study of the nexus between the complexities of construction, dye, weave and history of origin of three dimensional textiles were more challenging and interesting to me. Subsequent to my academic training I did a brief internship at the Conservation Lab at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York before embarking on my present career in costume conservation with a specialization in cleaning and restoring museum textiles, modern couture and contemporary ceremonial costume (couture bridal attire) in 1992.

Q: What exactly does preserving a wedding dress mean?

A: The word “preservation” as it relates to wedding gowns is often both overused and misused. In its most generic form I would define gown preservation as the process of successfully preparing the object for safe long term storage in a home environment. This includes proper and safe cleaning, the use of acid free support and barrier materials, a chemically inert unsealed textile storage box, and when necessary professional mending to restore the original structure of the textile if damaged during use. The goal is to provide for the long term chemical and physical integrity of the object. 

Q: What is the difference between what you do and a neighborhood dry cleaner?

A: The relative complexity of cleaning any textile depends on the type and condition of the fibers as well as the intricacy of construction. Many contemporary couture bridal designers are now incorporating a wide variety of non-woven materials, including paints, plastics, and unconventional embellishments. Our two primary responsibilities to our clients are to do no harm, and to improve the chemical stability of textile. In my view the challenges of cleaning these complicated textiles are great and are best met by conservators who have both the experience in handling these assignments and the expertise to conduct the necessary testing, treatment planning and gentle cleaning that are critical for successful outcomes. Further, because wedding gowns often undergo significant trauma during use it is very important for the owner to know that conservators with expert hand sewing skills will faithfully stabilize and reconstruct areas of loss or damage to the weave or embellishments. 

In our view conventional dry cleaning is sufficient for basic gowns of relatively simple construction which are made of synthetic materials such as polyester. And even here, cleaning the gown is only one aspect of the preservation process.  The use of safe, acid free wrapping and storage materials, for example, is essential to promote the stability of the textile. Conservators use materials that meet the most demanding museum standards for ensuring safety and longevity whereas conventional dry cleaners typically offer wrapping and packaging materials that, while pretty, do not meet the same rigorous standards. Providing an environment which promotes the physical and chemical integrity of the textile is a crucial component of proper preservation.

In sum, unlike many conventional dry cleaners, trained conservators more fully appreciate and are more experienced in addressing the often complex needs of delicate, fragile, and intricately designed ceremonial costume. Their training and experience in working with complicated, multi-faceted assignments is more likely to produce safe and successfully outcomes that will fully meet the goals and expectations of their clients.

Q: How is bride’s wedding dress packaged after it is preserved?

A: We use a variety of highly specialized materials that are sourced from conservation supply houses and directly from manufacturers. All of the materials we use are either chemically inert or certified as acid free by the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials). 

Wedding gowns are typically rather heavy, three dimensional textiles and require folded rather than hanging storage. Folding more equally distributes weight and will not subject the textile to stretching or dimensional distortion. Once an assignment is complete we gently fold the dress, supporting the inside of each fold with a sturdy acid free tissue, rolled to conform to the width of the fold. Next, sleeves, bodice and any metal components are supported and covered by layering natural unbleached abaca fiber, a very soft acid free tissue. The chemically inert textile storage box is made of undyed archival grade coroplast. It is acid free and will neither absorb moisture nor off gas impurities into the ambient environment where the dress resides. The box is lined with Nomex, a Dupont made specialized non-woven fabric that is both breathable and heat and moisture resistant. We have found it to be a much safer barrier material than cotton muslin, the material of choice for those “preservationists” who use an outer wrap. Finally, once folded and supported, the dress is placed inside the box and is surrounded by the Nomex wrap. The width of the dress is then tied bottom to top with acid free polyester ribbon to secure it in place. Finally, a pair of white cotton conservator’s gloves are placed in the box to be worn by the owner when she chooses to examine her gown.

Q: Is the millennial bride just as sentimental to heirloom her gown like her mother and grandmother?

A: Well, Rachel, I’m not so old as to be able to speak to the sentiments of their grandmothers when they married, but to you your question of whether millennials are less sentimental about promoting family cultural history than their mothers were at their age? Perhaps. It is generally true that priorities change as we age and start families of our own.

Much has been made of the challenges facing everyone from retailers to politicians to designers who are trying to unlock the key to the needs, desires, and thinking of millennials. Millennials have been subjected to more scrutiny than any group of young adults in fifty years. People much smarter than me - Pollsters, psychologists, market theorists etc. have studied them, analyzed them, pricked and poked them. It’s no wonder many of them feel as if they reside in a petri dish. And while I am reluctant to join the fray and make generalizations about group behavior, I am very interested in discussing with young people their observations about their world and particularly as it relates to their views on the importance of sustaining family cultural history through preserving important objects, and where their wedding gowns fit into that iconography. One observation that stands out is that while millennials seem to have very well developed and informed ideas on large social issues like climate change, gender inequality and race relations, their thinking on topics like family tradition or the value of contributing to family cultural identity and history is less well formed. Their world has expanded and their focus is more global than it was for their mothers a generation ago. And so I find that when we speak with brides inquiring about our services we spend more time engaging them in a discussion about their family history and traditions and we encourage them have a longer range vision of the importance of preserving iconic personal items as centerpieces in that continuum. Our clients are very well educated, incredibly smart, good listeners and almost always very receptive to what we have to say. 

Q: How long can you extend a samples life?

A: Depending on how often the dress is sampled in the salon, with proper cleaning and mending we can easily extend the useful life of a stock piece by six months to a year.

Q: What piece of advice can you give a store about keeping their samples clean?

A: Always remember these are often delicate and fragile textiles. So, In no particular order:

1. try to make sure dresses are re-hung securely on padded hangers after having been worn in the store. This will minimize stress and dimensional distortion of the fabric

2. Keep enough space between dresses on the racks so that sharp edges of embellishments do not snag on adjoining stock. 

3. Keep floor surfaces clean and free of soil.

4. Ask brides not to wear makeup, lipstick or self-tanning agents when trying on dresses.

5. Have cotton gloves available for brides and sales associates when they handle dresses or at the very least require them to wash their hands before handling a dress.

6. Absolutely no food, beverages or pens in dressing rooms

Q: You have relationships with the salons and designer, what services do you provide for them?

A: We provide a wide array of services and support to our designers and partner salons. For stores, we regularly clean and repair stock pieces. We provide tutorials and hands on recommendations for in-store minor stain removal. We attend sample sales and trunk shows to answer any questions brides have about stain removal and repair.  We occasionally offer to clean and preserve clients’ gowns gratis on behalf of a partner salon when the occasional complaint cannot be quickly resolved at the store level. 

For designers, we test new fabrics and non-woven surfaces for efficacy and safety in cleaning, and we offer advice with respect to the wording of care labels.

we clean and repair runway pieces before market when necessary. We clean and repair traveling stock pieces between trunk shows or after the season to keep them fresh. 

Q: Have you ever restored a vintage wedding gown for a bride?

A: Yes, and some are fabulous early or mid-century gowns that have been in family archives for generations and worn by several generations of women. These assignments can be especially fun and gratifying. We also see a high demand for restoring vintage wedding veils. Many of these are extraordinarily beautiful, opulent Belgian or Irish lace veils from the early 20th or late 19th century.

Q: Do you have any advice for brides and day of event assistants on caring for the gown?

A: Sure. Here are some wedding day tips that might help:

If something spills on the gown, don’t panic.

Beware:  Removing stains from a wedding gown can be tricky business!  Water or prepared “stain removers” can leave a mark or irreparably damage the fabric if used improperly.

For watermarks, softly blot and dry with a clean white towel.  If possible, you can lightly press with a hand iron when dry.

For makeup, lipstick or any oily stain, lightly coat the stain with cornstarch or baby powder to absorb the oil or moisture.  Do not rub the area!  Wait 15 minutes and gently remove excess powder from fabric with a soft bristled brush. This technique will both mask unsightly spots and prepare the area for professional care after the ceremony.

For liquid spillages such as wine, softly blot the area to remove excess moisture and then follow instructions for oily stains above,

Surprisingly, for minor blood stains the best remedy is to apply a dab of saliva to the spot with a dampened tip.  The enzymes will safely break down the stain.  Blot to dry.

Remember to pack a small emergency kit to be carried by an assistant at all times. Important items to include:  safety pins, needle and thread, baby powder or corn starch, q-tips and clean dry white towelettes.

Enjoy your gown, your wedding day and the beautiful feeling of being a bride!