Auctions are like a box of chocolates - everyone wants the strawberry creams and coffee truffles, no-one wants the slightly melted quince log. But sometimes, it's worth taking a chance.
When the opportunity arose to buy a 1950's wedding dress recently, I was VERY excited! I love vintage clothing and the girly in me loves flouncy princess frocks so this was perfect! We always try to view auction lots before bidding - a couple of photos online will never give you the full picture of the condition of an item, so I made sure to check out the dress very carefully. I'll admit a was a little disappointed. The dress was very grey and dull, with evidence of nicotine staining and the stale smell of years of storage. It had also been altered at some point and a zip added. Not terribly attractive as a potential purchase. However, I kept thinking about it, and on the night of the auction, with no one bidding and the lot about to end, I took a chance and bought the dress . . . for £10.
OK..... so now what?
Just how do you clean a vintage wedding dress? Well, there are dry cleaners who specialise in wedding dresses, but at £100+ that was a little out of my budget! Instead I decided to try to clean it myself (I figured if it went horribly wrong I could die the dress black and wear it at Halloween).
A very nice lady at the aforementioned dry cleaners gave me some advice on what not to do - always useful - and a quick search online furnished me with a few ideas. Still, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I armed myself with my supermarket cleaning products and mounted the stairs to the bathroom.....
I know from bitter experience that you should never jump into anything that involves mixing chemicals with delicate or easily damaged things; this applies as much to vintage wedding dresses as to hair. Luckily, the dress's original lace sleeves had been removed but not thrown away, so I had a sample of the fabric and sequins to test my cleaning technique on.
I decided to start with my usual laundry detergent and some Dr. Beckmann Glowhite Ultra. The fabric sample was put in a basin of lukewarm water with a small amount of the Glowhite and a splash of detergent (the Glowhite comes in bags for use in a washing machine so I used a jug to manage the amount of the chemical being added), and left to soak for one hour.
The water was reassuringly grey when it came to rinsing, and once the sample had been gently rinsed three or four times it was time to check out the results. To my delight (and relief) the lace and netting had survived and the sequins were still pearly and shiny. The only issue was that the top layer of lace had shrunk and required some careful reshaping while still damp, however, the difference in colour was immediately noticeable, and the lace looked almost like new. Success! Time for a break and a beer before the real thing.....
Ophelia of the bathtub
There is a LOT of lace and netting on this dress, as well as a starched linen underskirt, and it took a bit of pushing to get out the air bubbles. Eventually she was sufficiently submerged to be completely covered, although I did have to place a glass dish on the bodice to stop it from bobbing to the surface (I wonder if Millais had this problem?).
The plan was to leave the dress for an hour of soaking, followed by gentle agitation and turning, pressing down to get the water through all that lace and netting and push out the dirt. Judging by the yellow/grey/nicotine colour of the water the technique appeared to be working, so I repeated the process every hour over the next three hours. Point of note - wedding dresses weigh a frickin' ton when they are wet!
I found the best way to rinse the dress was to empty the gross water out completely with the dress still in the bath, then run the water to cover and repeat, several times, until the run-off was pretty clear. Then came all the "fun" of getting a soaking wet, unwieldy, delicate weight out of the bath and downstairs to dry.
To see the results and what comes next look out for Part 2, coming soon ....!