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Family Heirlooms#

                                                 By Betsy Iler

                                           T  “There’s 300 years of dreamin’ in
                                           those things!” Mary Kate Danaher
                                           (Maureen O’Hara) laments at the
                                           apparent loss of her heirlooms in the
                                           classic film The Quiet Man (Argosy
                                           Pictures, 1952). For Mary Kate, the
                                           dreams connect generations who came
                                           before her to the children who will
                                           follow. That’s our dream, too.
                                              In our dreams, the delicate fabric
                                           of precious heirloom gowns absorbs the
                                           hopes and prayers of each generation
                                           as the garment is worn and admired,
                                           passing a history of love to its next
                                           wearer. It’s this dream that drives us
                                           to stitch late into the night to finish
                                           breathtaking garments for life’s most
                                           celebrated moments. Constructing a
                                           garment worthy of the description
                                           “heirloom” is an honor and a blessing
                                           indeed, but the blessing carries with it
                                           the weighty responsibility of preserving
                                           the item for future generations.

 26   Sew Beautiful May/June 2009
  Constructing a garment worthy of the description “heirloom” is an
honor and a blessing indeed, but the blessing carries with it the weighty
      responsibility of preserving the item for future generations.
t     hese delicate garments will be
      less than suitable if between
wearings they are folded into a plastic
                                          I leave it for two days – sometimes
                                          two weeks,” she recently told her
                                          newsletter subscribers. “Then I
                                                                                    as they hold a drying garment.
                                                                                    One Sew Beautiful reader, Nancy
                                                                                    McEvoy, made a screen of 2-inch
crate and relegated to the attic for      rinse over and over again and wash        square boards and petticoat netting
20 years of storage. Such treatment       with a mild detergent such as Ivory       on which she washes and dries her
invites spotting, permanent creasing,     Snow flakes,” she adds. Garments in       treasures.
mildew and insect damage. Properly        excellent condition can be machine            Storing heirloom garments is a
cared for, however, precious clothing     washed if they are not made with thin     simple task as long as you follow some
can survive many generations of           fabrics. Pullen recommends putting        basic rules: store flat, if possible, with
storage, and your children’s children     them in a mesh sweater bag and using      acid-free tissue paper (such as Sew
will don a history of love when the       the delicates or hand-washable cycle.     Beautiful Heirloom Tissue Paper)
garments are worn for the special         “Sometimes I wash once with regular       to cushion the folds; avoid sunlight,
occasions that mark their lives.          detergent and then wash again with        dust, moisture and fluctuations in
    Heirloom garment authorities,         just clear water,” she notes.             temperature; air occasionally, about
including Martha Pullen, agree the            When the garment has been             once each year. “Fresh, circulating
single most important concern is to       cleaned and rinsed well, it must be       air keeps mold and mildew away.
put the garment away clean. All stains    dried thoroughly. Experts recommend       So will cooler temperatures,” Ritter
and chemicals should be removed,          rolling the piece gently in a towel to    explains on her website (www.white-
including starch, soap, bleach and        absorb most of the water and then Plastic should never be
fabric softener. Stains, dirt and dust    laying it flat to dry. It is crucial to   used for storing heirlooms, she says,
left on fabric can cause holes as the     support the garment well as it dries,     because plastic hinders air circulation
garment ages, according to Judy Ritter    as the weight of the wet fabric may       around the natural fibers and can trap
of Whiteworks Christening Gowns           cause it to tear. Commercial laundry      moisture.
in Rome, Ohio. Mildew renders             screens purchased at discount stores          Flat storage puts less strain on
a gown useless as well, and even          can be suspended over a bathtub           delicate fabrics and is recommended
mild chemicals left                                                                                  over hanging storage.
in fabric will mildew.                                                                               “If you store on a
If you take shortcuts                                                                                hanger in a garment
in the cleaning                                                                                      b a g b e s u re t h e
process, you may be                                                                                  hanger is padded
shortchanging future                                                                                 and the garment bag
generations in the                                                                                   is cotton,” Pullen
end, so take great                                                                                   cautions. “I think
care to thoroughly                                                                                   it is much better to
clean your garments.                                                                                 store flat rather than
    Pullen cleans her                                                                                to hang; however,
vintage clothing and                                                                                 I hang my pieces
linens by soaking                                                                                    because they are so
them in a plastic                                                                                    often used for our
container filled with                                                                                publications and are
water and 1/2 cup                                                                                    more easily accessible
of all-fabric non-                                                                                   if not packed away,
chlorine bleach, such                                                                                plus I just don’t have
as BIZ. “Sometimes                                                                                   enough drawers!” If

                                                                                        Find essential heirloom preservation
                                                                                        supplies and services at the following:

                                                                                        Heirloom preservation bags are available at

                                                                                        Heritage Garment Preservation offers
                                                                                        supplies, storage boxes and kits. Visit their
                                                                                        website at or call

                                                                                        J. Scheer & Co. specializes in wedding
                                                                                        gown preservation and the cleaning of
                                                                                        museum textiles and ceremonial costume.
                                                                                        Visit their website for more information,

         Sew Beautiful                  editor, Kathy Barnard,                          Martha Pullen Company carries acid-
                                                                                        free heirloom tissue paper and padded
 suggests keeping future generations informed.                                          hangers. Visit Martha’s online store at www.

   "I can't tell you how many people contact me to ask how to prepare their family      Prestige Preservation Program, LLC,
heirloom for a new baby, or that they have found a gown in an attic or trunk, but       features cleaning, inspection and storage
                                                                                        processes. Visit them online at www.
have no clue as to whom or what era the garment belonged. To mitigate confusion or call 888-
with my son’s gown, I placed a small 4- x 5-inch-sized scrapbook (pictured,
above) inside the storage box. I included a few portrait photos and information         See for
                                                                                        tissue, boxes and kits.
including Aiden’s name; when he was born; when and where he was christened;
and his parents’ names. I also wrote care instructions for starching, pressing          Sentinel Archiving, Inc., sells garment
                                                                                        bags designed for long-term protection
preparation, cleaning and storing the gown for a new baby. This information is          of extra-special garments at www.
invaluable for the next generation.”
                                                                                        The Linen Press LLC provides repair
                                                                                        services for heirloom and antique textiles.
     storing flat and folded, place tissue-     boxes available at hobby stores or      Go to for more
     wrapped packages in a clean cotton         photography supply stores. For          information.
     or linen pillowcase (some people           added protection, throw a few cedar
                                                                                        The Preservation Station sells a variety of
     make their own monogrammed                 balls into the box to deter any pesky
                                                                                        cleaning and storage product options for
     bags, fabric “envelopes” or storage        moths.                                  the care of heirloom garments and other
     sacks). Cotton and linen breathe and           These guidelines are adequate       textiles:
     can absorb any moisture that may           for the cleaning and preservation of
     be in the air. These packages may be       heirloom garments that will continue    University Products offers a wide selection
                                                to be handed down and occasionally      of preservation supplies, including stain
     stored in a drawer; however, acid-
                                                                                        removers, silica gel packs to absorb
     free boxes or fabric-covered and           worn by generations. They will not      moisture, and non-adhesive labeling
     lined boxes can prevent crushing           suffice, however, for museum-quality    tape. See their online store at www.
     from the weight of other items that        antiques. Museum-quality pieces
     may be placed on top of them.They          require special treatment, notes
     keep out bugs, light and moisture          Marion Kite, Head of Furniture,         Visit Whiteworks at
                                                                                        for articles and information about heirloom
     as well. If storing on a closet shelf,     Textiles & Frames at the Victoria
                                                                                        garment preservation.
     definitely use a storage box. There        & Albert Museum of Childhood
     are many suitable fabric-covered           in London, England. “Certainly          Your local department or grocery store
                                                                                        carries BIZ, Ivory Snow and other suitable
                                                                                        cleaning and storage supplies.
    28    Sew Beautiful May/June 2009
historic costume should not be
worn. Fabrics may be more fragile
than at first thought and may tear
easily,” Kite cautions. “Damage can
so easily be caused by ill-conceived
treatment, which may not be able to
be remedied afterwards.”
    Pullen recommends the care
and cleaning of these items be
left to a trained curator as some
treatments acceptable for other
heirloom garments may reduce the
value of historic items. “I do not own
any true museum pieces, which need
a curator to preserve. I purchased
all of my vintage clothing for my
personal enjoyment for sharing with
my sewing friends,” she adds.
    Museum cleaning and
preservation methods often are
used in the storage of wedding and
christening gowns. Many commercial
dry-cleaning houses offer these
services. Contact your local dry
cleaner or type “museum method
cleaners” into your computer search
engine for more information.
    By the time The Quiet Man comes
to a close, Mary Kate Danaher is
joyfully reunited with her heirlooms.
She is content to know that her
prayers and hopes will be passed to her
children and her children’s children.
With proper care and storage, your
heirlooms will carry generations of
dreams to your children’s children
as well. –SB

  in short:                   #
  Clean the garment
  Press without starch
  Wrap in acid-free tissue
  Place in cotton or linen sack
  Place in box with cedar balls
  Leave some information in the box
  Store in temperature-controlled


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