Restoring dress of Mrs. Tom Thumb was huge undertaking
A dress once worn by Lavinia Warren (Mrs. Tom Thumb) is on display at the Middleboro Historical Museum.
In 1892, Ellis Island in New York Harbor opened as the main immigration center on the East Coast.
In 1893, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed, touching off a financial tsunami.
And in 1896, the United States took part in the first modern Olympic games, which were held in Athens, Greece.
Today, a rare piece of history from that period is on display at the Middleboro Historical Museum.
A dress with rumors of royalty, worn by Lavinia Warren, wife of Tom Thumb, is making its debut after being kept under wraps for more than 120 years.
At one time it was thought that Lavinia wore the inky black creation when she was received overseas by Queen Victoria.
Thumb and Warren were world-famous petite performers during that time.
At one point, they worked for P.T. Barnum and his famous circus.
But in their down time, they lived quietly in Middleboro.
The Middleboro Historical Museum is home to the largest collection of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren memorabilia. The museum recently commissioned a painstaking conservation project of the dress.
The black silk and net frock with velvet and sequin trim may only measure 26 inches long and span three yards of fabric in width, but it took Marie Schlag, a textile conservator, a year to bring it back to life.
“Over the course of a year, I probably spent 200 hours on the dress,” Schlag said.
She explained that her job began with a fiber analysis of the gown.
“There is a lot of science in this. I measured it and did an analysis of all the things wrong with it.”
The silk was so degraded, according to Schlag, that an intense bout of cleaning was done by hand.
The soils that were removed or reduced from the dress were vacuumed with specialized HEPA filters.
The sparkling sequins that made Lavinia’s dress glimmer and shimmer were an entire project in themselves.
“There are probably between 2,000 and 3,000 sequins on that dress, and because they are made from gelatin they cannot be wet or they dissolve,” Schlag explained.
Her painstaking methods included special dry cleaning techniques to bring the luster back to the sequins.
The skirt on the dress also posed a major textile conservation challenge.
“The skirt itself had a lot of slits, tears and breaks. The silk it was made from ages and it gets dessicated,” Schlag said.
To close those gaps, the conservator had to dye silk to match the dress. The next step was using adhesives to stick it to the back side of the silk by using adhesives and heat. The silk was too fragile for a needle.
That’s the biggest difference between conservation and restoration, said Schlag.
“Restoration changes the cultural history of the object, and conservation slows down the degradation and is always reversible,” she said.
Schlag said it is not known who made Lavinia’s dress. She completed a lot of historical research before embarking on the conservation project.
“To be able to keep that piece of history in our culture is why I do what I do,” Schlag said. “When I look at something in deplorable condition, open that box and that’s when my heart skips a beat. I say wow! I first appreciate where it’s been and who saw it.”
Jennifer Bray may be reached at email@example.com.