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Student Blog: Winterthur Museum and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

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Image of the back of a dress, with folded material draped down the back.

​​​​​

Detail of the reconstructed Sacque Back. Image by Jim Schneck​

​Thank you CONSERV for funding part of my 2021 WUDPAC Summer Work Project. Your support made my project possible and allowed me to drive deep into the research of this exciting object.

During the summer of 2021, I worked with Laura Mina, Kate Sahmel, and Laura Johnson in the Textile Lab at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library to reconstruct a 1770s closed front sacque gown. The gown, made from luxurious hand woven 1740s silk brocade, was bought by H.F. Dupont in the 1920s or 30s and sent to his upholsterer Ernest LoNano to be made into the upholstery on a period settee.

The sacque back of the gown, comprised of six lengths of 21.5” wide fabric pleated to fit the bodice, was detached and cut to create the new settee fabric. The bodice and off cuts were set aside, and the settee was put on display in the Massachusetts Room.

Although the bodice was often displayed with the settee, the curatorial and exhibition team at Winterthur wanted a fullscale reproduction as a didactic for an upcoming exhibition about upcycled items in the collection. This would entail figuring out the dimensions of the sacque back, mapping each off cut and settee piece onto the original pattern, and using period techniques to create the reconstruction.

I started by surveying the off-cuts and the pieces of the settee. I was able to identify the hem, waist edge, sacque pleats, and center front edges from the fold creases and thread scarring still present on the pieces. I was also able to match up the hemline with the seat pieces of the settee which established the pattern.

Using this match as a starting point, I uploaded each piece into Photoshop and matched up the remaining pieces in the pattern repeat set by the hem. I then used Illustrator to map the pieces onto the original pattern in a one to one scale. It took a lot of trial and error, but I was able to come out with a convincing map.​

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A student in a lab coat places pins along the edge of a piece of fabric.

​Margaret pinning the hem of the reconstruction. Image by Laura Mina​

​I then created the reproduction. The ensemble included a bum roll and a petticoat. The reproduction was made from Kona Cotton, lined with linen, and attached to the original bodice with a series of magnets.

I used a mix of both modern and historical techniques to create the new sacque including a handsewn hem facing and cross tacking stitches.

The project proved to be both a rewarding and complex. There was a lot of thinking and rethinking of the placement of the pieces and the construction of the sacque. I learned so much about 18th-century dress construction and renovation. The closed front sacque was a new style to me, as it is not one that is widely written about in the literature and was relatively short lived.

Because of CONSERV’s funding, I was also able to visit the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to research the construction of sacque gowns. This trip proved invaluable expertise and new insight on how the sacque may have been constructed and remolded from is originally 1740s design. I learned about the cross tacking stitches, gored construction vs non gored construction, and the average length of the panels. It also further highlighted the importance of research into LoNano and the Colonial Revival’s use of historical dress. CWF also had a long history with the LoNano workshop as they treated not only their upholstery, but also some of their historical gowns. Additionally, many of the textile fragments in their collection came from dresses seemingly taken apart for their fabric. This project expanded both my conservation and professional skill sets. This was my first time working closely with a curatorial team, making joint decisions and reporting on my progress. I learned so much about patterning, new digital tools, and historic sewing techniques, all of which will be important moving forward in my career. Even though COVID prevented me from venturing to a new lab, I gained new and important skills while also creating valuable resources for Winterthur.

— Margaret O'Neil, WUDPAC Class of 2023

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Line drawing of placement of pieces to be cut out of a piece of fabric.

​Map of Off Cuts and Settee Pieces on Sacque Back​

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Finished dress, on a mannequin, placed next to a settee in matching fabric.

​The final reconstructed sacque with the settee. Image by Jim Schneck

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Our thanks to the host institutions and to Conserv for helping our students expand their conservation understanding and experience.

Winterthur is the premier museum of American decorative arts, with an unparalleled collection of nearly 90,000 objects made or used in America since 1640. The collection is displayed in a magnificent 175-room house, much as it was when the family of founder Henry Francis du Pont called it home. Winterthur is also 1,000 acres of protected meadows, woodlands, ponds, and waterways. The 60-acre garden, designed by du Pont, includes magnificent plantings and massive displays of color throughout the year. The graduate degree programs and extensive research library make Winterthur an important center for the study of American art and culture. You can learn more about the museum and grounds on the Winterthur website.​

Colonial Williamsburg is the largest outdoor living museum in the country, upholding their educational mission through immersive, authentic 18th-century experiences and programming. In 1926, the Reverend Dr. William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin, with the financial backing of John D. Rockefeller Jr., began to restore Williamsburg to its original colonial state, starting with the purchase of the historic Ludwell-Paradise House. Today, Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area houses restored and historically preserved buildings, 88 of which are originals. ​You can learn more about Colonial Williamsburg's museums, grounds, and programming on their website​.

Conserv Solutions Inc. is a tech startup based in Birmingham, Alabama. Conserv is working to create a comprehensive platform for preventive conservation that involves integrating risk management for environment, pests, disasters, and other agents of deterioration into a single tool. The company started with the creation of wireless sensors for relative humidity, temperature, and light that feed into collections-specific data analytic tools. They are currently working on software for integrated pest management, leak detection monitoring, building management system (BMS) sensor integration, and energy usage integration for sustainability measures. Conserv is eager to partner with researchers and practitioners in our field to build the next generation of sensors and software for cultural heritage preservation. You can learn more about Conserv by visiting their website.

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Used in the Home Page News Listing and for the News Rollup Page
​Three members of the WUDPAC Class of 2023 spent their summers at internships supported by Conserv Solutions Inc. In this post, Margaret O'Neil talks about her textile conservation work at the Winterthur Museum and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
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