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Meet Textile Conservator Colleen Wilson

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Published on May 13, 2015

Textile Conservator Colleen Wilson discusses the labour-intensive process of conserving a silk taffeta dress from the period of the 1858 Gold Rush. This beautiful piece is featured in the Royal BC Museum's Gold Rush! El Dorado in BC exhibition, May 13 - Oct 31, 2015

See the dress in person in the Gold Rush! exhibition - http://gold.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca or find out more on 100 Objects of interest - http://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/100/object...

“I’m Colleen Wilson and I’m a textile conservator at the Royal BC Museum, and I’ve been doing this job since 1981. I haven’t been working on this dress since 1981. This is being prepared to go in the Gold Rush! exhibit, because it is one of the very few garments we have, of the period of the 1858 Gold Rush.

The dress had belonged to a collector, who liked to wear her collection, and so she and her friends would get dressed up. So the dress had been worn, and worn, and worn and worn, far beyond the level of wear it would have received when it was a fashionable garment, and it was full of sweat, and grease, and things had been spilled on it. Which as it sat for a long time, had eaten through the fabric. So the fabric is very frail, lots of holes in it, lots of places where it had been worn through. And it was just stiff with grease and sweat.

What I’ve been doing is trying to reinforce the silk so it not only looks like an intact dress, but holds together. So I’ve washed the whole thing, and I don’t usually wash historic textiles, because it does destroy a certain level of evidence. I wanted to get whatever the food stains were out, so that they would stop eating up the silk. And now, I’ve dyed a bunch of silks, and I’ve put in the dyed silks behind the damaged areas, and I’m hand-stitching them together so that the new silk supports the old silk. That’s what it looked like before, and that’s it afterwards with it all supported.

Not only do I not usually wash them, but I hardly ever take anything apart, because the things are made is part of the evidence that they hold. We look to documents for history, but artifacts are documents of a different kind. There’s information in the way that things are stitched together. The threads that were used to stitch them together, and we tried to leave all those stories intact. Just have it come to a standstill when it comes to the museum.

It is a nice dress, so it was probably worn by a woman who wore fashion. She had a cage crinoline, and a corset, and chemise, the whole deal. For a 19th century woman, convenience was not part of this story. A woman with a great big crinoline is not going to be doing, you know, scrubbing floors are things. It’s a bit of a statement about social success. It’s hard to imagine somebody now wearing such a dress! You know, they’re in their purple and green, plaid with fringe around it!”

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