June 18, 2019

Antique Wedding Dress, 1872

This dress was worn by Margaret Jane McCornack at her wedding to Myron Gage on May 14, 1872. The dress has been passed down in her family, and is now in the possession of her great-granddaughter.  She told me that the McCornack family came from Scotland to the Elgin, IL, area in 1835 for religious reasons.  Margaret’s father Alexander McCornack was born in St. Luce parish south of Glascow.  The Gage family came to the US in the 17th century.

The dress is now headed to the Elgin History Museum.  Margaret's great-granddaughter brought it to me for mending before it goes to the museum.

To add to the fun, here's a family portrait taken the day after the wedding.  Margaret is sitting on the far left side in the second row.  Her father and mother are seated on the right of the second row.  

The dress is a textured silk, in one of those colors that just won't stay put in any one category.  Is it an olive-greeny grey?  Or is it a greyed olive green?  We shall never know for sure!  It is lined with a medium brown polished cotton.

What a treat for me!  It is a two-piece dress, decorated with self-covered buttons, a bit of satin trim, a lovely brown fringe, and two large bows at the ends of the sleeves.  It has one remaining piece of boning on the bodice, plus the impressions of other pieces of boning, and shows evidence of a possible alteration at some point. 



The buttons are decorative.  The bodice actually closes with a long row of hook-and-eyes.  I love the totally finished way the hooks and eyes are enclosed in the fabrics.


The skirt is gored, with some extra short gores near the hem.  There is deep and close gathering called cartridge pleats at the back waist.

right side

wrong side

The silk is suffering, as do many silks from the late 1800s, from the materials used in the manufacturing and dyeing processes of the time.  It looks like it was a cotton or linen warp with an olive-grey silk weft.  Where the silk has disappeared, all that's left is the beige colored warp threads.  My goal was to strengthen and support those damaged areas, and hopefully have a smoother, less awkward look in the end.  I didn't even try to find a matching silk to make actual patches.  I am sure I wouldn't have been able to come even remotely close.  I know conservation labs do a lot of dyeing, but that is not something I can do.

I did find a reasonably close brown cotton to use as supporting patches on the inside, and a dull green cotton to use as a filler under the holes in the silk, to help strengthen and disguise the mends.

Just for fun and comparison, here are photos to illustrate the fabric choice process.  I often look at mending fabrics in both daylight and lamplight.  I have light bulbs that are supposed to mimic daylight, but I've found that they still bring out totally different colors in the fabrics.  These colors are unedited.

green-grey silk, day                             green-grey silk, night

brown polished cotton, day                 brown polished cotton, night

Some pretty huge differences, right?  My only solution is to choose the fabric that comes closest in both kinds of lighting.  And if it's a total toss-up, I usually choose the darker color.  For the green, I chose the top center, and for the brown, I chose the one on the left. 

My first step was to remove the previous mends.  Someone had stitched across some of the torn places, but in the attempt to neaten things up, had pulled the raw edges out of line.  I've read enough about textile conservation to know that conservators try to maintain the weave structures as much as possible.  I decided that that would be kind of dangerous to let the previous repairs stay in, because when the dress is displayed they might put undue stress on the fabric where it was pulled out of alignment.  Also, the remaining warp threads were still pretty tangled.

The next step was to appliqué patches to the lining behind the worst of the tears.  I thought that would be especially important with the tears at and below the skirt waistband, because when the dress is displayed, those areas will be carrying the weight of the rest of the skirt.

Then on the front side, I slipped a piece cotton under the dangling warp threads, smoothed the threads as much as possible, and stitched across the tears, going through the patches on the inside.  I mostly used a couching stitch, though in some places used herringbone.

 skirt front, before

skirt front, after

skirt back, before

skirt back, after

A few other spots needed more minor mends, plus some of the satin trim had become loose.

bodice hem, right side, before

 bodice hem, right side, after

 bodice hem, inside, before

 bodice hem, inside, after

 bodice back neck, before

bodice back neck, after

 skirt hem, before

 skirt hem, after

When I was all done, I put the dress on my friend Edna.  It fit Edna quite well!

I discovered that the hem is quite a bit longer in the back.  This is to be expected for a dress from this era.  The back pleating and the extra length are both there to accommodate a back bustle.

Just for fun, I tried tucking a couch throw pillow up under the skirt.  I felt pretty silly doing that, being sure that it wouldn't stay in place.  But...lo and behold, it stayed!  And just like that, Edna walked into the 1870s!

I just stood and grinned at her for I don't know how long, and this photo still makes me grin.  I hope Margaret Jane McCornick Gage's marriage was a happy one.  I surely did enjoy taking care of her dress!

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