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Something old becomes something new with repair techniques

The Hartford Courant, Tuesday
By Donna Larcen, Connecticut Living

Evelyn Siefert Kennedy winces when she shows the audience the wrinkled crazy quilt.

This is a good example of what not to do with your vintage fabrics," she says.  "Somebody took the wrong advice and washed this quilt.  It's ruined."

The brown bled into the pinks' the material, puckered.  The value is zilch.

Kennedy, who runs a fabric restoration and preservation business in Groton, lectures often to amateur collectors on what and what not to do with older fabric pieces.  This day in October she is speaking to members of the Mark Twain Memorial in Hartford.

"There are two ways to approach vintage clothes and fabrics:  conservation and preservation," she says.  "Conservators say stop the damage; put it in a hermetically controlled room.  Restorers look at a piece and decide how to bring it back to the original state."

When you repair, you often do some alteration, Kennedy says.  "Unless a piece is really unusual and destined for a museum, I take the restorer position," she says.

On items such as wedding dresses that are very old, Kennedy may have to replace old lace with new, sew in new linings for reinforcement or alter the size or length.

"You have to decide what you want to do with these pieces," she says.  "You can take an heirloom piece that's been in the family and have a granddaughter or niece wear it to her wedding.  That really can mean a lot."

She also encourages families to take out and wear the pieces at special occasions, to get some enjoyment out of them.

Kennedy and her several seamstresses at Sewtique, her Groton store, use many techniques to make new fabric look old.

"While we never pass these off as originals, we want the blending of new and old fabrics to look authentic," she says.  "You shouldn't be able to tell new from old." One trick is to dye new lace with herbal teas to match the color of the older portion.

"You have to test this to come up with the perfect shade," she says.  "Almond Pleasure gives one tone, while lemon gives another."

For a 100-year-old quilt that needed some cotton backing, Kennedy took strips of new cotton, boiled it, braided it and left it out in the sun for a few hours. "It matched perfectly," she says.  "I don't always recommend this, but this worked."

Moving on to her secrets of storage, Kennedy holds up a wire hanger. "This was the villain in "Mommie Dearest" and can do damage to your clothes," she says. Under certain conditions, the wire hanger can transfer rust stains to a piece of fabric.  Wooden hangers can also stain fabrics.

"what you should do is use a cloth-covered hanger," Kennedy says.  "If you're going to hang a garment, cut a hole in an old pillow case and put it over the hanger first, then hang the garment.  Then cover the garment in another case or old sheet."

That method protects the fabric from light and dust, two environmental factors that can do damage to any material.

"Even if you are the best housekeeper in Connecticut, you still get light and dust each time you open and close the closet door or the drawer," she says.  "You have to protect your things."

Kennedy holds up an old linen handkerchief that looked yellowish. "When I was young, my hair was dark brown," she says.  "Now it's white.  As we age, things change color.  This handkerchief was developed what we call a patina." The original whiteness could be restored by a thorough washing, Kennedy says.

She also warns her audience about blue tissue paper. "There's a myth out there that this is good for wrapping dresses in," she says.  "It is not.  The dye can rub off on the material."

There is a gasp in the audience. "The best is acid-free paper, which you can buy from museums or from me," she says.  "It won't transfer any color at all."Kennedy also shares some washing techniques.

"Water can be your friend or your enemy," she says.  "I use distilled water, so there are no mineral deposits."  City water generally does not have that problem, but well water often does. Kennedy uses a fiberglass screen to support large pieces when she hand-washes them.  "It helps you lift the piece without damaging the fabric," she says. Once you determine that a vintage fabric is washable, follow this procedure:
  • Soak it in cold water for 20 minutes.  Drain.  You may need to soak again if the water is dirty.
  • Then soak it again in a mixture of 4 tablespoons of baking soda per quart of water.  The baking soda breaks down the pollutants in the stain.  It is excellent for getting rid of mud or ink.  You may need to repeat this process.
  • If you need to remove grease, use Murphy's Oil Soap.
  • If you need to remove rust, use Whink, a commercial soap.  A paste of lemon juice and salt will also remove rust.
  • If you need to do general washing, use Woolite.
  • Do not use bleach.  If you must whiten the fabric, use a 3 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide mixed with cold water in a 50-50 ratio.  Do not use bleach with metal or metallic fabrics.
  • Do not put precious pieces in a washing machine or dryer.
  • Wrap the washed piece in a towel to blot-dry it.  Then lay it out flat on a towel and let it air-dry.

"Don't' put it outside on the lawn," Kennedy says.  "One errant bird dropping, and you're in big trouble."

If you're in doubt about a vintage piece and how to take care of it, check with a museum, such as the Mark Twain Memorial, 77 Forest St., Hartford, CT  06105, 247-0998, or the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford, CT 06103, 278-2670.

Other sources of information are:  the Textile Conservation Workshop, Main St., South Salem, NY  10590, 914-763-5805, or the Textile Conservation Center, 800 Massachusetts Ave., North Andover, MA  01845, 508-686-0191.

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