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Restoring Heirlooms to Ready-to-Wear

The New York Times
By Carolyn Battista

Evelyn Siefert Kenney washes heirlooms, shores up shredded silk, hides horrible stains, and - using herbal teas - dyes new lace to match old.  Her mission is to get the clothes of past decades ready to wear now.

Mrs. Kennedy owns Sewtique, a shop in Groton that restores old wedding gowns and other cherished clothing and linens so they can be used again.  Items in the packed shop recently included wedding dresses from 1869, 1922, 1957; a 1900's lace ensemble hand sewn by Paraguayan Indians; a 100-year-old christening dress; an 1885 cape of appliquéd black silk, and an antique quilt.  Brides in the families of the original owners will wear the wedding dresses this year; the owner of the cape plans to wear it to the opera.

The items were frayed, stained, torn and, in some cases, falling to pieces.  Jan Gertz, the workroom supervisor, gently rubbed a piece of silk from the lining of the cape between her fingers, and it seemed to disintegrate.  "Totally shredded," she said.

But Mrs. Kennedy and her staff are not surprised at shredding or daunted by disintegration.  "I love the challenge," Mrs. Kennedy said.  She believes that vintage clothing should not be hidden in home closets or museum storerooms.  She calls the fabric in heirloom garments "the fabric of life" and says that those using heirlooms "pass along family history."

Sewtique uses a number of supplies and techniques that Mrs. Kennedy calls "my bag of tricks."  Most garments need to be cleaned and, frequently, must be taken apart so that they can be re-worked to hide problems or to fit the new wearer.  For cleaning, Mrs. Kennedy said, "I use big plastic bins or the bathtub."  She also uses water that has been treated and a nonabrasive cleanser.  Many items must be washed several times, and many must have fabric basted underneath torn areas, to support them during washing.

For repairs, the staff finds fabrics, laces and other trims that are compatible with those in the old garments.  They may use new material that Mrs. Kennedy has treated to look and feel old.  To match aged silk and lace, she dyes new materials with teas.  "Apple cinnamon, orange pekoe, they have different colors," Ms. Gertz said.

On the 1922 wedding dress, members of the staff used a tiny paintbrush to apply tea to the petals of the new artificial flowers they used in fashioning a new sash to replace the badly damaged original.

The Sewtique staff members regularly cover both frayed areas and stained ones with appliqués, beadwork, rosettes and other trims that they have made or found.  All have the right look, even additions to garments like the 1869 wedding dress, currently the oldest one in the shop.

Mrs.  Kennedy also uses other techniques. "I must soften this," she said, as she rubbed, pounded and yanked on some cotton fabric for the christening dress.

Mrs. Kennedy also seeks and saves old fabrics and laces.  The workroom shelves are lined with boxes and bags of material, including snippets of lace (one an inch wide and two inches long) and cloth pieces that the staff calls "scavenger silk."

Mrs. Kennedy said that she shops constantly for supplies, in catalogues, in Woolworth's, in New York City and in other places, including Block Island, where she said she has got some of her best finds.  She said that, once, after a long search for fabric for a 1930's dress, she found it in a kitchen curtain.  "Sometimes you have to hunt and hunt and hunt," she said.  She added that although she often orders by mail or phone, she sometimes needs "the hand, the feel," to choose material.

At a workroom table, Simpaly Nhim, a seamstress from Cambodia, sewed a new lining into the cape and studied the cape's appliqués.  "Simpaly will look at those appliquéd roses, then do something similar with black silk braid," Mrs. Kennedy said.  Ms. Nhim's appliqués will look appropriate and will cover frayed areas.

A 100-year-old crazy quilt of irregularly shaped pieces of silk with embroidered edges awaited the replacement of torn pieces.  "The secret is old silk neckties," Mrs. Kennedy said.

The ensemble for which Paraguayan Indians spent two years making hundreds of lace medallions, of many different patterns and sizes, was partly repaired.  From one part of the ensemble that could not be restored, the staff was taking medallions, and using tiny stitches, sewing them over badly tattered ones.  Mrs. Kennedy noted that several women in one family have worn the ensemble.  When they brought it to her so that it could be put in good shape for the next wearer, they arrived from different states and settled into her workroom not only to discuss the work to be done but also to reminisce about the occasions when each had worn the ensemble.

Also part of a family tradition is the wedding dress that State Representative Ann Dandrow, wore in 1957.  Her daughter Susan will wear it on March 31.  "Ever since I was a little girl, I've looked at that dress.  I thought it was beautiful," Susan Dandrow said.  But, she said, when she first planned her wedding, she was not sure she would be able to wear the dress, because it was rather small for her.  Mrs. Kennedy, however, added new but appropriate fabric to the bodice, and used fabric from an under layer of the skirt to fashion roomier sleeves.  "And we did a lot of lace repair, but you would never know," Mrs. Kennedy said.

Mrs. Kennedy has a master's degree in textiles and gives lectures on the care of textiles.  She will go to the Soviet Union in April to observe restoration techniques there.  Mrs. Kennedy rarely works to preserve museum pieces, but instead, works to let her clients enjoy their vintage items.  "What good does it do to keep something tucked away?  We tell people, 'Wear it, enjoy it, handle it, show it.' Using this material strengthens family ties," she said.

Charges for restoration work at Sewtique are $35 to $40 an hour.  Wedding gowns usually cost $350 to $650 to restore, with some costing more.

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