Students from the Historic Costume Preservation Workshop at Vassar College examine a bustle cage with a patent from the 1870’s.

Working on this project has provided me with an interesting opportunity to consider the practical impact of using a digital collection in conjunction with a physical collection. The physical project is in an “awkward stage” right now – this is our opportunity to get objects out of boxes, see if they really are what we think they are, write better catalog entries and condition reports, and re-sort them into different boxes accordingly.

We can’t just sort by period, or by function, or by condition, or by fiber – all of those come into play. Up to now we’ve mostly been sorting by period – but then when a student is just interested in underwear, all of that comes out together. Then when we find several things with mildew, they have to go in yet another area, in quarantine from the other objects. Meanwhile, every available flat surface is stacked with piles of objects wrapped in acid-free tissue.


In my digital collection, everything’s so much more neat and tidy. With practically one click, I can sort everything by fiber type. I can sort everything chronologically. I can sort everything by function. If only it were that simple with the piles all over the costume shop!

Here’s where it’s so important how the digital and physical work together: once we have everything better documented in the database, then the database can help us to play around with different physical storage configurations and figure out what is most feasible. Indeed, that’s a major point of the current project. We can’t properly take care of what we have until we really know what we have. If we’re sorting by period, it’s very important that everything is properly dated. Perhaps more importantly, if we really want to preserve our textiles, we need to have some ability to store them by fiber type.

So what do we do with all the physical objects until then? I’m eager to buy some new storage boxes right away (and we have a tiny bit of grant money to do so), but our storage plan is still evolving as more documentation occurs. I’m afraid to invest in anything in case our plan changes dramatically. With all we’ve learned so far this semester about best practice for textile preservation, it’s heartbreaking at times for us not to be able to put some things properly “away.”

But I keep reminding myself – that is what this project is about. We’re figuring it out. By the end of the semester, we’ll have a better condition assessment in place, and we’ll be able to define our strategic plan, mainly regarding storage.

Students from the Historic Costume Preservation Workshop at Vassar College examine a dress from the collection.

Students from the Historic Costume Preservation Workshop at Vassar College examine a bodice, #2010.002

Students from the Historic Costume Preservation Workshop at Vassar College examine a bodice, #2001.077, and discuss how it may not be as old as we originally thought.

Scroll down for part 2.

Students from the Historic Costume Preservation Workshop at Vassar College examine a dress, perhaps from the 1930’s, #2001.153.

Students examine a very small bodice from the late 19th century, #2001.165.

scroll down for part 2

It’s hard to believe, but our second workshop has already come and gone! On Friday, February 12th, we welcomed Jessa Krick to lead our workshop about cataloging of historic costume. Ms. Krick currently works with Historic Hudson Valley, and was formerly a Senior Research Assistant for the Costume Documentation Project for the Brooklyn Museum.


After a brief round of introductions, Ms. Krick shared her presentation entitled “Object Cataloging: Idea and Practice.” She provided some background about the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, and then described the process undertaken for the Costume Documentation Project. Her presentation included many images of objects selected as highlights of the project, and photographed and documented for ArtStor. She provided several very helpful examples of catalog entries for objects in the Brooklyn collection, to help guide our process.

Next we took a brief cookie break, and then returned for some hands-on work with object cataloging. Ms. Krick worked with a two-piece dress from our collection to develop a catalog entry, getting students involved along the way, both in terms of remembering the best practice she had indicated in her presentation, and examining the object in detail. The piece chosen was found to have been significantly re-styled for use as a theatrical costume before it was removed from the theatrical stock and placed in the historic collection. While this aspect was frustrating at times, this made it an excellent subject for thorough investigation.

In the days since Ms. Krick’s visit, we have already implemented some changes in our procedure, as inspired by her presentation.  We have started cataloging the more recent objects in our collection, and plan to work backwards in time, as Ms. Krick explained they had done with the Brooklyn project. This is a very helpful approach, allowing all of us to take some time to perfect our cataloging technique with more familiar objects before moving on to the many complicated late nineteenth and early twentieth century pieces we have in the collection.

We all learned a great deal from Ms. Krick, and we’re very appreciative for the time she spent with us.

Now we have several weeks of cataloging and condition reporting ahead. Please “stay tuned” to see what objects we unearth in the coming weeks!

On Wednesday, February 3rd, we were very lucky to have textile consultants Jonathan Scheer  and Rebecca Chartier (of J. Scheer and Co., Rhinebeck and New York) present our first “formal” workshop. First, we met around the big table in the Design Room to introduce ourselves, and then Mr. Scheer spoke about the care of textiles. His talk included an introduction to the factors of textile deterioration, characteristics of fibers, best practice for handling historic textiles, and strategic planning for the care of collections.


His assistant, Rebecca Chartier, also added a great deal to the discussion, particularly concerning environmental issues affecting collections, and how to mitigate some such problems. She also shared a sample condition report and treatment/mounting plan for an object she had worked with at the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian).

Then, after a short break, we moved downstairs to work hands-on with objects from our collection. Participants were divided into seven pairs, and each pair was assigned an object with a particular condition issue. Each pair worked on filling out a condition report worksheet, with close examination of the object. Mr. Scheer and Ms. Chartier circulated around the room to see what the students were discovering, offer guidance for their descriptions, and help with analysis and terminology.


Finally, we brought the group all together again, to talk about how some of the objects on display represented specific condition issues and terms. Mr. Scheer and Ms. Chartier both provided thoughtful answers to student questions, including interesting anecdotes from their personal experiences working with a variety of textiles at a variety of institutions.

The time went by far too quickly, but we are very grateful to Mr. Scheer and Ms. Chartier for this informative presentation!

Before our first workshop, we decided it was important to do a quick inventory and catch up on exactly what objects were in what boxes or drawers. We also took this as an opportunity to sort through some of the collection, taking boxes that had somewhat random contents and moving some objects to different boxes to have similar objects together.

With only a few tables to spread out on, this proved to be a daunting task. We sorted objects into different piles, but quickly ran out of space for more categories, and tried to put as many objects away as possible to make more room for new sorting piles.

Object locations were entered into the database, and we worked on making an “index” for each box or drawer – a metal ring with an index card for each object. Each index card has a photograph and a brief description. This gives a quick visual reference of what is in a given box or drawer.

Our initial goal was one box/drawer an hour, but this was unrealistic for many of the larger boxes. It was hard for some of us to move quickly through a box once we had unearthed some particularly interesting objects and got caught up looking at the details.  Although “a box an hour” became our mantra, we still didn’t manage to get through all the boxes in one week. That means that our inventory process will be continued now with our more thorough cataloging process, and we’ll just have to sort out similar objects as we go.

This sorting will be on going throughout the semester. As we work more with the collection, hopefully the most logical system for organizing the collection will become apparent. Should objects be stored by period? By occasion? By fiber type? By object type? Once we have better information in the database about exactly what we have, we’ll be in a better position to decide on our ultimate sorting system.

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