Vintage 101: dry rot in vintage textiles

This morning I received a package from the Blue Mountains – Marg sent me her Grandmother’s wedding gown that was “falling apart”, so that I could reuse the beads and sequins.

As someone who restores antique and vintage, I find that there is “falling apart” and then there is “an easy fix”, so I hoped that this gown might be restorable – however, I soon discovered that Marg was absolutely correct – this once fabulous, beautiful and expensive 1920s silk dress was no more.

Beaded silk ’20s gowns are amongst the most popular and collectable fashions out there: during the ’80s I would find them occasionally at antique auctions where they would go for $1000 at a minimum. Once an auctioneer taunted me with a tale of a leather suitcase full of them that sold “at last week’s auction” for a few dollars. I was collecting vintage for over twenty years before I bought my first one, an ebay bargain that I wore to Circa’s opening in 2004 and sometimes bring to talks on ladies fashions. I now have several, perhaps even ten, but they all need restoration and sometimes major restoration. Marg’s Grandmother’s dress takes the cake though: never have I met such a lost cause!

Firstly, let me show you a beaded ’20s dress in very good condition: these were worn over petticoats and the weight of the beads damages the delicate silk if they’re hung so not many have survived in good condition. The usual damage is around the shoulders due to the hanger. This one is from Viva Vintage Clothing’s webshop and is very well priced.


Photo courtesy Viva Vintage Clothing.

Now let me show you Marg’s Grandmother’s dress…or rather, bits of it, because it’s no longer intact and can’t be displayed as a dress.

I almost cried: once upon a time it would have been amazing.

No doubt you’ve already guessed that this beautiful ex-dress is suffering from dry rot.

Dry rot is a kind of funghi that eats away at the part of the textile that makes it strong and is a result of poor temperature and moisture control.

Fabrics are very prone to extremes of temperature, humidity, damp, mold and mildew – as natural materials they like to breathe and be dry and in a stable temperature, but many antique and vintage fabrics have suffered over the years from neglect. This is a big part of why you’ll find more vintage in Tasmania than Queensland: despite the bigger population, humidity is the enemy of fabric.

Museums control the temperature and humidity to create a stable environment but it’s not something many of us would consider for our homes. Dry rot happens when a textile is exposed to moisture over a period of time and is unable to dry out effectively – and this is why plastic like dry cleaning bags aren’t a good thing to store your fashions in. Eventually the textile becomes so weak that it becomes brittle and just crumbles into dust.

What to do? Hopefully, don’t buy it in the first place because once this process has begun, your beautiful piece is on a road to tragedy and will break your heart – am I being too dramatic? I love old silks. So yes, this seems to affect mostly old silks, especially pre-World War 2 silks. Delicate fabrics especially. The good news is that we don’t get much of it Australia.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a beaded ’20s dress of your own, I recommend that you roll it up with acid free tissue paper and store in a pure cotton pillow case and pop in a cupboard or cardboard box so the fabric can breathe and be protected from insects and sun damage.

Marg, thank you for sending me your Grandmother’s beautiful gown, we shall remove the beads and use them to restore the beadwork on other 1920s gowns.

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18 comments

  1. Ohh that breaks my heart! A gorgeous 20s dress like that is very difficult to find! My friend has one on her shop, gorgeous flapper dress and it’s in amazing condition! Obviously the price reflects how rare the found is! Sigh, this is why vintage finds are much more satisfying!

    Nora

  2. Absolutely fascinating! Working for a museum for a year and putting on an exhibition of 20s beaded dresses i fully understand the perils of dry rot! In particular there was one dress that did NOT enjoy being on display and when we took it off the mannequin after just a few weeks display it literally began to crumble, it was heartbreaking. All dresses were carefully conserved before display but it is amazing how dry rot can be so much worse than it initially appears.

  3. I absolutely love reading your posts. Every time I read them I learn something new. I learnt to sew from watching my mother, but when it comes to vintage it’s a whole new world. I wish I could save every beautiful old dress.

  4. Hi, I am hoping you can give me some information about a label. The label is
    Spice and the size is xssw. Sorry I can’t seem to be able to put the image in comments. The label has deteriorated but the garment fabric (marchioness crepe) is strong and un damaged. After reading this very helpful article I am worried the label has dry rot and could spread. I love this site thanks for all the great info!

  5. Further to my previous question the deterioration appears similar to the iron Mordant holes but the label is white not black!

  6. Hi Alison, Marchioness Crepe is a polyester or acetate crepe and so won’t be affected by dry rot, which attacks natural materials like silk. It’s probably just deteriorated, I’m sure the rest of your dress is not at risk.

    Your dress is probably mid ’60s, I’m not familiar with the Spice label, sorry. XSSW as a size means “extra slim, small woman” and is roughly equivalent to a modern 6.

  7. I have a fur which I recently acquired for free with another purchase because its lining is shattering and falling apart. It had been stored in a plastic ziplock bag. How can I tell if this is dry rot, and what can I do to preserve it?

    The pelts are still in fine condition and don’t smell musty or appear to be deteriorating in any way; the cotton batting under the lining fabric seems to be fine, though slightly discoloured. I was planning to obtain some new fabric to line it with. Should I go for a synthetic to avoid any effects of potential dry rot? I imagine storing the fur separately is also a good idea regardless. Should I also replace the cotton layer, just in case?

  8. Hi Amanda,

    Could you bring your fur into the shop so I could have a look at it and advise? It’s a bit hard to know what the condition is without seeing it.

  9. Hi Nicole,

    I’m actually located in the UK, so that won’t be possible. However, based on reading more of your Vintage 101 posts, I’m pretty sure it’s silk shattering, just based on the pattern and type of damage. It’s mostly lines of damage following the grain of the material, and although there’s no label telling me what the lining is made of, it could be crepe silk? Here are two photos showing some of the damage:

    http://i.imgur.com/8OJ7z6k.jpg
    http://i.imgur.com/RfNqWh1.jpg

    If you think otherwise, I’d be happy to have a second opinion.

    Thanks,
    Amanda

  10. Amanda, shattering affects weighted silks like satins and taffetas – lining fabrics are generally lighter, more comfortable and yours looks like a fine quality. Dry rot is more likely the culprit here. I recommend replacing the lining with a similar weight of silk. If you ask for silk lining fabric you should be able to get something good.

    I would leave the cotton lining where it is, and avoid storing in plastics in future – as per the blog post above, store in a cotton bag or pillow case. You probably don’t have many insects as you live in a cooler climate but the cotton will protect from them too, as moths in particular love to eat vintage fur.

  11. Thanks very much for the feedback, Nicole. I will follow your advice re: lining replacement and storage. I never keep my furs in plastic — always cotton bags inside a cardboard shoe box with air vents to keep them from being crushed or squished.

    So just to check, if I remove the rotting lining, the rot shouldn’t spread to other fabrics (like the new lining) or pieces in my wardrobe?

    Luckily I’ve never had any moths or other bug problems. Here’s crossing my fingers that I never do!

  12. I have a 1800’s lamp that the material is slowly getting holes, etc. is there something I can use to stop it any further?

  13. Hi Hallie, if you can email me photos of the damage and advise the fabric I should be able to suggest a method. Nicole at circavintage dot com dot au. Thank you.

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