Year in the Life of a Collections Assistant

By Noël Grabow, Collections Assistant
December 19, 2023

Acorn Hall’s front parlor during the switch from old to new. The ones on the left are the reproduction, the ones on the right are the originals.
Over several months, I stabilized the waist of Lucy Fitz Randolph’s 1889 wedding gown so it could be exhibited in our anniversary exhibit.

As part-time collections assistant of an organization with an extensive historic costume collection, some of my favorite experiences have been when my role in the development of an exhibit has crossed paths with my lifelong love of sewing and sewing with historical techniques. I’ve been able to take on some unique and ambitious projects, putting my personal interests and skills to use where most needed, whether it be in the reproduction of Acorn Hall’s original drapes, creation of elements for exhibits, or the preparation of historic garments for display.

Especially in the past five years, I have had numerous opportunities to work directly with MCHS’s 19th– and 20th-century costume collection, but when the decision was made to retire the Hall’s original front parlor drapes to collections storage, I undertook my largest project to date. My goal was to recreate them as closely as possible so that the reproductions would be nearly indistinguishable and in keeping with the room’s mid-19th-century décor. To accomplish this, over months, I studied their construction and fabric, experimented with a variety of swatches, and sewed together the six panels in as close a manner to the originals as I could. Now hung in the front parlor, they happily blend in as intended.

In preparation for exhibits, however, my work makes it possible for many of our historic pieces to be put on display. When garments from the collection are earmarked for inclusion, I help assess the feasibility of mounting them and determining which may need repair or support to be able to be displayed. While many pieces are beautifully preserved, some require assistance, which must be reversible, such as stitching in a muslin waistband to support the weight of a skirt or carefully re-attaching delicate lace trim by hand.

I also to help add the final touches that allow each piece to look its best. Sometimes, as was the case in our recent exhibit From the Waist Up, they require facsimiles of accompanying garments or accessories to complete the intended effect of an ensemble. For that exhibit, I drafted patterns and created shortened versions of period-typical skirts and pants to help approximate the intended silhouette for some of the bodices and a gentleman’s vest.

The “shorts” to accompany the vest included pleats and other details to give it the illusion of formal pants.
Fitting the pattern to the Dempsey dress bodice.

My current project is creating a conservation lining for a dress by Morristown dressmaker Mrs. R.F. Dempsey MCHS to prepare it for display in an upcoming exhibit. I began by making a pattern based on measurements and tracings of the remaining lining fabric.  After several “fittings” with the dress, I cut out a full lining in a nonwoven fabric which serves as both the pattern on the conservation silk, and stabilizing layer during construction. As the conservation silk is very fine, I am hand-sewing the lining as well as the twill tape added to the edges for added strength. Once the lining is completed and attached to the original gown, the dress will be ready for its debut.

This lining reconstruction, as well as the drape reproduction, and many of my other endeavors are fascinating exploration of the original construction, and have allowed me the unique opportunity to sew in the footsteps of past sewers and help preserve their amazing work.