Sunday, May 31, 2009

Costume History meets Chemistry

What are the different fabrics, trims, and hardware used in the dress?
Where were they produced, under what conditions, and at what cost?

Three weeks ago, on Friday, May 15th, Holly Hummel and I (Arden Kirkland) had a wonderful visit to Vassar's Chemistry Department. We met with Stuart Belli and Edie Stout, who were very generous with their time and introduced us to two different instruments, which in turn introduced us to a whole new world of fiber analysis.

First they introduced us to the Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer, which measures how infrared light is absorbed by a substance. This is a non-invasive technique. We started by placing small fragments of fabric in the spectrometer (one at a time) to analyze them, but later in our session Edie was able to test the sleeve of her shirt while she was wearing it! This has great potential for analyzing fibers of textiles without needing to remove a sample. The most common method for fiber analysis in a costume shop (vs. a lab) is to do a burn test, which requires that you remove a sample from the textile and essentially destroy it. Standard microscopy is also possible, but even for that I believe you would usually want to cut a small sample to place on a slide. A non-invasive technique is greatly appreciated.

By comparing our results with those from a known sample, we were able to easily recognize patterns and determine composition. Our samples included the silks from the dress discussed in this project, and a few other samples. They had samples of silk, wool, and cotton that we could compare. We also discovered that Holly was wearing a linen shirt, so we analyzed her shirt (again, while she was wearing it) to have a linen to compare, as well.

We were pretty sure that the samples from this dress were silk, and the spectrometer easily confirmed that. Here's the result from our analysis of the skirt lining, which shows a typical pattern for silk:
From Chemical Analysis

On the simplest level, this makes it very easy to determine if something is silk or wool or cotton or linen, etc., and in a non-invasive way. On a more complex level, we see a potential to look for subtle differences in a larger sample to determine more specific variations, for example identifying regional differences in textiles, or dating textiles by identifying other compositional factors involved in the manufacturing of different time periods.

Next, we went upstairs to experiment with the XRF (X-ray fluorescence) spectrometer. We inserted the same samples. In this case, the instrument was able to analyze the presence of certain specific elements. This was particularly interesting for our silk samples, which we believed had been weighted with metallic salts, as was common in the late 19th and early 20th century. This weighting unfortunately leads to an increased rate of deterioration. We were hoping to prove that they were weighted, and to find out what they were weighted with.

Indeed, all our silks were found to be weighted at least with zinc. Our worst offender, the silk gauze (badly deteriorated) that formed the sleeves, was found to have not only zinc, but also iron, copper, potassium, and lead. Here's the analysis of that gauze:

From Chemical Analysis

We're very excited about the potential to analyze more of the textiles in our collection. There's a lot more to be figured out here, but this is a great beginning. Next comes the "So What?" Why add zinc or copper or lead to silk? How were they added? We've started by looking at similarities, but over time it may be more interesting to look at differences. We're hoping to find some students who are interested in both science and design who might want to take this on as a project. Design meets Science! Costume History meets Chemistry! This is a great example of what a liberal arts education is all about.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hi, Project AWARE! Thanks for a great visit!

Yesterday we had a visit from the girls in the Project AWARE program in Beacon. We had a wonderful time - the girls had very thoughtful questions about the collection, which got us all thinking about what life was like 100 or so years ago. Their challenge now is to imagine what fashion might be like 100 years from now, in 2109.

I'll try to post some images soon from our time together.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Cutting and Draping the Lace Skirt

What construction techniques were used to make this dress?

Here's a slideshow showing the steps to build the lace skirt of the reproduction.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

About this blog

This blog is about Vassar College's Trying on History project - but for now, it mostly follows one dress.

Yes, one dress. What can it tell us? What can we learn from it?

With a team of students, I have studied this dress down to the tiniest detail. We have measured it, drawn it, photographed it. We have patterned it. We are reproducing it. We are reproducing the corset that would have been worn under it. We are researching it, and its context. Who wore it? Why? Who made it? Why? How? (take a look at our full list of questions)

Yes, it's just one dress, but from it we're learning about New York City in the 1910's - and both the students who help to build the reproduction and the students who get to wear the reproduction will be able to step back in time.

To begin, you can start with some Highlights, or just browse around!

-Arden Kirkland
Vassar College Costume Collection (VCCC)
Vassar College Drama Department