Friday, February 20, 2015

Ethics: Using Antique Materials to Recreate Antique Fashions?

I've posted on this blog a discussion about the mistreat/misuse of antique textiles; today's blog will reflect similar ethical themes.

I tried my hand at beading with the 1920's pink polyester satin dress I made a few months ago. I feel like the beading really makes the dress: it provides a touch of quintessential 1920's glamour, but was fun to do and the design wasn't overwhelming.

Adding iridescent black seed beads to the design
I used silver bugle beads and iridescent black/brown seed beads on my dress. I got the bead hanks (a hank is a bundle of beads), along with a few other bead hanks, at a garage sale a few summers ago. The lady running the sale actually gave them to me for free! She had acquired them at an estate sale a long time ago and had been unable to sell them--by this point, she was eager to get them off her hands.

These beads are remarkably beautiful and unusual compared to beads available in big-name stores. In addition, the hank strings were discolored and beige-y rather than white. My hanks are really tangled.

The silver bugle beads have a hint of black on the edges of the inner tube.

The seed beads are a metallic, iridescent black/brown/gunmetal, catching the light and changing color. The seed beads are hexagonal, but the height and length varies wildly and several were imperfectly formed. This was a much larger hank of beads, about 4 times the size of the silver bugles.

Based on the unusual quality and inconsistent size of these beads, I believe they are antique or at least vintage. My hanks, especially the black seed bead hank, look very similar to these vintage hanks below:

Vintage Czech Hematite Seed Beads from A Grain of Sand
Vintage Blue Czech bead hank from French Steel Bead Shop
And the beads look similar to those on this Victorian (looks about 1880s to me but I could be wrong) bodice from Ancient Point :

I realized my beads were vintage (or possibly antique) halfway through beading. At once a cloud of guilt felt upon me... these beads are probably rare and I should save them. I almost ripped out all the beads with the intention of replacing them with new, store-bought ones.

But then I thought: why save these beads? No museum is going to want a tangled and dirty hank of beads. There seem to be many vintage bead hanks available online. In the end, the beads are being used for what they were probably created for--a 1920s dress. I would have felt worse about using the beads on a modern garment, but using them on a recreation of a historic garment, using a period pattern/diagram and sewing techniques, made me feel better. In a way, the life of these beads has finally come "full circle."

Still, it brings up the ethical question: should we use vintage/antique notions or materials in the recreation of historic garments? I think this is absolutely appropriate. Use an antique lace collar on your next Edwardian dress. Use cut-steel buttons for your Victorian mourning dress. What better way to honor the history and provenance of these pieces than to put them where they've been waiting their whole lives to belong?

But please, cutting up that collar or working the buttons into your DIY wind chime will be where I start to cry.

I want to know YOUR opinion! Do you think historical sewers should use vintage or antique notions, trims, etc. on their historical sewing projects?


  1. I am not a sewer, but I do love your blog and you get me thinking about these things - and, with an archaeologist in the family, preservation and conservation come up a lot when I'm talking with him. You actually helped insipire this post:

    As to the immediate question, I'm with you - you used beautiful things in the way they were intended to be used - and didn't hide them away in the name of "saving" them. What could be more right?

  2. What an interesting topic!

    For me it would depend on how rare an item is and the quality or condition of the item. The beads you used really helped give the correct sparkle and shine to your dress. I think they were far superior to modern beads for your project and as you said, there are many hanks of vintage beads around. If I have a vintage item and I search and cannot find others, I hesitate to use it since it could one day be more important as itself that worked into a project of mine. Another consideration for me is the condition or quality of the piece. Is it a full dress in wearable condition that I would be cannibalizing? Then I probably could not bring myself to do it. If the piece is completely destroyed except for say a beaded/embroidered cuff I am likely to remove the cuff and reuse it. At least then it gets used and seen rather than sit there attached to a completely fallen apart dress. I also find that the use of antique textiles on outfits can be a great conversation starter about historic sewing and textiles, since antique pieces often look so different as to spark conversation.

  3. I use vintage textiles/trims whenever available. Now, they may not be the exact period I'm sewing. A lovely stiff, sheer cotton from the fifties makes a nice 1880's day dress for a picnic. The quality is just better. I love vintage textiles and think they should be used. Of course this depends on their fragility. Not everything is a precious object worthy of a museum, I would never use such a thing for my sewing shenanigans. They shouldn't languish in a drawer but live again!