The T-Room
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Pearl Dress Restoration Project

Everybody bite your nails...

During its life, the Pearl dress has had to put up with a lot. Up until it came to the T-Room, it has been a working costume. It would have been made in 1989 ready for filming "Pearls of Wisdom". Since it was a key costume, Raymond Childe (costume designer) would have made it stronger than many of the other costumes in the show. As such, it has a linen lining in the bodice to protect the delicate silk from which it is made. He also gave it strength in its sleeves by adding gussets under the arms. These allow the arms to be raised without putting strain on the seam in the armscye (the whole in the bodice where the sleeve is sewn into).

The costume worked hard during its two years as Tabatha's main costume, and was used in 22 episodes - even more than Tallulah's Velvet dress, which appeared in only 17. This makes it the most regularly used costume of them all. During this time, it would have undergone a lot of wear and tear during filming, including having the seam opened along the right sleeve so that Tabatha could get at the pearl in the piranha tank in "Pearls". This of course would then have had to be re-sewn, further weakening the silk. The strain sometimes shows on the dress, and one of the jewels can be seen hanging off the belt in "Cedric Sackbutt's Search for a Song", and also one of the pearls on the neckline fails to hang correctly throughout "Rings of Olympus" , probably because it had fallen off at some stage and had to be reapplied in a hurry.

Apart from all this normal wear (not to mention the evils of underarm deodorant where silk is concerned), it would have had to have undergone numerous washes and pressing.

A few years later, Thames Television lost its franchise. The bulk of the wardrobe department was sold off to a lady called Mary Hill. She parted with some of her costumes, and the Pearl Dress was bought by a fancy dress shop in Ascot, along with other costumes from the series. This would have been really tough, since it was hired out to the general public. People would have partied in it, smoked, drank, sweated and worn yet more roll on deodorant. Presumably it would have been cleaned after every time out. When it was not being worn, it would have been hanging in a crowded rail with no proper air circulation. This and the sweat and general ground-in dirt that it would have absorbed would encourage the growth of mildew.

I don't know how long it would have been in this shop, but it could have been as long as ten years, since I rescued it in 2001.

When it arrived, it had the following damage:

i) The skirt hemline had been badly scuffed to the point of being torn and threadbare. It was also full of dried grass tangled in all the loose threads.

ii) Some of the glue on the neckline and belt holding the cording on had failed and the cording was coming off in places.

iii) The fabric of the sleeves had been torn under the arms, leaving great fraying holes.

iv) The armscye seams had been opened and the gussets folded back and stitched onto themselves, probably to prevent further tearing under the arms to prolong her life as a hire costume.

v) The large pearl on the belt streamer had gone missing, as had a large oval ruby and a large topaz. Some of the netting on some of the leaves had also gone missing.

vi) The left sleeve netting had a large cigarette burn in it.

vii) The tiara was missing a leaf and the central pearl drop.

Past restoration work:

2001: Back when I first bought the dress, I had no experience of sewing at all, aside from attaching buttons. There was only limited work that I could do at this point as a result of my lack of skill. I managed to find some matching pearl beads and jewels, so I set about replacing anything missing. I have not been able to replace the missing tiara leaf, however. I also invisibly stitched on the cording so that it won't break free again.

~2003: My friend's father worked as a tailor, so he was able to overlock the hemline to prevent damage without losing any of the original fabric. He also managed to reinstate the gussets under the arms, but he said that there was nothing he could do about the ripped underarm fabric.

2010: I managed to find some of the original pattern net for the dress and bought a job lot of 20m for running repairs. I set to replacing the few bits of net that were missing from the belt. I felt as though I should do something about the sleeves (i.e. replace them), but I didn't have any of the right coloured silk, and every time I sent off for samples of what looked like it could be the right shade, they never were. I had learned to sew by this point.

2011

After many years of searching, I finally decided to risk the fabric swatches from the Pearl Dress design sketch. I removed them from teh sketch and took them to Birmingham. I searched through the rag market, the indoor market, the outdoor market, Barry's Fabric Warehouse, and then went onto the Fancy Silk Store near the Bullring. There, hidden away at the bottom of a huge pile of rolls was a, yellowish orange roll with a tiny bit of fabric left on it. Fed up with my long search, I pulled it out, and it shone a lustrous, orangey red. I thought it might be close to the original, but it seemed to have far too much yellow in it. I took out the swatch and compared it. It was AN EXACT MATCH!!!!!

It was the last roll of this colour in the shop, and there was only 1.5 metres left on it. Just enough to replace the sleeves if need be. Looking at the fabric glowing a magnificent firey orange, I was quite sad to think how tired looking the same silk in the costume had become over the years.

Anyway, now I had everything I needed apart from professional advice. It was my initial aim to replace the sleeves, but I consulted an expert in the field, who trades in original movie props, costumes and memorabilia, and he advised me that restoring anything was always a touchy issue, since it could devalue the item. A costume should really only be restored if it is likely to deteriorate. Then, it is advisable only to carry out work that is sympathetic, and try not to replace anything original if possible.

I am not interested in the value of the costume, since I am never going to part with it, and the holes in the armscye would only get worse with time. I decided to carry on with the restoration and document everything that has been done.

Before anyone throws their hands up in horror or gets angry with me, please note that I feel as though I have a great responsibility both to the costume as a piece of art, to myself as the owner, but most of all to all the T. Bag fans everywhere who grew up watching this costume on screen. This weighed heavily on my mind before I decided to proceed. With the advice of the expert whom I had contacted, I decided only to replace parts as a last resort and to keep anything that was replaced in T. Bag's purse with the dress.


 

Let us begin - Right Sleeve

I started by removing the right sleeve of the dress. This involved removing the overlocking that was done by my friend's dad a while back when he reinstated the gussets.

 

Once the sleeve was removed, it was possible to see the extent of the damage. Here is the tear from the right and the wrong sides of the fabric.

I noticed that the damage was caused by the fabric being stretched and pulled until it split. There was nothing missing from the hole. Also, since it was along the seamline, I figured that it would be easy to whipstitch it closed, and then catch in the tear with the overlocker, thereby putting any strain onto a different, stronger part of the fabric. I could also reinforce the tear with a little fusible interfacing (a web-like material used to reinforce or stiffen fabrics). This would all mean that I would not have to replace ANY of the original fabrics for this sleeve.

The top image shows the inside of the sleeve with the interfacing. These would help to reinforce the fabric along the seamline and prevent weakening during sewing. Notice that my plan worked and I managed to catch the tear into the overlocking (the orange line of sewing along the edge - this stops the fabric fraying at the cut ends). The tear is no more! Please note that I did NOT cut any of the original fabric with the overlocker.

Here is the sleeve with the gusset reattached. Note that the tear has totally gone. All that remained was to sew the sleeve back on.

Here is the sleeve back on the dress. It looks as good as new!!! No new fabrics were used for this repair. I was able to use all the original pieces, even the bias binding at the wrist.

 

 

Left Sleeve

The left sleeve had two areas of concern, the underarm and also the netting. The underarm had a smaller hole in it than the right sleeve, but this would get bigger with time.

The netting had a 2.5cm cigarette burn in it that had been clumsily repaired by me when I first bought the costume to prevent it getting any bigger.

I did the exact same thing to repair this sleeve as I did with the other sleeve. The hole in the netting was not repairable, so I used some of the matching netting that I had bought to replace the overlay. I even matched the pattern up on the net so that it was cut at exactly the same point in the pattern as the original.

Unfortunately with the gusset of this sleeve, the roll on deodorant trapping all that sweat over the years had rotted the fabric, and it was splitting and tearing in my hands. I used some of the matching silk to replace it, noting the cut on the original fabric.

The original pieces are stored away in T. Bag's purse.

These images show the repairs to the gusset and sleeve. Note that the tear has again been fully repaired.

Here is the sleeve with the new netting. Good as new.

 

Although I have replaced some of the original fabrics, I have gone to great lengths to ensure that they are an exact match. I believe that my repairs were fully justified and that they will serve to extend the life of the costume for many years.