We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

Almost every piece of clothing that makes its way into Anna Kolata’s closet is priceless, one of a kind, irreplaceable. Even so, she usually prefers some pieces over others, and this month one of her favorites is a turn-of-the-century Cubs uniform. The shirt is a heavy wool, with long sleeves and front buttons; navy pinstripes show faintly against the off-white ground. Despite a recent cleaning, a few smudges darken it, and the collar is yellow with age and sweat–but for Kolata, the flaws are part of its charm. “All this discoloration is interesting, because it tells you how the piece was used,” she says, gently running her hands over it. “He tucked it in; he wiped his hands on it.”

Kolata is the costume conservator at the Chicago Historical Society, and the closet where the Cubs shirt hangs is part of the brand-new lab she helped design. She spends her days examining dresses under a microscope, testing the pH of old wools and linens, deciding whether to mend holes with silk or synthetic thread, and recording her work in hundreds of notes and before-and-after slides. Along with curator Elizabeth Jachimowicz, she is responsible for maintaining and preparing for exhibition the more than 23,000 pieces in the Historical Society’s costume collection.

Hers is an obscure profession; museumgoers are seldom aware of the extent to which the pieces of clothing in exhibits have been examined or of the knowledge and care that goes into mending and cleaning them–or consciously leaving them unmended or uncleaned. Sometimes a museum will note, next to an exhibit, a particularly interesting or unusual conservation technique. But left on their own, visitors don’t usually think that caring for old clothes is an art.

Against the stark, medicinal white of her lab, Kolata’s orangey brown jacket looks like a rust stain on white linen. “People come in here and almost invariably say, ‘Oh, this looks like an operating room,'” she says. “That’s something I did deliberately.” In a painting conservation lab, she says, “people wouldn’t dream of touching anything,” but visitors to a costume lab–generally volunteers who help with the sewing–have a hard time thinking of the objects of study as delicate or irreplaceable; even well-intentioned hands have damaged clothing by handling it too roughly. “Everyone wears clothes, and we’re all used to handling them,” she says. “I wanted this lab to look pristine, so people would get the idea these are historical artifacts and we don’t treat them casually.”

It isn’t just the white that reminds visitors of a hospital, though; it’s also the abundance of shiny new equipment and drawers full of supplies. In the center of the room is the newest acquisition, the one Kolata is most excited about: the wet-cleaning table. A stab of high-grade stainless steel the size of a pool table forms the bottom of the basin, and various knobs and buttons on its side raise, lower, and tilt it.

The evenly spaced sprinklers that extend out over the center draw their water from, a special faucet of ultrapure deionized water. Kolata sometimes cleans smaller things in the sink that sits along one wall; but the table is big enough to accommodate anything–even long, full-skirted dresses.

Next to the wet-cleaning table is the cold-vacuum table. The suction from the tiny holes in its flat surface draws out the water or dry-cleaning chemicals applied to a garment, and with them the dirt or perspiration embedded in it. A rounded protrusion at the side is for cleaning small areas like sleeves. Behind the cold-vacuum table is a glass-doored, airtight chamber, where Kolata can hang dry-cleaned pieces until the fumes subside, or raise the humidity to relax a garment’s fibers for cleaning.

The room’s other main attraction is the examination table, whose size, shape, and white muslin cover make it look almost like a doctor’s. A microscope is mounted on a metal arm so that Kolata can move it rather than the piece of clothing she’s looking at. Nearby lie tools borrowed from other professions: a dental aspirator, which she uses for cleaning isolated spots on clothing, and a wax cutter, for sealing the edges of the polyester fabric she often uses for repairs with heat to keep it from fraying.

Drawers and cabinets along all four walls stretch from floor to ceiling. They hold hangers, thread of various colors and fibers, muslin and two kinds of tissue paper for storing clothes, bolts of silk and polyester, for patching clothes and backing weak spots, dyes for matching, the patches to the clothes, and blotting paper for testing colorfastness. Two kinds of lights–incandescent and fluorescent–hang overhead, and from the ceiling dangle dozens of electrical outlets on adjustable orange cords, so that Kolata can plug anything in in any part of the lab.

Kolata doesn’t do all of her work here; she also has an office down the hall from Jachimowicz, the costume curator. There she writes detailed reports about each project she takes on and calls and writes other conservators and curators. She also puts in her hours in the workroom, where she and Jachimowicz arrange the costumes on mannequins before exhibitions. But the lab is where she works on the clothes, where she exercises the skills she’s been sharpening for the last 12 years.

Technically, Kolata likes to remind people, she is a textiles conservator who specializes in costumes. In other words, she applies her knowledge of how to conserve fabric to old clothes rather than, say, to flags or fabric remains found at archaeological sites. “But I have done archaeological textiles,” she says. Conservators tend to work in one area primarily, but very few people do one thing exclusively.

She started out as a textiles major at the School of the Art Institute; then after graduation, her instinct to preserve things took over. “It was always very upsetting to me to see artwork mishandled or destroyed–not just textiles or paintings, but even buildings torn down that didn’t need to be.”

After an apprenticeship with several painting conservators at the Field Museum, Kolata eventually began to study textile conservation there. She went on to work at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. By 1982, when the Historical Society hired her as its first full-time costume conservator, she realized she had chosen to specialize in probably the most difficult kind of conservation. Costume and painting conservation are similar, she says, partly because most painting is done on textiles. “But costumes are three-dimensional, and you’re dealing with so many different types of fabric and thread. And because you often can’t lay things out flat, the conservation techniques are more difficult.”

For any major exhibition, Kolata usually has about 50 pieces to get into shape. She works on one piece at a time, frequently spending weeks on a single garment. A conservator can easily spend months on a piece, she says, if it is very delicate or very damaged or not much is known about it.

Because the purpose of conservation is to prolong the life of a garment, Kolata has two main concerns: cleaning, so that the acid present in most soils doesn’t destroy the fabric, and mending, so that small holes don’t become big ones. When she first gets a piece, she looks it over painstakingly to determine just how (and how thoroughly) it can be cleaned, and what needs to be patched, supported, mended, or left alone. A pass over the lighted slide table or under the microscope, which magnifies the fabric 204 times, can reveal tiny holes, the structure of the weave, and any breaks in the fiber. A pH test tells how acidic–that is, how dirty–a piece is.

Water, says Kolata, cleans better than anything else. But it can also do damage: it loosens the spin of the threads, and it makes the fibers swell quickly and then shrink, which can distort or crack them. Some materials–sized (or glazed) silk, for example, which has water-soluble salts and minerals in it to give it body–can’t be wet-cleaned. If a thorough dunking in water is out, Kolata will clean just the area that contains the spot, or use dry-cleaning solvents. Sometimes a piece can’t be washed at all, because the potential for damage from handling is just too great. Other times, she considers the stain part of the clothing’s history; then she’ll neutralize it, which keeps it from damaging the fibers but doesn’t remove the spot, rather than remove it with harsh chemicals. “Any cleaning is traumatic to the piece,” she says. “If you don’t really have to do something to it, it’s best not to.”

The same goes for mending: the idea is to stop little holes from becoming bigger holes, and to patch big holes so they don’t show. Some holes, though, are historically significant; a conservator would never mend gunpowder blasts in a soldier’s uniform. The trick is to decide which is which.

When Kolata was faced with an infantry coat from the Civil War–rare, because enlisted men’s coats were usually worn through, cut up for reuse, or thrown away–she decided it was too delicate to clean, but she mended the moth holes that covered its body and sleeves. When she began to work on a white, sized-silk turn-of-the-century women’s dress coat from Marshall Field’s, the delicate silk was already starting to shred, so she didn’t even think of trying to clean it. Instead, she glued a layer of nearly transparent silk crepe to its outside surface to keep it together. And when she got the Cubs uniform, she cleaned it enough to balance its pH so it wouldn’t deteriorate, but not so much that the stains that show its history disappeared.

The Historical Society has long had one of the country’s biggest and best costume collections; it includes George Washington’s second inaugural suit, wooden shoes worn by Civil War soldiers, and gowns once owned by such renowned Chicago families as the Pullmans and the Swifts. Until recently, though, storage and preparation space was limited to a few rooms in the basement. For six years Kolata had a room just big enough to hold two tables, a sink, and shelves, and she kept her supplies in cardboard boxes.

For CHS director Ellsworth Brown, who had already been thinking about remodeling other areas of the building, Kolata’s arrival made the need for a new lab obvious: “Any mature institution really needs labs.” So when the building was redesigned in 1984, plans for new costume facilities were made as well. Eventually the entire costume collection was moved temporarily into off-site storage while the work was going on; by chance, the last boxes left the building just days before the disastrous 1986 flood, which severely damaged parts of other collections.

By June of 1988, the new lab was completed. The building’s total bill came to about $10.4 million, much of it from family grants. Although Brown isn’t sure exactly what the Hope McCormick Conservation Lab cost, he says the McCormick family contributed something like $400,000. “It’s an expensive room,” he says: its renovation was more extensive than was required for the museum’s other spaces.

To ensure that the room would fit her needs and to provide maximum flexibility, Kolata worked with the designers. She decided where to put the sink, suggested the hanging outlets, and asked for cabinets with sliding, removable shelves so that the space could also be used for hanging clothes if need be. She also shopped for microscopes with paper conservator Carol Turchan. “I had to think about the flow, about how I do things,” she says. “It helped me get organized. It used to take me days to do things I can do now in a couple of hours.”

Kolata guesses that there are only a handful of costume labs across the country, although they’re more common in Europe. She ranks this one equal to or better than most labs around the world. “We like to use the term ‘state of the art,'” says Brown. “It may be a cliche, but it”s true. At least nationally, this lab really puts out at the front edge.”

Despite the new technology at hand, however, Kolata relies more on educated guesswork than on science to do her job. Estimating the age of a piece, for example, is a tricky business. There is no precise way to measure age; the archaeologist’s method of radiocarbon dating, for instance, is only accurate within 50 years. Instead, she relies on what she knows: how stitching looked in past eras, the weight and twist of threads from different periods, and past methods for constructing clothing. In labeled, sealed plastic bags, she saves thread and fabric she’s removed from clothes as a record of what she’s done.

“It’s very easy to make an error,” she says. “A lot of times we assume they did things more carefully in the past”–yet she has seen plenty of coarse stitching and shoddy workmanship from the 18th century. Sometimes a conservator’s work requires intuition: Kolata once studied under an elderly, near-sighted conservator who put the pleats back in a skirt by following fold marks so faint that Kolata couldn’t see them.

Other times, she says, conservation requires detective work. “I was working on a John Adams suit for [the] ‘We the People’ [exhibit], and there was a stain on the back that I found really puzzling. I thought maybe it had been caused in exhibition, by a light being too close to it or something. Then I realized that 18th-century men had ponytails, or queues.”

To find out whether Adams wore a queue, Kolata asked CHS picture curators to look for illustrations of Adams wearing the suit. One of them gave her a reproduction of a portrait of Adams that hangs in Boston’s Fogg Museum, and she started corresponding with a curator there. The coat in the painting was almost identical to the one Kolata was working on, but Kolata’s piece was plum, and the Fogg curator insisted that the suit’s color in the painting was gray. The two corresponded for months, during which time the painting was cleaned. Once the curator in Boston had taken another look, she wrote to say that the suit in the painting was plum after all–and Kolata had evidence she was working on a real John Adams suit.

“A lot of the decisions I make really require a conservator and a curator to work together,” she says. In the case of the John Adams suit, she consulted picture curators, but more often she consults costume curators, especially Jachimowicz. “I can ask questions about style that the curator can answer and I can’t.”

One of the toughest parts of her job is striking the right balance between the two extremes of the costume-conservation spectrum: whether to preserve the clothes or try to restore them to a state of historical accuracy. If a jacket is missing a sleeve, for example, and Kolata decides to replace it, she’s stepping out of the realm of conservation and into that of restoration.

“Sewing beads on a flapper dress to replace missing beads is restoration,” she says. The time and effort it takes to sew beads back on a piece usually far outweighs its historical importance, but Kolata will do it–or rather she has volunteers do it–if an exhibit or the nature of a piece demands that the item’s original appearance be restored. “If it’s a Worth gown,” she says, “it’s much more valuable to have it look like it did originally.”

For a number of reasons, though, Kolata usually shies away from restoration. Historical museums like Chicago’s often value the changes in a garment–like stains and gunshot holes–as much as a piece’s original design. “It’s rare that we take something back to the way it looked originally,” she says. “Art museums would be much more inclined to take something back all the way than we would.”

Another reason is that conservators don’t find modern beads or a sleeve Kolata makes in the lab particularly satisfactory substitutes for the missing originals; no matter how close to the original they may look, they aren’t authentic. “I would rather see something missing a piece,” she says, “than replace the piece with a reproduction.”

Sometimes there is no photo or drawing to serve as a model for reproduction. Kolata talks about a red flapper dress that recently came to the Historical Society; its design and some renegade threads suggested it was missing a bow on the hip. She won’t replace it, though, because neither she nor Jachimowicz has been able to find out what it should took like. Instead, when they exhibit it they’ll have to position the dress so that the bare patch is hidden. “If any restoration is done, it has to be based on fact,” she says. “It can’t be just sort of made up.”

Modern costume conservation dates back only to the 1950s, when research in cleaning methods got its start. At that time, Kolata says, conservators used “water and one kind of detergent. They had no understanding of different chemicals.” By the 70s, the craft had become a bit more sophisticated, but conservators still made mistakes. “There was a time when I first started when conservators would take a piece apart, clean individual sections by hand, and put it back together, removing the original stitching,” Kolata says. “A piece like that has lost information, character. That trend was really unfortunate.”

Since then, costume conservators have learned a lot more about the value of the original stitching–and about the cleaning process. Dry cleaning is used more frequently than it was then, and stains are more often left alone. “Conservation in the past was much more focused on restoration,” Kolata says. “What we do now is more minimal and is based on much more technical knowledge.” To keep on top of new developments, she goes regularly to various workshops and seminars; this fall, her agenda includes a microscopy course and a talk on pest control.

Despite recent advances, it’s still impossible to predict the life expectancy of a piece that’s been conserved. Under the right conditions, Kolata says, wool can last hundreds of years. There are archaeological examples of wool and silk that have lasted thousands of years. But costume conservators are a careful bunch; for them, the final word is always prudence.

“Things change so rapidly,” Kolata says. Conservators know more than ever before about the clothing they work on, but for Kolata such progress also means the methods she uses now will soon be outdated. It means every repair she makes has to be close enough to the original to look good in exhibition, but different enough so that later conservators can tell it’s an alteration. That way, she says, “if someone comes along later with better methods, what I’ve done can be undone.” Where she can, she stitches rather than glues, patches rather than replaces, leaves dirty rather than cleans.

“Conservators are very . . . conservative,” Kolata says, and laughs. “We approach any change with extreme caution. We always keep in mind that we don’t know everything.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Merideth.