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A ball gown worn by Mary Boykin Chesnut has been rescued from the ravages of time, thanks to a collaboration of historic groups in Columbia, S.C., where Chesnut lived during the Civil War.

Chesnut’s dress before restoration. (Historic Columbia)

In 1981, the Historic Columbia Foundation received a donation from Catherine Glover Herbert, a descendant of Mary Boykin Chesnut. The items comprised a ball gown, four waistcoats, a parasol, and a framed poem. The 1840s ball gown had belonged to the acclaimed diarist, and one of the vests was worn by her husband, James Boykin Chesnut, at their wedding. When Kathy Armato, the Activities Chair of the South Carolina chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames, learned of the items, she was so intrigued she got involved in raising funds to protect the garments.

“They had been sitting in a box. We’re more about colonial times, but Mary Boykin Chesnut is such an outstanding woman,” she said.

Interior of skirt showing hand sewn seam and stabilizing patch for split in skirt fabric made of silk crepeline bonded to a heat-activated reversible adhesive. (Courtesy Kathleen Staples & Assoc., LLC)

Armato’s group came up with $1,500 for conserving the clothing.

The delicate matter of stabilizing the silk in the fabric, which weakens over time, involved a technique that originated in the 1970s for repairing damaged paintings. A heat-activated film is applied that serves as a patch over torn or weakened seams. The reinforcements strengthen the fabric, enough to permit them to be displayed on a mannequin. The conservation can also be reversed by removing the film. Reversibility is a principle of conservation that allows for any item to be improved upon, should new and better techniques emerge.

Interior of front of bodice, showing sewn-in metal stays. (Courtesy Kathleen Staples & Assoc., LLC)

Another $3,000—$5,000 will be needed to prepare a display of the garments for the 200th anniversary in 2018 of the Hampton-Preston house, the historic home of South Carolina legislator Wade Hampton.

The home is close to the cottage in Columbia where the Chesnuts lived. That house is now a bed-and-breakfast.

Stabilizing patch for tear made of silk fabric and heat-activated reversible adhesive. (Courtesy Kathleen Staples & Assoc., LLC)