This article is a reprint from Medium and written by Erin Brown.

One of our sister museums had an exhibit gallery they were designing. One of the major points of the narrative was to talk about the diversity of the people who fought in a particular Civil War battle, which included Native Americans, African Americans, and white soldiers.

They chose two different types of mannequins: simple foam forms and highly articulated ones to show the action of battle and to highlight certain individuals. Customized mannequins can get pretty darn expensive really quick and to purchase specific silicone hands and faces only adds to the financial outlay.

We all brainstormed, experimented, and came up with a solution to modify the mannequins in such a way as to illustrate the diversity while remaining safe for historic costumes and artifacts.

We used medical grade unbleached tubular cotton stockinette. One roll of the two-inch can be ordered online for around $20. We use the 2 or 3 inch and 10 inch stockinette. The 10 inch stockinette is used to cover the heads, bodies, legs, and to make hands.

While the two inch stockinette is used for the neck and arms. The stockinette is artifact safe. The texture of the fabric is not slick, it has purchase to help hold the historic garments in place. It is easily pinned into place on the foam forms with a little sewing. The hard plastic forms required a little more work.

Here is the process we devised.

Step One

Measure and cut the stockinette to fit the sections of the mannequin you want to cover. Most of the pieces I cut to fit these forms were about three feet in length. We wanted plenty of material to cover the hands, wrists, and up the arms.

Step Two

Wash and rinse the pieces.

While the stockinette is safe and ready to go, washing and rinsing the sizing and starch from the material will help the dye soak into the fabric more evenly.

If you are going to be dyeing a large amount of material, I encourage you to use use your washing machine. You do not need to worry about the fabric fraying. The constant agitation in the washer will help the dye set evenly.

Step Three

Rit dye has a very convenient skin color formula chart. Now, I was in a hurry this time and couldn’t find exactly the right colors available at the store, so I had improvise.

The local fabric store did not have Camel or Rose Quartz in stock so I purchased petal pink, sandstone and tan. You can purchase any of the Rit colors online easily if you have plenty of lead time.

I’ve included the link to the color chart in the pictures caption.

Read the instructions on the color chart and the bottle of box of Rit Dye. I added the dye to my bucket (on the far left, I misframed the first image below).

Then add the fabric.

Then pour the hot salted water over the fabric. Use a black spoon or an old utensil you don’t care about to stir and turn the fabric over, mixing the dye throughout.

Once the water cooled enough, I just used my hands to wring the fabric and work the dye in more evenly. (tip: if you choose to use your hands, put a light coating of vaseline or olive oil on your hands to prevent turning your skin all different colors. Give it time to soak into your skin.)

If your using your washing machine — Put the fabric in the machine. Mix up your dye formula in a separate container with your salt water the pour into the machine.

Steps 4, 5, & 6 You can see a little mottling (uneven color distribution) in the upper bucket. I neglected to wash this bunch of fabric prior to dyeing. So after this, I washed it with some dish soap, rinsed it well, then added it back to the dye bucket and worked the dye through the fabric a second time.

Step Four

After dyeing, rinse well.

If you need to clean your director’s sink afterwards, I suggest soft scrub. Coat it and let it set for an hour.

Step Five

Soak in vinegar water for at least an hour. Equal parts Vinegar and Water.

Clockwise from the top: Native American soldiers, Caucasian soldiers, a sheet of plain white printer paper to judge color, African-American or Native Black soldiers, and the original color of the natural cotton stockinette in the center.

You can tell there is still some mottling in a couple of the colors. I certainly suggest using the washing machine, if you can, to ensure even distribution of color.

I am happy with these results because the mannequins will be on a platform and couple feet away from the visitors. The exhibit gallery will also being using theatrical lighting so the visitors will never notice it.

Step Six

Trace your hands on the 10 inch fabric. Mannequins tend to have small hands and if you are going to display garments from the Victorian or Edwardian period…remember, they were small. As a gauge, you can measure the mannequins’ hands from tip of the middle finger to the base of the palm, so you can trace a hand similar in size.

Step Seven

Sew the hands. Find someone good with a sewing machine and with experience working with stretchy material. I’m moderately experienced with a machine so but I had to look up what stitch and tension settings would work for my machine.

It took me a couple practice attempts to make sure the settings were correct, so be sure to allow yourself extras for OOPSies. I did a few hands but one of our director’s zoomed through five to my one. LOL. She is more experienced and has made numerous historic costumes so, from then on, she was in charge of sewing.

Sew a seam along the line you have traced. Then cut out the hand, leaving as 1/4 inch of fabric if possible. In between the fingers it gets tricky; you want to leave enough material so the seam doesn’t come apart easily as you are stretching the material but you also don’t want to leave big wads of material that will leave your fingers looking lumpy. Turn the hands inside out, hiding the seams inside the hand/glove.

Step Eight

Fit your fabric to your mannequins. Maneuver the stockinette where you want it on the foam forms and pin it into place so it stays snug.

We used archival double sided tape and 3M Positionable Mounting Adhesive and rubber bands to help secure the stockinette over the arms and heads of the hard plastic articulated mannequins to keep it all in place.

A strip of tape around the widest part of the forearm, stockinette on top of that, and then a rubber band placed over the sleeve and above the location of the tape. The tape prevents everything from slipping and the rubber band helps keep the stockinette in place as you are manipulating the clothing items.

Side note: All the clothing you see on these mannequins are modern replicas.

The heads for the hard plastic mannequins took more work. Place a wide strip of adhesive down the back of the head and around the neck. Wrap the large tube of stockinette (inside out) around the head and pull it snug. Use the adhesive to grip the material until you get the look you want. I cut the excess material off and then stitched it up, pulling the material from the top front towards the back.

Once stitched, turn them right side out to hide the seam. You may want to add a litle more tape or adhesive in places as you finagle the material for the final detailed look you want. All of ours would be wearing Civil War era hats, so I wasn’t worried about hiding the top knot it made. These are easily hidden under wigs, hats, scarves, paper wigs, etc. or left in the back.

Remember that the mottling you see will not be as noticeable once I’m finished stitching and reversing the fabric.

Here’s an image of one of the simpler foam forms. You can see the T pins holding the stockinette in place.

Here are some images of the gallery in progress so you can get the idea of the overall effect and what the ultimate goals looked like.

In a Different Gallery:

For different exhibit we once had this beautiful vintage mannequin that actually fit the historic garment we wanted to display but the mannequin was made from material we didn’t trust to be artifact safe. I got a roll of archival double-sided tape and a big roll of plastic wrap (if it’s food friendly, then it’s artifact friendly).

Using the tape and the plastic wrap, we covered the mannequin anywhere the clothes would cover. Then use the stockinette to cover the plastic wrap. The only parts of the mannequin that was left exposed was the neck seam up and the wrist seams down.

No where did the terrible 1940s era plastic come into contact with the historic costume. I might add that this was for a temporary exhibit so the garment wouldn’t be on display long.


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