Museum Quality: Astrida Schaeffer '99G

Thursday, February 16, 2012
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Astrida Schaeffer constructs a dress form


Astrida Schaeffer is a material girl.

Actually, the professional title she uses is “costume historian” and, for the museum mannequins she carves out of foam, “costume display and storage.” Offhand, she refers to herself as a fabric sleuth. By studying a period piece of clothing, by looking at the fabric and the buttons and the embellishments, she can determine its age.

The founder of Schaeffer Arts says, “I follow the clues to get the story. And the clues are in the fabric.”

Schaeffer has been making reproduction historical clothing since 1986 and museum mannequins since 1998. Her resume includes museums from Maine to New Jersey. A recent request for a custom mannequin came from a private citizen in Germany.

But her roots are at UNH where she is a guest curator at the University Museum and is past assistant director of the UNH Museum of Art (2001 to 2010).  She earned a master’s degree in history from UNH in 1999. At the same time she began her graduate studies, she started making mannequins.

 “What I offer is the ability to go into a museum and house a collection in a way that can prolong its life,” Schaeffer says. “And the way to do that is to get the garments off the hangers. Dresses with heavy trim work and beading shouldn’t be hung; it will destroy the garment.”

The challenge comes on the display side, Schaeffer says: how to bring a dress to life as best possible?

“I’m always looking at the source, the garment, trying to figure out what can I do to keep this intact?” she says.

Her mannequin business began after attending a workshop at the Textile Conservation Center Lowell, Mass. at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass. At the time, she was helping Dale Valena of the University Museum assess the university’s textile collection.

The 600-plus dresses and hoops and bustles and corsets, dating from 1700 to 1930, were donated to UNH by Irma Bowen who came to the then-called New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts in 1920 to teach the history of fashion and dressmaking techniques.

“I knew how to care for the garments but I had no idea what treasures existed within the collection,” Valena says. “Astrida spent some time examining the clothing and thought there were enough good pieces to perhaps have an exhibit sometime. Soon after I moved to the library, we started making plans for her first exhibit, ‘Tailored to Teach.’ I couldn’t pay her but I was able to send her to a week-long mannequin making workshop that she excelled in, and we were the beneficiaries of her newfound talent.”

That talent led Schaeffer to her mannequin-making business. The dress forms are made from 
Ethafoam, a strong, resilient, polyethylene foam used in the preservation of historic objects. She carves them to fit the shape of the person of the time, factoring in for the undergarments they would have been wearing— corsets, for example.

Schaeffer is in the process of making 10 mannequins for Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, and another 15 for the University Museum, nine of which are done. It takes between one and a half and two days to make a mannequin.

The Strawbery Banke mannequins need to be ready for when the museums opens in May. For the first time, many of the historic houses will have mannequins donned in period clothing to greet visitors.

“Right now it’s almost all mannequins all the time,” Schaeffer says.

Almost but not quite. There is still the period clothing side of the business. Among others, Schaeffer has sewn for Plimoth Plantation and the American Independence Museum in Exeter. Strawbery Banke has commissioned her to make eight children’s costumes, inducing the undergarments, reflecting the time from 1870 to 1910.

To make her reproductions as authentic as possible, Schaeffer studies old photographs. She also looks through old

catalogues—Sears and Roebuck, Bloomingdales—to get a sense of the shape she is looking for.

“Photos of the people wearing the clothing are most helpful. It’s the person who reveals the attitude, the posture,” Schaeffer says. “I look to the history. It’s like archeological sewing.”

Visit to learn more.


Originally published by:

UNH Today

Written by Jody Record, UNH Media Relations. Photos by Lisa Nugent, UNH Photographic Services.