How to Care for Your Textiles
Your family heirlooms are just as much a part of history as a museum’s artifacts. If these items are important to you, they are worth saving. The following information should be useful in helping preserve your treasures for future generations.
Textile items include items such as quilts, embroideries, linens, and wedding gowns. They are an intimate part of our daily lives and are often valued for this reason. Textiles are made from a wide variety of materials, all sensitive to environmental factors such as light, humidity, temperature, and airborne soil. Protecting textiles from the extremes of these factors is key to their long-term preservation. Observing safe handling, storage, and display practices will significantly slow deterioration and help prevent damage.
Since textiles are so mundane and so much an everyday part of our lives, we rarely think about how we handle them. With antique textiles however, it is important to observe proper handling techniques to reduce the chance of them being damaged more than they have been through their original use as well as the cleaning and storage methods that have been used over the years. Follow these steps to avoid more damage than what has already occurred:
Light is one of the most degrading of threats to textiles. It leads to fading (and once an item has lost its color, the color cannot be restored) and embrittlement of fibers. These suggestions will help reduce the damage light can cause:
Humidity and Temperature
When textiles are exposed to extremes of temperature and humidity the fibers can weaken and break. Extremes in humidity, from low to high can also lead to mold growth. The ideal environment for textiles is a constant temperature range of 68°F to 75°F and a constant humidity level between 40% and 57%. To control extremes, follow this advice:
Regular removal of debris from around the house will reduce the presence of airborne dust and grazing insect pests. Insects such as moths and carpet beetles can wreak havoc on your collection and may be very difficult to eradicate if allowed to spread throughout the house. Always check closets and storage boxes seasonally for signs of insect infestation.
Textiles that are in good, stable condition can usually be cleaned with a canister-style vacuum.
With either method, start at one end of the textile and work in one direction without dragging the brush or nozzle over the surface. Just remember: not all textiles can be safely vacuumed—some are simply too fragile. If in doubt, consult a conservator first.
The term “acid free” is used to describe materials that are safe for storing historic objects. But, what exactly does this term mean? Acid free means that the lignin, or the acid-producing agent in wood pulp, has been removed. Acid-free materials, boxes and wrapping papers, can be bought from archival retailers or from local stores. Archival-quality acid-free materials will be labeled acid free. Follow these guidelines when storing textiles:
When having textiles framed, request that acid-free materials be used. Embroideries should be framed using spacers, so that frames and glass or acrylic sheets are not in direct contact with the textile. Quilts and other flat textiles that are in good condition may be displayed using hanging sleeves. Consult a conservator to determine if such methods are appropriate for your textiles.
If you encounter waterlogged textiles, remember that they will be heavier than normal and more vulnerable to damage. Be sure to provide support when moving them (see the Handling section, above). If possible, rinse the items to remove any silt and dirt and move them to an area where they can dry thoroughly.
Extreme damage by fire and water is often irreversible. However, it is sometimes possible to reduce the appearance of soot and other effects of disasters. With any emergency situation regarding historic items, consult a conservation professional for advice on the steps you should take after initial damage has occurred and been arrested.
The American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) has a website that is easy to use and provides a wealth of information on how to select a conservator and how to care for your textile treasures. Their address is: www.conservation-us.org.
When making plans to preserve your wedding gown, review the information at http://www.weddinggownspecialists.com.
Landrey, Gregory J., ed. The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection. Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum, 2000.
Long, Jane S., and Richard W. Long. Caring for Your Family Treasures. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
Mailand, Harold F., and Dorothy Stites Alig. Preserving Textiles: A Guide for the Nonspecialist. Indianapolis, IN: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1999.
Ordonez, Margaret T. Your Vintage Keepsake, A CSA Guide to Costume Storage and Display. Lubbock, TX: Costume Society of America, 2001.
Use the following online suppliers to find supplies of archival paper, acid-free tissue and boxes, and some of the other items you might need to protect your textiles: