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:
- Always wash your hands with soap and water before touching any antique textiles.
- Avoid the use of lotions or perfumes because the oils could stain and further damage the item.
- Remove any jewelry that could snag or catch on the fabric.
- Handle the fabric as little as possible. If you must move the textile, completely support it using acid free paper or an old bed sheet. If it is a large object, such as a quilt, consider using the sheet as a sling and have someone help you move it.
- Never eat, drink, or smoke around antique textiles as these actions can stain the fabric.
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:
- Display textiles away from direct sunlight, in areas such as hallways.
- Rotate textiles on display or refold them occasionally to vary the sections exposed to light.
- Draw shades or curtains during the day when you are not at home and when the sun is strongest.
- Just as with human skin, the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum is the most damaging. Consider using UV filtering film on windows in a room where historic textiles are displayed, or frame textiles individually using UV-filtering glass or UV-filtering acrylic.
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:
- Store textiles in the main part of your home, not in unfinished basements or attics that are prone to the greatest changes in temperature and humidity.
- Do not let air from vents blow directly over textiles as this can lead to accumulations of dust which, over time, is damaging.
- If you find active mold on a historic textile, isolate the textile immediately to prevent mold spores from transferring to other objects. Wrap the textile in polyethylene sheeting and place it in a freezer if possible. Consult a conservator as soon as possible for help—this is an emergency situation.
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.
- Use the soft brush attachment—make sure it is clean—at the end of the hose and vacuum the textile through a fiberglass screen (available at hardware stores). Make sure to cover the edges of the screen with painter’s tape to keep any individual wires on the screen from snagging a piece of the textile.
- Another method for vacuuming is to cover the end of the nozzle with nylon netting or cheesecloth. Secure the netting/cheesecloth to the nozzle with a rubber band, then place your hand between the covered nozzle and the textile to prevent the suction from pulling any of the textile into the 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:
- Do not place textiles in direct contact with wood as in cedar chests or on wooden hangers. The acid in the wood will cause textiles to yellow.
- Do not use wire or plastic hangers. Padded hangers are best because they provide better support for antique garments. However, garments that have fragile shoulder seams or heavy beadwork should not be
- hung on any type of hanger. Rather, they should be stored in boxes.
- If acid free boxes are not available, use white or light-colored bed sheets to wrap textiles. The sheet will protect textiles from light and dust and will enable you to see pest infestations more readily.
- Do not store textiles in plastic dry-cleaning bags or plastic tote boxes as these contain plasticizers that can harm fibers and even change colors of dyes. They can also create microclimates that are perfect environments for mold.
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:
- Gaylord Brothers (www.gaylord.com)
- University Products (www.universityproducts.com)
- Archivart (www.archivart.com)
- Talas (www.talasonline.com)