So you’ve inherited the family textile heirlooms, now what? Textiles include clothing, rugs, blankets, lace or other fabrics. Bottomless quote generator, Ben Franklin noted: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It certainly applies to textile care; small measures now ensure good long term preservation. Let’s get started.
The quick version:
- Don’t store in a basement, attic or garage (really, you’ll regret it)
- Remove dry cleaning bags and wire hangers
- If a textile is sturdy, hang it up
- If it is heavy (like a quilt), box it up
- If it is fragile, roll it up
The scenic route:
Cleaning: Start by making sure articles are as clean as possible before storing. Stable colorfast items can be machine washed. Use cold water with a dye and fragrance free soap. Avoid dryer sheets, ironing and starching.
Fragile textiles might not withstand a wet cleaning. For those, either consult a conservator or at least air them out on a flat, smooth surface to remove musty odors. Keep them out of direct sunlight to avoid fading. Unless extremely fragile or has excessive beading or embroidery, textiles may be vacuumed to remove dust. Lay a fine mesh (fiberglass window screening) over the item and gently vacuum with a hand attachment on the weakest setting possible.
Wedding garments and uniforms must be put away clean to even have a chance at withstanding the test of time. Food stains, sweat and oils create yellowing and weaken fabrics. They are best cleaned by reputable agencies that specialize in preservation. If there isn’t one in your area, use an eco-friendly dry cleaner. The solvents used will be less harsh and damaging for long term storage. Regardless of method, cleaning is better than not cleaning. Plastic dry cleaning bags and flimsy wire hangers should be removed before storage. Dry cleaning bags create yellowing over time on the garment; wire hangers create stress and distortion on straps and shoulders, not to mention rust damage.
Storage: As always, never store anything you love in unfinished garages, basements or attics. These places are prone to wide temperature and humidity fluctuations, mold, flooding and pests. The best place is in a dry, dark, cool closet in your home on an interior wall that gets fairly good circulation. Remember, if you’re comfortable temperature-wise, your stuff probably is, too.
Many dry cleaners offer heirloom boxing services, but you’re better off packing it yourself. The heirloom boxes cleaners provide (aside from looking like weird coffins) are more expensive and lesser quality than the trusty museum quality unbuffered garment boxes for long term storage. Museum boxes are great for preserving items that are not quite sturdy enough for hanging.
If a garment is in sturdy condition, it is best to just hang it on a plastic or heavy wire hanger padded out with polyester batting and stockinette. Minnesota Historical Society has a great tutorial on that. It literally takes two minutes to make one. Once hung, pad shoulders with tissue if necessary to keep the shape. An unbleached muslin or cotton garment cover (with buttons or ties, but not zippers) is optional but recommended before placing it into a closet for storage. As with anything, periodically check on it and air it out.
For an item that can’t hold its own weight without damage or otherwise fragile item, it may be best to store it in an unbuffered box. Unbuffered tissue can be used to pad folds, sleeves, shoulders and delicate beading or lace. Don’t overstuff. Once packed, write the date on the box lid with pencil and check on it every few years. Air out the folds and replace any discolored tissue.
Folding of an especially fragile item should be avoided. It might be better served by rolling on an acid free tissue tube. Either wrap unbleached muslin around the rolled item and lightly secure it with unbleached twill, or pad it with more tissue so it doesn’t rattle around in the box.
This is an excellent article written by a textile conservator if you want to dive in deeper. As always, if you’re uncertain, contact your local museum for advice or a conservator recommendation.
Stay tuned next week for Collections 102, part 4: how do I store… books and photos.