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Preserving Textiles

Quilt top made in Nicodemus, Kansas.Most homes contain some antique textiles, such as quilts, clothing, samplers and other types of needlework.

These textiles can be composed of many different fibers. The most common in older textiles are silk, wool, cotton and linen, but you may also have rayon and other man-made fibers.

In addition to being damaged from use, all textiles become fragile with age and improper environmental conditions. Light, temperature, relative humidity and air pollution (including airborne dust and dirt) promote the deterioration of textile materials. Deterioration can also be caused by insects, animals, molds and mildew, physical or mechanical stress, and improper previous repairs and treatments. Thus, it is necessary to handle, store and display them properly. As the owner, preventative care and maintenance are the most important things you can do.

Textiles are very tactile and invite touching, however, the dirt and oils from your hands can easily stain them. Be sure you use clean hands and also remove rings and other jewelry to prevent accidental snagging.

When storing your textiles, choose an area that has the most stable environment, such as the main living area in your home. Basements can be damp, causing mold and mildew, and invite insects such as silverfish. Attics are usually hot and dry, which will desiccate textiles and cause their embrittlement. The levels to strive for are 70 degrees Fahrenheit (plus or minus 5 degrees) and 50 percent relative humidity (plus or minus 5 percent). Equally important is to try to eliminate rapid fluctuations in temperature and humidity. All organic materials, especially textile fibers, are susceptible to expansion and contraction from humidity fluctuations. This movement causes abrasion and degradation of the fibers.

Ideally, all textiles should be stored flat. This is especially true of heavy and beaded clothing as the weight will cause stress. If you do decide to hang clothing, pad the hanger with polyester batting covered by washed cotton muslin. A wooden hanger provides the best support, but must be padded. Do not allow any textile to come in contact with unsealed wood or cardboard as the acids will migrate and there is also the chance for staining. A barrier can be provided with acid-free materials (boxes, tissue, blotter paper), washed cotton muslin, or old clean cotton sheets. It is not advisable to use plastic as most plastics are unstable and can release damaging fumes. Large textiles such as quilts should be folded as few times as possible. Pad these folds with rolled acid-free tissue, muslin or sheets. The sleeves and bodices of clothing should also be padded. Do not stack them as the weight will cause creasing. At least once a year, check your textiles for insect infestations and re-fold them in different places.

If you decide to display your textiles, they must be protected from excessive light. Light, both artificial and sunlight, is extremely damaging to textiles. It can cause fading of dyes and also destroy the structure of fibers, creating splits and tears. The damage caused by light is accumulative, irreversible, and often takes place slowly without being noticed before it is too late.

Of the different types of light, sunlight and fluorescent light can cause the most damage due to their high amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This can be filtered from sunlight with UF-3 plexiglass or UV film placed on windows. UV filtering sleeves that can be slipped over fluorescent tubes are available from some retailers.

Visible light also will cause fading, but is probably the most easily remedied. Just lower the light level. Keep curtains or shades drawn or use fewer artificial lights at lower wattage. No antique textile should ever be exposed to direct sunlight.

Cleaning methods are complex and varied, and in most situations should be attempted only by a professional conservator.

We encourage you to explore the following excellent sites offering detailed information on the preservation of collections: