Guidelines for Care | Storing | Hanging | Pests

Guidelines for the Care of Textiles

The collecting and daily use of textiles in our homes is an age-old tradition. We are wrapped in them when we are born; they provide us warmth for sleep; they are carefully crafted into garments that are worn for important rites of passage, such as christenings, bar mitzvahs and weddings; they adorn our walls and they cushion our feet. This wide range of textiles is passed down through families and institutions, and with it is the responsibility of caring for them.

The textiles that you collect and preserve will generally fall into two categories: those that you display, and those you use in a limited way, but still try to preserve for the future. The latter category includes such items as wedding gowns, quilts, and household linens. In using these textiles there must be the tacit understanding that while you are doing your best to pass these items onto the next generation, they will eventually become too fragile to use, or may be damaged beyond repair. A tear can be mended, a stain possibly removed, but damage cannot be reversed/recovered even by the hands of a conservator.

Textiles that are displayed in both homes and public buildings are subject to deterioration by many environmental factors - such as light, temperature and relative humidity, dust and dirt, insects, and improper storage or display. Thus the critical factors in maintaining your textile collection are control of environmental conditions, proper display techniques, and proper storage. Understandably, the standards museums strive for are not feasible in the home, but modifications can be made in order to provide the best conditions possible. These guidelines serve as an introduction and checklist for the care of textiles in the home.

Environmental Control

One of the greatest threats to textiles is light. The worst damage is caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from natural daylight and from fluorescent light bulbs. However, while the UV rays damage most rapidly, the entire light spectrum causes textile dyes to fade and the fibers to become brittle. This includes plain incandescent interior lighting. There is some protection in keeping window shades pulled down or shutters closed during the sunniest times of the day. UV filtering materials or films can be placed over windows and fluorescent bulbs, and used in the glass or Plexiglas® framing textiles. Perhaps the most important rule of thumb is taking care to use or display your textile for limited periods of time. Ideally, rotation should be done seasonally - display your textile for four months, and then allow it to "rest" in proper storage for the remainder of the year. This method of care allows several different textiles to be exhibited, while extending the lifetime of each one.

High temperatures, excessive heat, and high humidity accelerate the deterioration of textiles and provide a desirable climate for insects, mold and mildew. If mold and mildew are caught early enough, before staining has set, the textile should be moved to a more stable environment, and a conservator contacted immediately.

Ideally, a climate of 65-70°F and 50-55% relative humidity is best. However, the maintenance of an environment with as little fluctuation as possible is most important. Temperatures can be controlled with central heating and air-conditioning systems. These can be supplemented with window air units, or space heaters for individual rooms. Humidity can be modified with humidifiers or dehumidifiers. Fans and a constant flow of air can also be helpful to prevent mold and mildew. Textiles that are found wet from a leak or high humidity should be immediately dried with a fan.

Air pollution is also an enemy of textiles. Sulfur dioxide fumes from automobiles and industry affect some dyes. However, dirt and dust will probably be the greatest problem with your collection. Dust particles act like small knives, cutting into fibers as the textiles expand and contract in response to changes in relative humidity. A regular schedule of inspection and vacuuming is necessary to maintain your collection. Further, textiles being brought into your home for the first time should be inspected and isolated before they come in contact with other pieces in your collection. This allows you to insure that you have not brought any insect pests into your home. For more information on pest control, see The Textile Museum publication, Pest Busters.

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General Care and Cleaning

Textiles are such a part of our daily lives that it seems natural to clean them in order to maintain their condition. While this is appropriate for household linens, in general you should not attempt to clean an antique textile without first consulting a textile conservator. Proper cleaning techniques for antique textiles require a great deal of skill and experience; sometimes cleaning would be more harmful than allowing the textile to remain soiled. A conservator can evaluate the condition of the textile and assist you in determining the best course of action.

One important kind of cleaning you can do to maintain your textile collection is vacuuming. A low-power, hand-held vacuum is the best tool for the job. Lightweight or fragile textiles should be vacuumed through a fiberglass screen (available at hardware stores). Vacuum slowly and carefully, working in the direction of the nap with velvets or other pile fabrics. Avoid scrubbing back and forth. If you have a rug in constant use on the floor, make sure to vacuum the back as well as the front on a regular basis.

When working with your collection, be sure to wash your hands to remove oils, acids, salts, and soils that can stain your textile. Remove jewelry such as rings that might catch on loose threads. Work on a clean surface and do not eat, drink, or smoke around your textile collection.

A textile can be easily torn if handled improperly. When moving a textile within your home, gently pleat, fold, or roll the piece and support its weight on a tray or sturdy piece of cardboard.

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Storage

Attics and basements should be avoided as storage locations for your textile collection because climate is usually very difficult to control in those spaces. The best location in your home for textile storage is a cool, dry room. If using a closet, make sure there is sufficient air circulation to prevent mold growth.

Archival materials should be used to package textiles for storage wherever possible (a list of suppliers can be found at the end of this publication). Archival products such as acid-free tissue, rolling tubes, and boxes are relatively expensive, but a worthwhile investment for your collection. Once packaged, textiles can be stored on rust-free metal shelving, or in drawers. If using wooden shelving or drawers, seal the wood with a water-borne polyurethane varnish, and place a barrier of archival tissue between the wood and your packaged textile. This is important to prevent the transfer of acids from the wood to your textile.

Whenever possible, store textiles flat. This works well for small pieces such as lace or fragments. These can be layered between sheets of acid-free tissue and placed in archival storage boxes.

Rolling a textile for storage is also an option, particularly for larger pieces, such as quilts and rugs. An archival tube is the best support for a rolled textile. A plain cardboard tube can be substituted providing it is buffered by heaver layers of acid-free tissue. Beaded textiles, those with metallic threads or heavy embroidery, and fragile textiles should be interleaved with tissue as they are rolled to protect the surface. Pile textiles, such as carpets, should be rolled in the direction of the pile to prevent distortion and crushing. If a textile has been lined, roll with the lining face up. Some wrinkling will occur when the two fabrics are rolled together, but it is preferable for the wrinkling to occur on the lining than on the textile itself.

Complete the roll with an outer layer of washed muslin which will act as a dust cover. The cover should be long enough to wrap around the textile about one and one-half times, and wide enough to tuck the muslin securely into the ends of the rolling tube. Fasten the wrapping in place with ties of cotton twill tape or strips of muslin. Tie the covering securely, but not so tightly as to cause indentations in the roll.

Garments can be hung for storage if they are in good condition. To remove strain from the shoulders of a garment, choose a sturdy wooden hanger with the correct shoulder slant for the garment. Wrap the hanger in several layers of polyester quilt batting to give a fuller shoulder support. Cover the batting with a piece of washed muslin for a smooth finish. Finally, a hanging garment should be protected with a muslin dust cover made in the shape of a cleaner’s bag. Avoid using plastic cleaner’s bags and vinyl garment bags that deteriorate and could potentially harm your textile.

Avoid hanging heavily beaded costumes or dresses cut on the bias. There are large archival boxes available for the storage of garments (approximately 18" x 60"). If it is necessary to fold a textile or garment for storage, crumple sheets of acid-free tissue and place the crumpled tissue in the folds to prevent creasing.

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Proper Display Techniques

There are a number of ways to mount a textile safely for display. Ultimately, your choice is dependent on the condition of the textile. The following will assist you in discussing an appropriate mounting technique for your textile with a conservator.

A textile in sturdy condition can be hung from a VELCRO® fastener strip. Textiles that might hang this way are quilts, carpets, tapestries and blankets. A more complete description of this hanging system can be found in The Textile Museum publication A Hanging System for Textiles in Sturdy Condition.

Larger textiles that are not strong enough to hang from one end, such as a paisley shawl or batik, can be mounted on a fixed, square or rectangular, wooden frame, called a strainer, over which mounting fabric has been stretched. The textile is carefully sewn to the stretched fabric in such a way that will provide overall support to the textile. Sewing tension and position of stitches have to be carefully selected and executed. The textile itself should never be stretched over the edges of the strainer.

It is also helpful to place a panel of archival cardboard in the center of a strainer behind the mounting fabric. This provides a solid support behind the mounted textile and helps prevent the stretched mounting fabric from sagging. Depending on its size, a strainer with or without a solid support can be framed or glazed.

As an alternative to the strainer with a solid support, smaller textiles can be mounted to a fabric-covered archival matboard. This type of mount is generally appropriate only for textiles that will be framed, as the matboard easily absorbs moisture and can warp if not restrained within a frame.

The materials chosen for a mount are as important as the evaluation of the best kind of mount to support the textile. Use as few wooden materials as possible. If wooden supports need to be used (as for example in a strainer mount) the wood should be coated with a water-borne polyurethane varnish to seal in wood acids. Even if sealed, however, the wood must never come in contact with the textile.

Archival corrugated cardboards or matboards should be used for solid supports and inserts in strainers. Mounting fabrics must be pre-washed to remove excess dyes, finishes, and sizings. The best choices for mounting fabrics are 100% cotton or cotton/polyester blends. Linen is not an appropriate fabric mount because it easily absorbs moisture from the environment causing sagging and distortion. Wool also sags easily and along with silk and silk velvet is susceptible to insect attack.

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Framing Textiles

One of the most frequently asked questions is "should my textile be framed behind glass?" There is more than one answer to this question and opinions vary from conservator to conservator. The following considerations will assist in making the appropriate choice.

Location: Will the textile be illuminated by natural daylight? If so, it is best to use a glazing material like Plexiglas® that contains an ultraviolet filter to reduce damage from at least that portion of the light spectrum.

Size: The standard size of a piece of Plexiglas® is 4’ x 8’ and it is difficult to obtain a glazing material beyond this size to protect your textile.

Environmental control: If dust and dirt are a problem, or there are smokers in your house, glazing is recommended. Without this kind of protection, a textile may need more frequent cleaning.

Drape: Handmade textiles are frequently somewhat irregular in shape and may tend to ripple as they hang on the wall. If this three-dimensional character is important as part of your presentation of the textile, it is best hung without framing.

In choosing a glazing material, it is usually preferable to use Plexiglas® rather than glass. First, Plexiglas® does not break easily. Irreparable damage can occur when glass has broken and torn through a textile. Second, Plexiglas® is significantly lighter in weight than glass, which can make it easier to handle and hang larger framed pieces. However, Plexiglas® has one drawback. Electrostatic properties can pull loose fibers of a textile onto the inside surface of the Plexiglas®. Therefore, it may be preferable to frame a very brittle piece, such as an archaeological textile, behind glass.

It is very important that glass never come in direct contact with your textile. In high humidity, mold can grow in areas where the glazing materials come in contact with the textile. Additionally, salts contained in the textile can transfer to the glass, absorb additional moisture, and cause increased degradation of the textile. Two materials to separate the glazing material from your textile are a window mat (like those used in mounting prints and drawings) or a Plexiglas® spacer constructed into the frame. A conservator or your framer can help you decide which method would be the best for a specific textile.

While it is generally not recommended that Plexiglas® be placed in direct contact with a textile, there is one exception. A pressure mount is sometimes used to frame very fragile textiles for display. In this instance, the textile is placed on a padded support. The frame exerts pressure on the Plexiglas® placed on the face of the textile, thus holding the textile in place on the mount. This type of mount is designed only for short-term displays, and a conservator should be consulted to evaluate whether or not this type of mount would be appropriate for a specific textile.

Unconstructed garments, like tunics or ponchos, or those that do not have set-in sleeves (such as kimonos) can be mounted on the wall on a padded rod. Either a Plexiglas® or varnished wooden dowel can be used. The rod should be padded with polyester quilt batting to round out the shoulder areas, and covered with a piece of washed, unbleached muslin. This is particularly important when using a wooden dowel. Make sure that there is sufficient padding to prevent the textile from touching the wooden surfaces.

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When to Consult a Conservator

Unlike some kinds of objects we collect, such as paintings and sculpture, textiles are frequently used, cleaned, mended and reused. Because we are accustomed to carrying out these tasks ourselves, it may seem reasonable to undertake the cleaning and re-framing of an antique textile in our collection. As textiles age, however, they may not always react to such treatment in a predictable manner. The best care for your collection is proper handling and storage. A conservator will recommend treatments based not only on his or her experience with similar objects but, also upon careful examination of the piece.

To locate a conservator for advice and to treat textiles in your collection, contact the Conservation Referral Service of the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). The Institute is the professional organization to which many conservators belong, and their free referral service can provide you a list of individuals in your area of the country who undertake conservation treatments. A brochure with guidelines on how to select a conservator will also be provided with your referral list.

AIC
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

1717 K Street NW Ste 200
Washington, DC 20006
202-452-9545
202-452-9328 (fax)
info@aic-faic.org

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Suppliers of Archival Materials

Light Impressions
439 Monroe Avenue
PO Box 940
Rochester, NY 14603-0940
1-800-828-6216

University Products
PO Box 101
517 Main Street
Holyoke, MA 01041-0101
1-800-626-1912

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