How do I preserve textiles?
Treasured dresses, ball gowns, uniforms, embroidered pieces and baby clothes are all physical links to our past. Cherished textiles can be easily preserved and -- if in good condition -- could be worn again for a special occasion.
As with any preservation project, first, wash your hands! To avoid causing stress on fragile fabrics, handle carefully and with both hands. Gentle handling will help keep items from becoming misshapen. Heavy items such as antique quilts often cannot bear their own weight safely, so support them with a box or a support board when lifting.
Cleaning and Mending
Consider the value and condition of your textiles before undertaking any washing, mending, or dry cleaning. Cleaning the fabric can have unintended consequences; it can cause structural damage and colors may run or bleed. It is best to leave items in their original state and, if possible, avoid mending or repairing them.
Store your fabrics in a flat archival box, making as few folds as possible. Line the box with acid-free tissue before placing textiles inside. Fold and roll acid-free tissue paper into shapes, then place the paper within a fold to soften the crease. For maximum preservation, antique textiles, especially cottons and linens, should have no direct contact with wood, blue tissue, regular tissue, or other wrapping paper. Objects such as hats and embroidered purses can be lightly stuffed with acid-free paper to help them keep their shapes. Please note that undyed cotton fabric, such as white cotton sheets, can be used in place of the tissue. Wrap the cotton cloth gently around the textile to be preserved.
Store textiles in a dark, cool, dry location. As with paper-based materials, textiles last longer if they are stored in this manner. Any kind of light can fade colors and weaken fabrics, particularly sunlight and fluorescent light. Avoid storing in the attic or the basement. An environment that is comfortable for people is best for textiles, too. Measure your fabric piece and purchase an archival box suited to the size of your textile. Keep in mind, the fewer folds the better. Archival and preservation suppliers sell boxes in many sizes designed specifically for storing textiles. These boxes, along with the acid-free tissue paper, can be purchased from a number of suppliers, including:
Gaylord Archival: https://www.gaylord.com/c/Archival-Storage-Boxes
University Products: https://www.universityproducts.com/archival-storage/textile-conservation
Archival Methods (Provides detailed archival guidelines as well as supplies.)https://www.archivalmethods.com/blog/tips-on-storing-quilts/
Wish to Display Your Heirloom Textiles?
If you decide to display a textile, consider the size, weight, and structure of your fabric. This will determine how to safely display it. There are many resources online that explain the display process in detail. You may also want to consider contacting a textile conservator to discuss mounting techniques. The American Institute for Conservation provides a free referral service for locating a conservator in your area: https://www.culturalheritage.org/
For more detailed information on textile preservation, check out the National Archives Conservation website: https://www.archives.gov/open/plain-writing/examples/preservation-about-before.html
Sources: National Archives Conservation Laboratory, Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, Gaylord Archival Guide to Collections Care, and the Winter Park History Museum