Conservation advice: Textiles

Old textiles may be vulnerable and easily damaged by poor storage, display and handling.

The key to good handling and storage is support. The weight of a weak textile as you try to lift it may be enough to cause tearing or splitting. Always place a support under the item and lift the support not the textile.

Cleaning

It is important to keep textiles clean and dust free. Using showcases and sealed frames when on display minimizes dust collecting on textiles. Items should be stored boxed or with dust protective covers.

Clean textiles are less attractive to insect pests such as carpet beetle and cloths moths. If you discover insects, you may freeze the textiles to kill the pests.

Fragile textiles should only be cleaned by a trained textile conservator.

Sturdy textiles can have surface dust removed by careful vacuuming. Attach a narrow piece of soft plastic tubing to the smallest nozzle (crevice tool) of your vacuum cleaner.  Cover the nozzle with a piece of open-weave gauze fabric - net curtain or gauze bandage is ideal. Set the cleaner to its lowest suction level and open any vents on the vacuum cleaner tubing. Use a soft brush to loosen and sweep ingrained dirt and dust towards the covered vacuum cleaner nozzle. Do not directly vacuum the textiles.  Work the bush on flat surfaces only, gently brushing following the weave of the fabric.

Small vacuum cleaner tools may be helpful. A 'micro-vacuum attachment kit' with mini-crevice tool and small brushes is reasonably priced and readily available to fit any vacuum cleaner. Be careful to set the cleaner on the lowest suction as old or deteriorated textiles are easily damaged.

Use tweezers to remove debris which has attached to the fabric as repeated brushing will abrade the fabric. Remove loosely attached surface debris and accretions (deposits) by gently tapping the fabric with a brush to loosen the soil. You can then remove the loose particles with the vacuum cleaner.

Make sure that you remove dirt, lint and food debris from pockets and seams.

Washing, dry cleaning and spot cleaning should only be carried out by a trained textile conservator.

Storage

Flat objects are best stored flat without folding if the size permits. If you must fold, make sure the folds are not sharp but supported with rolled or scrunched-up acid-free tissue or pre-washed fabric covered cotton or polyester wadding sausages.

Large flat objects can be stored rolled around a cardboard tube which has been covered with acid-free tissue. Interleave the item with tissue as you roll. Carpets should be rolled pile side out to avoid crushing the pile.

Sturdy clothing can be hung on padded coat hangers (avoid wire or wood). Do not hang heavily beaded or embroidered dresses with thin or sheer straps, as the weight will eventually damage them. If the clothing cannot be hung lay it in a large, lidded box lined with acid-free tissue. Support all folds with acid-free tissue. Sharp folds may cause splits in the fabric along the fold-line.

Store hats in boxes lined with acid-free tissue. Pad the crown well with the tissue.

Never store heavy items such as shoes or handbags on top of textiles. Remove safety pins, staples, dry cleaning labels and badges and wrap separately.

Do not iron fabrics as this accelerates deterioration and can set some stains.

Storage area

The area should be:

  • Dry, with moderate air-flow to prevent mould growth;
  • Clean and insect-free to prevent insect damage;
  • Away from light.
  • Environmentally stable, as fluctuations in temperature and humidity cause degradation to fibres and damage such as cracking to painted/coated fabrics, due to differential expansion and contraction of the various components. .

Freezing to remove insect pests from textiles

If you discover insect damage in your textile treasures, freezing may be a useful technique to get rid of the pests. This method kills the insects at any stage of their life-cycle. Freezing has the advantage of not requiring chemicals and is safe for most textiles. (Note that old brittle silk and painted textiles should not be frozen.)

Method

  1. Place items in a plastic bag. Remove most of the air with a vacuum cleaner or freezer bag pump, then seal the bag with adhesive tape. Avoid squashing items such as hats or feathers by putting them in boxes before bagging.
  2. Place bagged items in a domestic chest freezer which has reached its lowest temperature. Freezers attached to fridges rarely get cold enough to kill all stages of insect life.

To kill insects at all stages of their life-cycle, the items must be frozen very rapidly down to a temperature of -20°C. Do not fill the freezer beyond 1/3 full, as this will reduce its effectiveness. This is only possible if the volume of room-temperature items going into the freezer is less than 1/3 of the freezer's capacity.

  1. Leave bagged items in the freezer for at least 72 hours.  It is important to maintain the lowest possible temperature in the freezer, so it is essential that you do not open the freezer during this 72 hour period
  2. Remove bagged items from the freezer and leave to return to room temperature. Handle as little as possible to prevent damage to the items - they are brittle when frozen.
  3. Leave the items bagged for 7 days and then repeat the process of freezing for 72hours.
  4. Remove bagged items from the freezer and leave to return to room temperature. Handle as little as possible to prevent damage to the items - they are brittle when frozen.
  5. Once back at room temperature remove the items from the plastic bags.  If sturdy enough, vacuum clean them carefully using the method described in Cleaning (see above). Make sure no frass (residue from insects) or dirt is left as this may be attractive to another generation of insect pests. Vacuum carefully as the insect eggs are very small and may be difficult to see.

Remember, freezing has no long-term effect - it will only kill the insects, eggs and larvae on the item at the time of Freezing.

Check items regularly for cleanliness and further insect infestation, repeat freezing if required.

 

Display

Lighting

When displaying textiles one of the biggest issues is light damage, which can cause fading, colour changes and the fibres to weaken. Light damage is accumulative and non-reversible.  Exposure to light can be reduced by following a few simple steps.

  • Avoid any exposure to sun light, sun light has a high proportion of Ultraviolet (UV) light which is the most damaging part of the light spectrum.
  • Frame or make showcases with UV filtering Perspex.
  • Use block out fabric curtains or blinds on windows when rooms are not being accessed. Where possible use bock out dust covers for showcases and items in open display.
  • Box items for storage.
  • Choose low UV emitting light bulbs
  • Use UV filters on light. Flexible films can be purchased to wrap around Fluorescent light bulbs
  • Do not place light directly into showcases, light also emit heat which can be damaging to textiles.

Frames and Showcases:

Frames are a good way to keep items away from dust whilst on display. Ensure items are placed in the frames without the use of staples or adhesive. A textile conservator can advise on the best reversible method to sew or mount the textiles into a frame, and can work in conjunctions with a framer to provide the best results.

Cotton and polyester are recommended for covering baking boards and lining showcases. Avoid using wool, particularly felt or silk as a backing material in frames and showcase, as it is an attractant to insect. Additionally wool will cause sensitive metals, such as silver to tarnish. Before use wash all fabric twice, with warm water and no detergent, to ensure excess dye and other finishes that may be damaging to the textile are removed. 

 

Further Information

The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material provides a directory of conservators in private practice. You can use the directory to find a conservator in your region with the expertise to provide qualified care of your memorabilia.