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Early Textiles - Care and Preservation

Early textiles are of special interest to me.  I love the textures of 19th century cottons, wools, and linens.  Their eye-pleasing colors, derived from natural sources, have a depth and richness that modern chemicals and methods cannot replicate.  And I appreciate the creativity and the skill that went into making the many beautiful pieces we cherish today.


Antique textiles are composed of natural fibers such wool, cotton, linen, or silk.  They were mostly functional objects, therefore the history of their use, environmental conditions, and handling can affect their condition. Poor environmental conditions, careless handling, and inappropriate cleaning, storage, and display are factors that contribute to the degradation of natural fibers.


Both natural and artificial light can fade color and cause permanent damage to many textile fibers. The rate at which damage occurs is determined by the level of illumination and the duration of exposure.  Unfortunately, because light damage is cumulative and irreversible, protecting textiles from light exposure is key to their preservation.  There are some simple and practical steps that can be taken: keep curtains, shades, and blinds drawn to protect textiles from strong direct light, and use ultraviolet light filtering glass when framing textiles for display. Keeping in mind that all types of light can damage early textiles, the risk of light damage can be also minimized by periodically rotating your textiles on and off display.


High temperatures speed up the rate of many chemical reactions, and as a result, speed up the rate at which damage can occur in fibers, dyes, and other component materials of textiles. For this reason, textiles are best stored and displayed as far away from heat sources (fireplaces, spotlights, windows, etc.) as possible. Areas inclined to high temperatures (above 80°F) and those subject to sudden or great temperature changes, such as unfinished attics and basements, are not appropriate for the safe storage of textiles.   The organic materials that were used to make early textiles contained moisture, therefore fluctuations in temperature and humidity can cause these materials to expand and contract as they take in or lose moisture.  Potential problems associated with high humidity are mold and mildew, the corrosion of metals in the materials, and the bleeding of some dyes.


A variety of pests can cause structural damage to early textiles. These pests include clothes moths, carpet beetles, silverfish, and mice. Clothing moths feed on materials that contain protein such as wool and feathers. Sometimes the cocoon webbing of clothes moths can be seen on the surface of infested textiles. When infestation is suspected, sticky traps should be placed near the storage or display area. Periodically inspecting and regular cleaning of areas where textiles are displayed and stored is the cheapest and safest way to protect your textiles. If an infestation is detected, isolate the piece in a sealed plastic bag and contact a professional conservator.


Pollution, whether from outdoor or indoor sources, can weaken and degrade fibers. Cigarette smoke and aerosol sprays can deposit oily particles onto fibers causing irreparable damage. Wood, plastic, rubber, wood-based paper, cardboard, and newly painted surfaces emit chemicals that can discolor and degrade textiles.


Proper handling is important for the long-term preservation of 19th century textiles.  Support a textile in a manner that distributes its weight evenly. Human skin contains oils and perspiration so washing hands frequently or wearing cotton gloves will protect the early textiles.  Yarns and fibers can be easily pulled, frayed, and weakened depending upon the textile’s condition, its component materials, and method of construction, so remove jewelry and anything else nearby that may cause a snag.


Basic types of storage are flat, rolled, and hanging. Flat storage of textiles, such as using drawers, trays, shelves, or boxes is recommended, particularly for fragile items. Flat storage provides even support to minimize fiber damage. When selecting storage locations, it is important to choose materials that will not adversely affect textiles. Wood, uncoated metal shelves, and cardboard boxes should not be placed in direct contact with the textiles. If larger items need to be folded, the folded areas should be padded with acid-free tissue or polyester batting so tight creases do not form.


The ideal method of storing rugs, quilts and large flat textiles is to roll the textiles onto acid-free tubes. The decorative side of rugs, velvet and embroideries should face outside on the roll. Fragile textiles should be layered between acid-free tissue.  Layering involves placing tissue on the front surface of the rug and then rolling the rug onto the tube with the tissue in place. Rolled textiles should be covered with unsized, washed muslin or acid-free tissue.


Small flat textiles, such as samplers and other loosely woven textiles, are best protected when properly framed under glass. These pieces should first be attached to an acid-free rigid support, then placed in a frame. Spacers, typically strips of acid-free mat board, should be placed between the front surface of the sampler and the frame glass. This will provide air space between the glass and textile. The mat board can be adhered to the glass using double-sided tape. UV filtered glass will protect the textile from damage from light.


Heavy textiles such as quilts, tapestries and rugs may be mounted on a frame, or hung using a Velcro support system. If the textile is to be displayed against a

wooden wall, a piece of washed, unbleached muslin should be sewn to the back of the textile to separate and protect the textile from the wood.


Making informed decisions regarding the handling, display, and storage of your early textiles can make the difference between a short life span and a textile’s preservation for your enjoyment and for future generations.

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