How to Care for Textiles

Publication Date: 4/1/2002 12:00:00 PM



We use textiles for a vast array of personal and household articles — everything from christening gowns and wedding dresses to draperies, table linens, bedding and decorative items such as samplers and wall hangings (see also "How to Care for Quilts"). Some of these items hold strong sentimental value for us while others have artistic or historical interest.

Textiles are made with natural fibres such as cotton, linen, wool and silk, as well as from modified natural fibres (rayon) or synthetics such as nylon and polyester. All fibres have different chemical and physical characteristics that affect how they hold up over time. These differing traits also influence how we care for items made out of fabric. It is understandable that at times we feel torn between wanting to preserve textiles while, at the same time, wanting to use them by wearing or displaying them.

Causes of damage

Textiles are porous and are susceptible to damage from many sources: environment, pollution, insects, mould and handling. Often, damage from these causes cannot be reversed.

Humidity and temperature are interrelated. Excess humidity will lead to mould and mildew and, if not remedied, may cause the textile to decompose. Stains caused by mould are difficult, if not impossible, to remove from fabric. Mould spores that are dormant do not pose an immediate risk to the artifact but may be a health risk to humans. They may also start growing if the artifact is exposed to humid conditions or moisture. Fluctuations in humidity and temperature will cause textiles to expand and contract; severe or rapid changes should therefore be avoided as much as possible. Poor air circulation will only make matters worse. Keep textiles away from sources of heat such as fireplaces, heating vents and bright lights.

Light intensity and the length of exposure to light can cause cumulative and irreversible damage. Avoid displaying textiles where there is bright natural sunlight or artificial light. This can cause colours to fade and fibres to become brittle. Exposure to the ultraviolet component of light will cause many fibres to turn yellow.

Dirt, dust, grime and gaseous pollutants harm fabric and accelerate its deterioration. Metals that tarnish or corrode will causing staining and degradation of a textile if they are in contact with it. Keep cherished textiles away from cigarette smoke, perfume, perspiration and cosmetics.

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Insect pests typically feed on wool or silk fibres or soiled textiles, and lay their eggs in dark corners or creases where they are often unnoticed. Textiles infested with insects should be isolated before dealing with the problem. Major infestations should be handled only by a qualified professional conservator. Wrap the item in unbleached muslin or acid-free tissue paper and place in a polyethylene plastic bag. Rid the bag of excess air before taping shut (duct tape works well). Place the bag in your freezer for a week and then remove, allowing it to return to room temperature slowly. Do not open the bag. Repeat this procedure. Again, do not open the bag until the contents have thawed. Then vacuum up the insect debris and dispose of the vacuum bag. In order for this procedure to be effective, your freezer must maintain a temperature of -20°C. If you find spiders in an area where you store textiles, it is a warning to check more closely. While spiders do not damage fabric, they like to eat the insects that do; thus, their presence may signal that harmful pests are in the vicinity. Regularly checking storage and display areas for evidence of insect infestation is a simple preventive measure that you can take. Look for damage such as holes or grazed surfaces on wool fabrics, fecal pellets, cast larval skins, webbing, cases and live larvae. Good housekeeping will go a long way towards preventing insect infestations.

Mice and other rodents are attracted to textiles as a source of nesting material. They can be highly destructive in the course of their scavenging. They shred and soil textiles and will leave droppings in the vicinity. Call a professional exterminator to handle the problem. Avoid using poison because the rodents may die between the walls and become a food source for insect pests.

Unsuitable storage methods and inappropriate materials adjacent to textiles can also cause trouble. Wooden drawers or shelves can emit acidic vapours that will yellow the fabric and make it brittle. (See storage guidelines below.)

Sometimes the nature of the textile itself, the processes used in its manufacture, its non-textile components and how the textile was used will make it less resistant to these environmental agents.

Handling, storage, and display

Careless handling is one of the greatest causes of unnecessary damage to textiles. However, it is perhaps the easiest to prevent. The best advice is to handle textiles with care and avoid over manipulation. It is a good idea to wear white cotton gloves when dealing with historic or important pieces. Also remove jewellery such as rings, bracelets, watches and dangling necklaces that might snag the threads of a textile. Textiles are flexible and do not retain their shape, so provide a solid support before moving them. Get help before attempting to move large, heavy carpets and oversized wall hangings. Be sure your textiles are clean and dry before you store them in a cool, dark, dry location with good ventilation. No basements or attics, please!

Polyethylene plastic and acid-free cardboard boxes are fine for storage. So is acid-free tissue paper or pre-washed unbleached cotton muslin when used as a box liner, packing material or dust cover. At all costs, avoid regular paper, cardboard, wood and wood products and adhesives such as urea-formaldehyde, which emit damaging acids. Also, do not use plastic garment bags (such as the ones provided by dry cleaners) because there is no air circulation (which can encourage moisture to build up); they offer no protection from light; and they are typically made of a non-recommended plastic.

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Costumes in good condition can be hung for storage. Avoid hanging fragile costumes, knit or bias cut garments, heavily beaded or decorated items or costumes that have weak shoulder seams. Do not hang costumes on wire hangers because they can rust and mark the textile, and may not provide adequate support. Avoid scented, padded hangers because the dried flowers they contain attract pests. Wood hangers can be padded with polyester batting and then covered with washed, unbleached muslin. Support the interior of sleeves with crumpled acid-free tissue. Then place a loose muslin bag over the garment and hang in a well-ventilated place with ample room for hanging.

Flat storage is recommended for most textiles because it provides support for the entire textile. An acid-free or polyethylene box with a lid, a sealed shelf or drawer can be used for flat storage. Line the box or shelf with unbleached muslin. Ideally, the textile should not be folded. But if that is unavoidable, pad the creases with acid-free tissue paper or muslin. It is best not to stack several textiles on top of each other. If textiles must be layered, use acid-free paper in between, with the heaviest items at the bottom. Store in a dark place where there is stable heat and humidity and good air circulation.

Rolling textiles for storage is another option. This works well for larger pieces (shawls, quilts and the like) and for small textiles such as lengths of narrow lace. Acid-free cardboard tubes are available at archival supply shops. A regular cardboard tube can be used if covered by a barrier. Cover the tube with Mylar plastic sheeting, polyethylene plastic sheeting, Tyvek or heavy acid-free tissue. Be sure the tube is longer than the item itself so that there is no contact with the ends when hanging the tube.

To roll a textile, place it face up on a flat, clean surface. Smooth out bulges or creases and straighten the top and bottom as well as the edges. Place the tube parallel to either the warp or the weft threads. Interleave rolled textiles with acid-free tissue paper or pre-washed cotton sheeting. Roll the flat textile onto the tube with the right side inwards. Roll pieces with a raised texture such as pile carpets, velvets or embroideries with the right side outwards. For velvet and other fabrics with a pile, roll in the direction of the pile. If there are fringes, cut acid-free tissue the width of the fringe and fold in half over the fringe. Once rolled, cover with muslin, cotton sheeting or acid-free tissue and loosely secure with twill tapes. The roll should not support its own weight; rather, provide support for the ends of the roll by using a hanging system or polyethylene foam blocks with corresponding carved recesses.

Do not use moth balls when storing textiles. While they do discourage larvae, they are not a repellant and are a suspected carcinogen. Also, cedar storage chests should be avoided. Cedar oil is volatile and the vapour given off by the wood has limited effectiveness.

Keep the following considerations in mind before displaying textiles: Do not display soiled textiles or those in poor condition because they will degrade quickly. Rule out inappropriate methods of display such as taping, stapling, or nailing textiles directly to the wall. Protect textiles from dust and light by using display cases and dust covers. Use safe materials to construct mounts and display cases. Pad out folds and creases and re-fold periodically to avoid permanent creasing.

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There are a variety of appropriate ways to display textiles. One example is a flat, rigid support cut larger than the textile and covered with a padding layer and a pre-washed display fabric. The textile is hand stitched to the support at regular intervals to spread the weight of the textile evenly over the entire surface area. Care should be taken to stitch between the threads of the textile rather than piercing them, and to use washfast threads and backing fabrics for stitching. If the item is to be framed, use ultraviolet filtering glazing. Ensure that the glazing is not in contact with the mounted textile by using spacers. If a wood moulding is chosen, provide a barrier between it and the mount by covering the wood surfaces with Mylar or Marvelseal.

Vertical free hanging is a method that can be used to display large flat textiles that are sound enough to support their own weight. The ideal hanging system for textiles is a Velcro support. Because the weight is distributed evenly across the width of the textile, it can bear the weight of heavy textiles, distortions can be reduced and it is simple to install. To facilitate hanging, a dowel can also be placed through a cotton sleeve. The procedures for vertical free hanging are described more fully in "How to Care for Quilts."

Textiles can also be displayed by draping them over one or more dowels if they are strong enough to support their own weight. If wood is chosen for the dowels, seal the dowels before use with several coats of acrylic latex paint to prevent direct contact with the object. Dowels made of stainless or galvanized steel should be wrapped with acid-free tissue, cotton or Mylar. If the type of metal is unknown, coat the dowel with an epoxy or urethane film.

Cleaning and repair

With time or improper care and storage, textiles can become soiled. Cleaning can be a delicate operation, depending on the condition of the piece.

Textiles that are in good condition can be surface cleaned by careful vacuuming, but textiles that are powdering, splitting, fragmenting, that have areas of loss, loose threads or broken seams should not be surface cleaned. To surface clean, place fibreglass screening over the item and then clean with a low-powered, hand-held vacuum. A soft artist's brush can be used to ease the removal of dirt from the textile. Lift the nozzle from place to place in the direction of the nap; do not rub back and forth.

Non-coloured textiles that are in good condition can be wet cleaned (washed) by hand. Wet cleaning softens creases, realigns textiles and removes dirt and musty smells. In order to properly clean textiles in this way, they should be strong and be able to withstand the process. Consult a qualified textile conservator to wet clean special textiles. Do not use home appliances — either washers or dryers — to wash textiles because they are simply too rough on delicate fabrics. Some stains or discoloration may remain after wet cleaning. Ironing historic fabrics is not recommended.

Commercial dry cleaning historic textiles is possible by working closely with a trusted local dry cleaner who is willing to do a custom cleaning. Only very strong textiles in excellent physical condition should be shown to the dry cleaner. Even robust textiles must be prepared for a dry cleaning treatment. The process employs very strong solvents, manipulation and drying at high temperatures and is most efficient at removing oily soils. Again, not all stains on textiles will be removed. The dry cleaner should by no means be encouraged to do spot cleaning.

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The cleanliness of the textile is not as important as preventing damage. The dry cleaner must be willing and able to provide custom, single-item cleaning and be able to do initial testing, control the solvents used, the temperature of the solvent, the agitation, the cleaning time, the extraction and finishing. Wet or dry cleaning damage to textiles is not reversible: once damaged, there is little that can be done to remedy the situation.

Mould on textiles can be a serious problem as well as pose a risk to human health. Isolate mouldy items by placing them in plastic bags and sealing with tape. Call a professional for advice and treatment.

Typically, minor repairs are carried out after the textile has been cleaned. Repairing and maintaining textiles involves stitching by hand. It is important to choose an appropriate thread and support fabric and to use the correct sewing technique. Stitching should be relaxed so that tension is not created in the fabric. Tension causes buckling or gathering that can break old threads. Sew with the textile on a flat surface and whenever possible, stitch through existing holes and avoid piercing the threads of the artifact. Plan the placement of stitches and use as few stitches as possible.

For additional information, check the CCI Library Web Catalogue or the Order Publications sections for publications such as CCI Notes 13/1 Textiles and the Environment; 13/2 Flat Storage of Textiles; 13/3 Rolled Storage for Textiles; 13/4 Velcro Support System for Textiles; 13/6 Mounting Small, Light, Flat Textiles; 13/7 Washing Non-coloured Textiles; and 13/13 Commercial Dry Cleaning of Museum Textiles.