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Preserving Your Heirloom Textiles

Many families have wedding dresses, quilts, tablecloths, and other textiles that are passed down for generations. To preserve these precious artifacts for the future, they require special care, handling, and storage materials.

Here are some tips on how to care for your heirloom textiles.

1. Do not take your textile to a dry cleaning service. Dry cleaners would like you to believe that their service is the best, but in fact, you can do a better job yourself for less than what they charge. When your textile is dry cleaned, damaging dry cleaning fluid becomes trapped in the garment fibers. After an extended period of time, especially when sealed in an airtight box, this fluid may seriously degrade the fabric. In addition, embellishments on wedding dresses – such as plastic beads, sequins, buttons, trims, and metal fasteners – can all emit harmful gases that cannot escape from a sealed box. Trapped chemicals act upon fibers in the dress, breaking them down, changing their color, and in many cases making existing stains more noticeable. Before attempting any cleaning method, consult with a textile conservator first. He or she will be able to provide specific advice for the type of stain, color, and fabric of your textile.

2. If you have a wedding gown that is currently stored in a sealed box, BREAK THE SEAL IMMEDIATELY! Let it air out in a closet or room unexposed to direct sunlight. If you have not yet boxed the gown you are attempting to preserve, decide whether to store it in a box or on a hanger. Heavy dresses should be boxed, as hanging them puts undue stress on the seams and fabric. Be sure to purchase an acid-free box and tissue for stuffing the bodice and sleeves. Lightweight dresses can be hung on padded hangers and covered with a simple muslin garment bag that will protect it from dust and light while allowing the dress to breathe. Padded hangers can be made with quilt batting sewn under a muslin cover.

3. When boxing up any textile, be sure to place rolled sheets of acid-free tissue inside the folds to prevent creasing. Try not to fold quilts, coverlets, and blankets in half. Typically this is how the textile has been folded for its entire life, and the fibers along those folds may be weakened from repeated folding. Try to fold the item in thirds instead. For a dress, the bodice and sleeves should be gently stuffed with tissue to lend support and maintain the original shape. Remember to be gentle, and never stuff anything too tightly. Too much stuffing can be more damaging than none at all.

4. Store your textiles in a cool, dry space with little light. Basements are generally a bad place to keep textiles because of moisture, and attics can be extremely hot or even leaky. A guest room closet is ideal, or perhaps under your own bed. (A general rule of thumb is to you’re your textiles where your grandmother would be comfortable!) Curators are often asked about cedar closets, and although they do keep moths away, they can also create an acidic environment harmful to delicate fabrics.

5. Acid free boxes and tissues can be purchased through many suppliers of archival materials. You can purchases boxes to fit any artifact, from dresses, hats and shoes to jewelry and other accessories.

If you have any questions about preserving specific items, please contact me. I would be happy to provide advice to help preserve your family’s history!

*****

I recommend the following books on preservation of historical collections:


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