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Displaying Textiles

Textiles are among the most fragile items in any museumís collection. Curators take special care in both handling and displaying textiles.

Here are some tips for displaying historic costumes, quilts, and other textiles in your home:

1. Always wear white cotton gloves when handling textiles. The oils on your fingers will transfer onto the fabric. While it might be invisible now, in the future it could cause a stain or even deterioration of the fabric where you touched it. Any archival supplier carries gloves.

2. Beware of light. Never place a historic textile in direct sunlight. Ideally textiles should not be placed in a room with any windows. This is usually easier to do in a museum setting than at home. If there are windows in the room, be sure the sun does not come into direct contact with the fabric.

3. Resist the urge to wash it! White wedding gowns and graduation dresses often discolor over time. But that is part of their charm! Overall discoloration is not harmful to a dress, and washing it may actually cause damage. On the other hand, a specific stain (lipstick, red wine, etc.) could damage the fabric over time. For stain removal, contact a textile conservator.

4. Make sure a dress fits. Under no circumstances should you try to squeeze a dress onto a mannequin that is too big for it! Undue stress on the closures could cause them to rip. Never force a garment over the arms or head of a mannequin. If the hands are removable, take them off before threading the arm into the dress. Modern commercial mannequins are usually not proportioned correctly for historic costumes. Check with archival supply companies for mannequins of the correct size.

5. Hang quilts carefully. Quilts are most safely displayed flat on a guest bed that is not used. If you would like to display a historic quilt on the wall, sew a sleeve made of unbleached muslin onto the back of the quilt (being careful not to sew it through all the layers of the quilt). It is ideal to place it on a board at a 45 degree angle, so that you do not stress the top of the quilt. That is usually not practical in a home setting. If you hang it vertically, try not to leave it up for too long at a time. If you have more than one, perhaps you could rotate them.

6. Do not wear them! Unless you are willing to risk damaging a family heirloom, no historic textiles should be worn. Of course, if you collect vintage clothing for your wardrobe, that is another matter entirely.

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This is an excellent book about taking care of all kinds of materials. A must-read for anyone interested in properly storing artifacts. I refer to this book often!


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