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Care of Historic Garments


Consider ALL historic garments as artifacts and fragile. Whether it is apparent to the naked eye or not, all costumes have become weakened by normal wear and long exposure to the elements.

Always wear clean gloves or wash hands frequently when handling costumes. Handle costume items as infrequently as possible. Avoid folding. Creases produced by folding tend to remain and break the fibers more easily. If necessary, crumple acid-free tissue and insert in folds to prevent creases.
Most historic garments were made to fit an individual's unique body. Even a wearer who is smaller than the garment or who is wearing a corset cannot exactly reproduce the original wearer's silhouette and will stress some part of the garment. Wearing historic clothes thus produces enormous tensions on fabric and seams. The wearer's body temperature and perspiration serve as an oven that acts as a catalyst in the deterioration process. Sweating also releases components that attack fibers and can discolor fabrics.

All garments entering a museum collection are never to be worn again. Special display forms are used to show garments in a three-dimensional manner. Mounting historic garments requires special knowledge to reduce strain on the object. We have become accustomed to frequent washing of clothing. Stress from washing can damage fabrics. Garments with no or few visible stains should be left as they are.

In the case of museum garments and all other garments that are being saved for posterity, cleaning often can cause damage. If the garments have a musty smell, simply air them away from direct sunlight. To remove dust, vacuum at low speed, covering the vacuum end. If the garments have noticeable stains, the best thing to do is to consult a textile conservator. Stories abound about people who, unaware of the fragile nature of certain dyes, attempted to wash printed cotton dresses in water and detergent to ruinous end. Dry cleaning also is dangerous for it applies considerable strain to the fabric and seams and can dissolve some fabrics and trims such as early cellulose-based sequins.

General Storage
Select an area with minimal fluctuations in temperature and humidity, good air circulation and a minimum of light. Heat accelerates the acidic deterioration of cellulose fibers. Low humidity, often activated by high temperatures, can remove the natural moisture content from fibers and cause fabrics to become brittle and further weakened. High relative humidity allows the growth of molds. Fluctuations in temperatures and humidity can cause the fibers to expand and contract, resulting in internal wear.

There are two ways to store a garment: hanging or boxed. Each garment is unique and should be considered individually.

Vertical Storage
To avoid a sharp crease at the shoulder, pad the hanger by winding strips of polyester batting around it to shape and cushion the shoulder area.
Cover the padded hanger with a cloth cover. Because wood and plastics (such as polyester) release acids that create yellow stains on the fabrics they touch, it is better to use an inert shield over them. Undyed, washed and unbleached cotton muslin is safe and can be used for hanger shields as well as garment covers.

Make a cotton cover that completely encases the gown or costume, protecting it from light and dust. Avoid covers of synthetic fibers which create static electricity and attract dust.
Do not use plastic garment bags for storage for they create an atmosphere with little or no ventilation in which condensation can occur. These conditions can also encourage the growth of mold and insects.

Horizontal Storage
If the garment is too delicate at the shoulder area or if the weight of the skirt or train is heavy the garment should be boxed. The box should be made of acid-free materials without a cellophane window; acid-free tissue paper can be placed between the window and the garment if necessary. Molds and mildew grow more easily where the fabric touches plastic, cellophane or glass.
Assemble new acid-free tissue paper, clean cotton fabric and a sturdy acid-free cardboard box, large enough so that the garment will require few folds and deep enough. If you have a choice between types of acid-free tissue available for archival storage, use the acid-free paper that will best suit the fabric in the garment: buffered acid-free paper remains acid-free for a longer period of time and is used for cotton and linens. Unbuffered acid-free paper is used for silks and woolens.

Line the box with undyed and washed cotton muslin so that the cotton fabric completely envelops the garment. Arrange the costume to minimize folds. Place crumpled tissue along major folds to prevent formation of hard creases. Do not use plastic bags inside the box. Plastics are chemically unstable and trap moisture, allowing mold and mildew to grow.

Take extra care when storing a garment or costume for posterity.

Sew happy, sew inspired.

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Content copyright © 2015 by Cheryl Ellex. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Cheryl Ellex. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Cheryl Ellex for details.

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