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Textile Preservation: Techniques & Supplies

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Textile art is becoming more widely appreciated, but that means that more people are having to learn about textile care. In this lesson, we'll explore the main forms of textile preservation, and consider the benefits and risks of each.

Preserving Textiles

More and more people are learning to appreciate the fine art of textiles or yarn/fabric based products. Textile arts are a part of many cultures around the world, and as people either start collecting global textiles or inherit family quilts, clothing, or rugs, they begin to ask: how do I keep this from falling apart? Unlike a marble statue, textiles are decomposable and may quickly deteriorate in certain conditions. So, as we begin to appreciate textiles, we also need to learn how to preserve them.

Display

Since textiles can be very fragile, preservation should be left to a professional whenever possible. However, even at home, there are three basic kinds of preservation you need to be aware of. First is the proper display of your textile.

As most textiles are dyed, one of the greatest risks to them is light, which fades the colors. Displayed textiles should be kept out of direct light as much as possible. Antique textiles should never be exposed to sunlight at all but instead can be illuminated with low-watt bulbs for short periods.

The other issue we need to think about is strength. Textiles wear down over time, so displays often need to reinforce the item, which we call a mount. Some textiles can be framed and supported that way. Ultraviolet-light filtering glass can also make framing a great option, although the fabric should never touch the glass itself. For garments, support using a mannequin or similar base is a good idea. Before mounting some textiles, it will also be necessary to add a lining, or a protective cover on the back or inside. Linings are not permanently attached to the fabric, but can still be tricky to apply, so be careful or consider hiring a professional.

Not all mounts or supports have to be high tech
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Storage

No textile should be on display indefinitely unless you are okay with it wearing out. Proper textile preservation also requires proper textile storage. Ideally, textiles should be stored in a dark place at roughly 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% humidity. Obviously, that's not always possible at home so here's the basic rule: store your textiles someplace consistent. Textiles are very sensitive to extreme changes in temperature and humidity, so basements and attics tend to be poor storage options. Try to find somewhere near the center of the house.

As far as how the textiles should be stored, there are a few basic rules. For one, textiles should be stored flat and folded as few times as is possible. Secondly, they shouldn't touch wood. Even treated and painted wood, like the kinds that make up most people's cabinets, has oils that deteriorate fabrics. So, textiles should be stored in lignin- and acid-free boxes or wrapped in acid-free paper. These supplies can be found at many art stores. Some museums are also willing to sell them if you ask. If you simply can't find professional grade acid-free boxes or paper, you can wrap textiles in sheets of unbleached muslin or 100% white cotton. Oh, and one more thing: no mothballs. Many museum experts believe that they actually do more harm than good.

Sheets with this symbol can be used to wrap textiles in storage
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Cleaning

So, you've got this great textile, you store it properly, you display it carefully, but eventually the inevitable happens: it gets dirty. What do you do? Textile cleaning can be very risky, especially depending on the age and condition of the fabric, but it is possible. Some textiles can be vacuumed, like rugs. Vacuums must be low suction and should have a non-metal grate over the opening to prevent snags.

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