I do not claim to be an expert in textile conservation, but what I can do well is research. I have read and investigated a wide variety of sources on textile conservation, evaluated and compared them, and gleaned a solid if introductory level of understanding. On this Textile Conservation Basics section of the Taking Care of Textiles site, I will be offering brief introductory articles on different aspects of conservation, drawing from a variety of sources, all of which are which are listed under Books on Textile Conservation and Online Resources. Specific quotations will be cited, and links to related information will be offered, but information that qualifies as “general knowledge” in the textile conservation field will not be cited with specific source information.

The Essentials

  • Compared to most other antiques, textiles are extremely delicate. They are vulnerable to damage from light, humidity, dryness, heat, insects, mold, mildew, pollution, perspiration, laundering practices, ordinary use, improper storage, fiber degradation, and more.
  • In order to preserve textiles, steps must be taken to halt or reverse existing damage and to prevent future damage as much as reasonably possible. For best conservation practice, avoid making changes that cannot be reversed, and document everything that is done to each textile.
  • Old textiles do not usually behave like new textiles, and they often have hidden weaknesses. Do not treat an antique textile the same way you would treat a new piece, and do not assume that antique textiles are stable and strong, even if they do not obviously appear to be fragile. In short, be careful.
  • When handling textiles, be very careful and use common sense. Do not eat, drink, or smoke near your collection. Avoid wearing jewelry that could catch on fragile textiles. Either wear cotton archival gloves or wash your hands immediately before handling antique textiles. There is debate about which practice is better, and there are certain instances where one approach seems to be better than the other.
  • Antique textiles’ vulnerability to damage from light and other environmental factors means that textile collections should not be constantly on display. Ideally, textiles should be stored in a dark, climate-controlled environment that falls into a recommended range of temperature of humidity.
  • Textiles are generally stored in one of three ways: flat (usually in boxes), rolled, and hanging. Storage materials need to be archival quality or carefully selected in order make sure that they will not damage textiles; for instance acid-free tissue paper must be used.
  • The way a textile should be stored depends on how much space is available, and on the qualities and condition of the specific piece.
  • Cleaning antique textiles is a delicate and risky process. Research carefully before proceeding. Many conservation sources recommend that all and most cleaning only be done by professional conservation specialists. Obviously, this is not always realistic for the individual collectors and small museums for whom this site is intended, but keep in mind that there is art and science to textile conservation, and when you take matters into your own hands, you are taking risks.
  • In good conservation practice, repairs should be documented, minimal, noninvasive, reversible, and only done when necessary for the structural integrity, or something aesthetic integrity, of a piece. On the other end of the spectrum, individual collectors of vintage clothing and other textiles often wish to wear or use their textiles, at least occasionally, and may do extensive alterations for fit, function, and style. Such alterations should not be done to rare or important pieces, but of course these decisions are up to the collector. Whatever practice or balance of practices you choose, remember that antique textiles are an endangered species; they exist in limited quantities and when one is changed or destroyed, it is gone. At minimum, document pieces before changing them.
  • For practical conservation advice from a variety of historical clothing enthusiasts ranging from casual beginning to collectors to serious long-time collectors and professional conservators, visit the mid-19th century focused forum The Sewing Academy threads “Storing Originals” and “Help for Small Museums.”

Textile Conservation Basics In Greater Detail:

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