Lace collar. Te Papa

How to care for your textiles 

A museum's collection items carry a great deal of history, but personal and family heirlooms are an equally important part of the historical record. Many people want to know how to preserve these treasured items for future generations.  

The information here describes the particular risks of damage to a range of objects described as textiles, and explains how to care for them to lessen the risk of damage.

In this page:

What to look out for

Textiles, or fabrics, are made from a range of natural and artificial fibres, worked together using a variety of techniques. The term 'textiles' refers to objects like quilts and clothing made of woven fabrics,  embroideries, woven kākahu (cloaks) and piupiu (skirts), plaited whāriki (mats), and felted tapa (bark cloth). Items like these are a part of everyday life – they frequently have strong personal connections, and are often valued for this reason.

Textiles are made from very diverse materials, but all are sensitive to damage from the environment – from light, humidity, temperature, and pollutants in the air. Protecting textiles from these environmental hazards is vital to their long-term preservation.  

Often a textile with signs of aging, or one that is already damaged, cannot be restored. But safe handling and storage, and correct ways of displaying items, will significantly slow down deterioration and can prevent damage.

Handling

  • Before you handle textiles, wash your hands, so that oils from your hands don’t stain the fabric. If you are handling historic textiles, don't use hand lotions or perfumes, and don't wear jewellery – it can snag and catch on fabrics.
  • When you move textiles, support them with a rigid piece of cardboard underneath a clean sheet or tissue paper. Alternatively, support the textile with a bed sheet used as a kind of sling, and a person holding each end.

Light

Light causes textile fibres to fade and become brittle – with ultraviolet (UV) light being most damaging.

  • Display textiles away from direct sunlight, in areas such as hallways.
  • Use UV-filtering glass for framed textiles.

Humidity and temperature

When there are wide variations in humidity and temperature, fibres can become stressed and even break. In very high humidity, mould grows. In high temperatures fibres can deteriorate faster than in cooler temperatures.

  • Store textiles in the main part of your home rather than in uninsulated basements and attics where there can be big changes in humidity and temperature.
  • Buy dehumidifiers for damp areas. (Some types of dehumidifiers can be emptied into an inside drain through a connector hose). 
  • If you find active mould on a historic textile, isolate it so that the mould does not spread to other objects. Ask a conservator to help you identify the mould and decide what steps are needed to treat it.

Vulnerable materials

Some objects deteriorate faster because they are made from materials that are fundamentally unstable.   A good example of this is black fibre dyed with paru (mud), used in many kākahu (cloaks) and piupiu (flax skirts).   

Some kinds of plastics used in the manufacture of garments and accessories are also known to be unstable. Two examples are polyvinylchloride (PVC) and cellulose nitrate.  As these plastics age, they can become discoloured, cracked or sticky. This damage is impossible to reverse.

Housekeeping

Moths, silverfish and carpet beetles can wreak havoc on your collection and can be very difficult to get rid of if they are allowed to spread throughout the house.

Regular cleaning and vacuuming will remove a lot of grazing insect pests as well as airborne dust.

  • Check cupboards, wardrobes, and storage boxes each season for signs of insect infestation – these might be live insects, larval casings and/or insect droppings.
  • Vacuum often.

Cleaning

There is no one way to clean every type of textile, or treat every stain.  When conservators make decisions about cleaning, they carefully balance the risks and possible benefits, keeping in mind the saying, ‘Better is the enemy of good’'.

  • You can vacuum textiles in good condition using a soft, clean brush on the end of the vacuum hose. Vacuuming can remove dust and mould spores.
  • You can vacuum through net or some other kind of screening to prevent accidentally catching on threads.  Put nylon tulle over the end of the hose before you replace the brush attachment. 
  • When you vacuum a textile, use a series of lifting and resting movements; don't drag the brush over the surface.
  • Not all fragile textiles can be safely vacuumed. If you are not sure about vacuuming, ask a conservator for advice.
  • Water can cause irreversible damage. Dye can 'bleed' from dyed to undyed fibres – or fibres can swell or go out of shape. Textiles are heavier and more fragile when wet.  If you are thinking of washing a textile, ask a conservator for advice about possible risks and benefits of washing. 

Some fungi become strongly attached to fibres and produce brownish spots. These freckle-like spots (called 'foxing') are often seen on the pages of old books or antique linens, and are often mistaken for rust.   Foxing is hard to remove; bleaching with commercial bleaches might reduce the staining but will make the cloth weaker. 

Many textiles are fragile or not safe to clean, and many stains may be difficult or impossible to remove. Sometimes the safest and best thing to do is to decide to live with the damage and do nothing.

Storage

Different types of textiles need different types of storage. Select a type of storage for your textiles (boxed or hanging) that is best for the particular object.

Keep in mind that most woods and some types of paper products contain acids that can be absorbed by textiles, causing them to discolour and become brittle. You can get acid-free storage boxes and tissue from various sources; see the “Additional Resources” section.

  • Don't store textiles in direct contact with wood, such as in cedar chests or on wooden hangers.
  • Use wide, plastic hangers, not wire hangers. See the “Additional Resources” section for further information.
  • Store garments with fragile shoulder seams or heavy beadwork in boxes.
  • Don't store textiles in plastic dry-cleaning bags – the plastic might contain chemicals that can be absorbed by textiles over time.  Plastic also traps moisture, which can lead to mould.
  • Kākahu (cloaks) should be stored flat in a box or drawer, with the patterned side facing up. Line the box or drawer with acid-free material. You can find instructions for making a customised acid-free storage box in the National Services Guide "Caring for Māori Textiles" (see resources below).
  • Some kākahu have puka (shaping rows, or darts) woven into them to add fullness around the shoulders and buttocks.  These types of cloaks won't lie flat, and you will need to support the shaped areas. Pack them from under the cloak with acid-free tissue, pleated or in a wad, or fabric-covered Dacron. 

Hanger made with archival foam

Hanger modified with Dacron and calico

The first hanger is constructed of archival foam, the second one is a hanger that has been modified with Dacron and calico.

Display

When you have textiles framed, ask the framer to use acid-free materials. Make sure that textiles are not secured in their frame with tape or adhesives of any kind – this is very important.  Have embroideries framed with spacers so that the glass is not in direct contact with the textile. You can display quilts and other flat textiles in good condition using a hanging sleeve or Velcro. Ask a conservator what method is best for your textiles.

Disasters

Water and fire can cause serious damage.

If you have waterlogged textiles, remember that they will be heavier and more easily damaged than when they are dry, so make sure that you support them when you move them (see Handling). If possible, rinse them to remove silt and dirt and move them to an area where they can be dried safely. Ask a conservator for advice or assistance.

Often you can do nothing about extreme fire and water (and mould) damage to textiles. But sometimes you can reduce the appearance of soot and other after-effects of disasters. Commercial restoration companies often use ozone in salvaging fire-damaged items, but conservators don't recommend the use of ozone on historic textiles.

Additional resources

National Services Te Paerangi resources

National Services Te Paerangi (NSTP) has published several He Rauemi Resource Guides on collections care and other topics.  Guides 18 and 24 cover the care of textiles, clothing, and taonga. The guides provide instructions on making archival boxes and storage hangers and much more.  Textile and kākahu conservation

NZCCM

The New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials (NZCCM) is a group of professional conservators who maintain professional ethical standards.  Their Contact a Conservator website tool can help you find a conservator in your area.  See www.nzccm.org.nz

Conservation Supplies

Conservation Supplies is a good source for prefabricated acid-free boxes and acid-free tissue. 
www.conservationsupplies.co.nz

Triptych

Triptych is a Wellington-based company specialising in custom-made archival enclosures and boxes. 
http://www.triptychconservation.co.nz

Several good guides on making padded hangers have been published on the web.

American Institue of Conservation

The American Institute of Conservation's website has printable versions of its pamphlet series on caring for family treasures.
http://aic.stanford.edu/

Textile Museum, Washington, D.C.

The website of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., gives excellent advice on hanging quilts in good condition. Visit http://www.textilemuseum.org/care/care.htm.

Care for your wedding dress

When making plans to preserve your wedding gown, review the information in our other resource specialised on wedding dresses.
Care for your wedding dress

Publications

Other useful publications on textile conservation include:

Artcare: The Care of Art and Artefacts in New Zealand.  Auckland: AucklandArtGallery, 1998. 

Landrey, Gregory J., ed. The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection. Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum, 2000.

Long, Jane S., and Richard W. Long. Caring for Your Family Treasures. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.

Mailand, Harold F., and Dorothy Stites Alig. Preserving Textiles: A Guide for the Nonspecialist.Indianapolis,IN:IndianapolisMuseumof Art, 1999.