Wednesday, November 18, 2015

News you can use: textile conservation part 2

I wrote recently about a workshop I attended at Brenau University on textile conservation.   I am hardly an expert, but I do want to share what I learned.  If you have additional information or corrections, I welcome your comments below.  The photos below were taken at the exhibit currently on view at Brenau, Behind the Seams:  Caring for Historic Clothing, about the University's ongoing efforts to research and preserve its textile collection.

First, what is conservation? Conservation aims to stabilize and preserve a textile,  not necessarily to improve its appearance or restore it to its original condition.  The idea is to stop any deterioration that may be occurring, not to reverse or repair it.  Just as for medical doctors, the first rule seems to be Do No Harm.

This means:
  • Handle textiles with clean, freshly washed hands (cotton gloves, formerly the standard, are now seen as unnecessary).  Natural oils in your skin, or lotions you've applied, can permanently stain textiles. And watch out for dangling bracelets, earrings, and even the prongs on rings which can catch and snag delicate fabrics.
  • Store textiles in the same temperature and humidity conditions that are comfortable for us human beings (how convenient!)  This means NOT in the attic, the basement, or the garage.  High humidity can cause mold and mildew to form; high temperatures can hasten the deterioration of fabric. Wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity cause fibers to expand and contract in ways that hasten their decline. 
  • Do not store textiles in plastic bags, which emit harmful gasses and can raise humidity levels.  In fact storage or mounting in any tightly sealed container can trap humidity. 
  • Do not store textiles in contact with acidic materials, such as non-acid-free cardboard boxes or even unfinished wooden dresser drawers.  Drawers can be lined with aluminum foil to form a barrier to the acidic wood.  Many suppliers (see below) offer a wide range of acid-free boxes, tissue, and other storage solutions.  
  • It is most preferable to store textiles flat whenever space allows.  Failing that, large items such as quilts should be rolled, not folded.  Many quilters today buy foam "noodles" that kids play with in the swimming pool, cover them with a clean muslin sleeve (you can use an old cotton sheet), and then roll their quilts around these.  If you must fold textiles, periodically open them up and refold them along different lines.  Over time fold lines can become permanent creases, then weak spots and eventually holes in the fabric.  
  • Garments, if folded, should have their layers protected from each other with acid-free tissue paper, as in the first photo below.  The "void" or open space of the hat in the second photo below is filled with tissue. 

  • When you display your textiles, try to keep them out of direct light, both natural and artificial.  Unless you live in a cave, this is hard to do.  Light is extremely damaging, fading colors and weakening fibers.  Best practices are to display textiles in low light situations and for short periods (a few months, not years), then store them.  I've found that after a piece has been hanging for several months (or, I confess, years) I have stopped really seeing it anyway.  It's good for the piece and fun for us to rotate what's on display!
  • When hanging heavy items such as large rugs, quilts or wall hangings, distribute the weight evenly across the piece.  Best practice is to sew a wide strip of Velcro (loop side) all the way across the top back of the piece, and to staple the matching hook side of an equally long strip of Velcro to a wooden slat (which has been coated in polyurethane) which is attached to the wall. 
  • Garments in good condition can be hung on a padded hanger. 
    Hanger padded with fiberfill and covered with clean muslin
  • Cleaning is a complex subject and I can only summarize the most basic points here.  The safest and simplest way to clean a textile is to use a soft, natural-bristle artist's brush and simply brush surface dust off of the textile.  You may sweep the dust into the nozzle of a handheld vacuum cleaner to avoid simply redistributing it across the textile.
Tools used in cleaning, including soft brushes and wire mesh for protecting the surface while vacuuming
  • If more thorough cleaning is needed, careful vacuuming is the preferred method for textiles in good condition.  Conservators use a hand-held vacuum with a variable suction control.  They place a piece of nylon mesh over the end of the suction attachment (to keep any fibers or decorations from detaching and being sucked into the vacuum), and they use a piece of soft nylon mesh about a foot square (covering the sharp edges with tape) to protect the surface of the textile, vacuuming carefully through the mesh.  Lift and lower the vacuum attachment from one place to another on the textile, rather than pushing it across the surface as if you are vacuuming a carpet.  Also be careful that your vacuum does not overheat; it could actually catch on fire.  (Don't ask how I know.) 
  • Washing or wet-cleaning textiles can actually damage them if done incorrectly or with fragile pieces.  If in doubt, consult a textile conservator before washing any special textile.  The most important principle here is to support the piece while it is weakened by being wet--the weight of a heavy wet quilt can actually break the stitches that hold it together.  You can lay a large quilt on a bedsheet to lower and raise it from the bathtub where you wash it. Orvus washing paste is recommended as the safest soap (not detergent) to use, and it can be had cheaply and in large quantities at a feed supply or equine supply shop.  Quilt shops sell small bottles.  
Garment resting on a mesh sheet for support while lifting during washing 
  • Insects can damage textiles.  If your piece has an active infestation of insects, it can be placed in the freezer for a period to kill the insects.  Three rounds of freezing and thawing are recommended to stop completely the reproductive life cycle of insects.  Wool moths can be deterred naturally with lavender essential oil.  Place a few drops on a cotton ball and place the ball in a mesh or fabric pouch in the vicinity (but not touching) your wool items.  
In sum, the enemies of textiles are light, extremes and fluctuations of temperature and humidity, dust, dirt and insects.  These are all things that with good housekeeping and intelligent handling, display, and storage, we can control to some extent.  Those priceless family heirlooms--possibly even our own textile work!-- can be passed down for years to come. 

For more information and to find a textile conservator, check with the American Institute for Conservation.

For archival storage materials, go to Gaylord Archival, Hollinger Metal Edge and Talas. 

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