Conservation - textiles
Old textiles may be vulnerable and easily damaged by poor storage and handling.
The key to good handling and storage is support. The weight of a weak textile as you try to lift it may be enough to cause tearing or splitting. Always place a support under the item and lift the support.
Clean textiles are less attractive to insect pests. If you discover insects, you may freeze the textiles to kill the pests.
Remove surface dust by careful vacuuming, using gentle suction with a clean, soft brush. Work on a flat surface, gently brushing, following the weave of the fabric. (Vacuuming is described in more detail in Caring for your medals.)
Small vacuum cleaner tools may be helpful. A 'micro-vacuum attachment kit' with mini-crevice tool and small brushes is reasonably priced and readily available. It fits any vacuum cleaner. Be careful to set the cleaner on the lowest suction, as old or deteriorated textiles are easily damaged.
Use tweezers to remove debris which has adhered to the fabric, as repeated brushing will abrade the fabric. Remove encrustations by gently tapping the fabric with a brush to loosen the soil. You can then remove the loose particles with the vacuum cleaner.
Make sure that you remove dirt and food debris from pockets.
If the item is fragile or particularly old, washing, dry cleaning and spot cleaning should only be carried out by a trained textile conservator.
Flat objects are best stored flat without folding if the size permits. If you must fold, make sure the folds are not sharp but supported with rolled or scrunched-up acid-free tissue.
Large flat objects can be stored rolled around a cardboard core which has been covered with acid-free tissue. Interleave the item with tissue as you roll.
Sturdy clothing can be hung on padded coat hangers (not wire or wood). Do not hang heavily beaded or embroidered dresses with thin or sheer straps, as the weight will eventually damage them. If the clothing cannot be hung lay it in a large lidded box lined with acid-free tissue. Support all folds with acid-free tissue. Sharp folds may cause splits in the fabric along the fold-line.
Store hats in boxes lined with acid-free tissue. Pad the crown well with the tissue.
Never store heavy items such as shoes or handbags on top of textiles. Remove safety pins, staples and badges and wrap separately.
Do not iron fabrics as this accelerates deterioration.
The area should:
- Be dry, with moderate air-flow to prevent mould growth;
- Be clean and insect-free to prevent insect damage;
- Exclude natural light to prevent fading. As unfiltered fluorescent light will also fade textiles, we recommend that you exclude all light when not viewing items; and
- Have stable temperature and humidity (not fluctuating) because rapid absorption and loss of moisture causes microscopic changes in fibre dimensions. This abrades the fibres, especially if the item is dusty or soiled.
If you discover insect damage in your textile treasures, freezing may be a useful technique to get rid of the pests. This method kills them at any stage of their life-cycle. It has the advantage of needing no chemicals and is safe for most textiles. (Note that old brittle silk and painted textiles should not be frozen.)
- Place items in a plastic bag. Remove most of the air with a vacuum cleaner or freezer bag pump, then seal the bag with adhesive tape. Avoid squashing items such as hats or feathers by putting them in boxes before bagging.
- Place bagged items in a domestic freezer which has reached its lowest temperature. To kill insects at all stages of their life-cycle, the items must be frozen very rapidly down to a temperature of -20°C. This is only possible if the volume of room-temperature items going into the freezer is less than 1/3 of the freezer's capacity.
- Leave bagged items in the freezer for at least 48 hours. Open the freezer as little as possible during this time to maintain the lowest possible temperature.
- Remove bagged items from the freezer and leave to return to room temperature. Handle as little as possible to prevent damage to the items - they are brittle when frozen.
- Remove the items from the plastic bags. Vaccum clean them carefully with the cleaner set at the lowest suction. Use either the crevice tool or a small clean brush fitting. If the item is fragile, vacuum through a piece of plastic mesh or fly screen. Make sure no frass (residue from insects) or dirt is left as this may be attractive to another generation of insect pests. Vacuum carefully as the insect eggs are very small and may be difficult to see.
Remember, freezing has no long-term effect - it will only kill the insects on the item at that time. Check items regularly for further insect infestation.
As insects are encouraged by dirt, items should be clean when stored and the storage area should be kept clean.
Textile Conservators at the Australian War Memorial contributed the information. If you need more information, ring the Conservation Section on (02) 6243 4444 and ask for a Textile Conservator.