The term "textile" covers a wide range of objects made of fiber— historic dress, flags, samplers, quilts and tapestries—as well as costume accessories such as handkerchiefs, hats and gloves. Due to their utilitarian nature, most textiles survive by chance. Some are cherished and carefully packed away, while others are displayed. Many, however, are used daily, washed frequently, and eventually discarded. Today we treasure historic textiles because they document art, craftsmanship, and have a very immediate connection with people of the past. We also save contemporary textiles for their beauty or their significance in our lives.
Unfortunately, textiles are among the most fragile of all artifacts. They are easily damaged by insects, mold, handling, and exposure to light, heat, and humidity. As with all art and artifacts, preservation begins with proper storage, whether the textiles are family heirlooms or part of collections in museums, historical societies, or archives.
The goal of this section is to provide the background information needed to select appropriate storage materials for textiles. If your collections are small and in good condition, this may be all the information you need. However, if you would like to know more about textiles and their preservation, look in the Further Readings section. If your collections are extensive, in poor condition, or have significant value, it would be advisable to consult a textile conservator. The American Institute for Conservation (conservation-us.org) provides a free referral service that will give you the names of textile conservators in your region.
This section reflects our current understanding of storage requirements for textiles. It will be revised as new information and products become available. Unless noted otherwise, all of the items illustrated in this section are available from Gaylord Archival. Click here to request a free Archival Catalog.
Before selecting storage materials, you should evaluate your collection for the types of fabrics, the sizes of the textiles, and their condition. It is also important to assess the storage space that you have available. Although flat storage is ideal for some textiles because it minimizes damaging folds, space constraints may limit the size of the boxes or storage systems that you select. For guidance on storage of a large or valuable collection, consult a textile conservator.
Many materials used for household storage will damage textiles, including regular tissue paper, cardboard, and wood. These materials are acidic and will hasten the deterioration of fabric, especially in historic textiles. Paper-based storage materials for your collection should be acid-free; other materials should be inert and have good aging properties.
Paper-based Products: Acid-free materials are either buffered (they contain a reserve of alkaline material) or unbuffered. Buffered papers and boards should be in contact only with textiles made of plant-based fibers, such as undyed cotton or linen. All other textiles and their dyes may be damaged by this contact and should be stored using unbuffered materials. If you are unsure of the fabric, or if there are mixed fibers and/or blends, choose unbuffered materials. In uncontrolled environments, paper and cardboard can also help to buffer changes in relative humidity.
Acid-free Tissue: Gaylord Archival acid-free tissue is a lightweight (.001 mil thick) paper that can be used to wrap textiles or pad three-dimensional forms. Buffered tissue has more body because it contains calcium carbonate, which is added as a buffer to give it a pH of 8.5. Abaca is an unbuffered tissue that is particularly soft and suitable for interleaving fragile silks or padding. Choose tissue according to the qualities suitable for your textiles (body vs. softness, surface texture) and the type of fabrics you will be storing.
Box Board: Acid-free boxes are recommended for storage of some textiles. Board can be solid (made of the same material through-out); laminated (sheets of heavy pressed fiber adhered together); or corrugated (one or more sheets of fluted paper glued between sheets of flat paper). Metal corners are used to reinforce solid board boxes; corrugated board is dimensionally stable and does not require this reinforcement.
Acid-free board can also be either buffered or unbuffered. Always line a box, whatever its material, with acid-free tissue before placing a textile inside.
Cloth: Undyed cotton fabric can be used in place of paper products. The fabric should be washed in a neutral detergent (not soap), then run through another cycle without detergent and dried. Cotton muslin is unsized and tightly woven, which makes it suitable for interleaving, outer wrappings, garment bags or coverings for padded hangers. Do not use muslin in contact with very fragile silks or other textiles that are easily abraded.
Synthetic Materials: Synthetic materials should be used with care for textile storage. Some of these materials are inert and may be used safely, but others will cause damage to the textiles. Wrapping or containing textiles in any plastic film or container can cause moisture condensation and promote mold growth and is not recommended. Dry cleaners' bags are particularly unsuitable for storage of textiles because they cause yellowing and damage to textiles.
Some materials can be safely used for padding or lining boxes. Polyethylene foam such as Volara® provides excellent drawer padding or box lining for accessories. Tyvek® is a spun-bonded olefin that is inert, pH neutral, non-abrasive and durable. It can be used to make garment bags or furniture covers. Polyester fiber batting can be used for padding; always use either needle-punched or heat-set batting, never resin-set. Always cover batting with muslin to prevent the textile from attracting polyester fibers.
Other synthetic materials can be used to seal unsuitable storage materials such as wood, preventing off gassing of acids and other volatile compounds. Marvelseal® and archival polyester are often used for this purpose. Isolate textiles from these materials with acid-free tissue to protect them from sharp edges, static, and soiling.
Because textile collections are so varied in size and scope, and individual items can be extremely fragile, it is important to follow strict guidelines when preparing your collection for storage.
Handling: When handling your collection, plan your actions so as to minimize movement of the textiles. Any flexing or strain causes damage to textiles, although it may not be immediately discernible. See Conservation Concerns for an excellent discussion on condition of textiles.
Textiles easily pick up soil and oils, so be sure hands and all surfaces are scrupulously clean. Cotton or latex gloves can be worn when handling textiles, but be sure to take them off when performing other activities to avoid picking up dirt. Replace gloves when they become soiled. Do not smoke, eat, drink, or use pens and markers near textiles. Remove jewelry and watches that might snag textiles.
Be sure your work surface is large enough to fully support your textiles. Place all textiles on acid-free tissue on the work surface, and use the tissue to rotate or move the textile. Support textiles on acid-free cardboard when moving them from one place to another. Larger, rolled textiles can be moved on their tubes.
Cleaning: Most textiles can be safely surface cleaned by vacuuming; do this before storing textiles and after removing them from display. For all but the most robust rugs or tapestries, vacuum the textile at low suction through an upholstery screen. If your vacuum does not have adjustable suction, use your fingers to keep the nozzle elevated slightly to reduce suction.
For wet or dry cleaning of historic or valuable textiles, consult a textile conservator. Cleaning is a delicate process that can cause substantial damage and should be performed by an experienced and trained conservator.
Modern christening gowns and other new textiles of cotton, linen, or synthetic blends in good condition may be carefully hand washed. Use a pure detergent (not soap, which causes yellowing) and distilled water. Modern wedding gowns or christening gowns should be cleaned immediately after wearing because soil and stains become more difficult to remove as they age. Most wedding gowns will require dry cleaning. Use a reputable dry cleaner and request fresh or filtered solvent.
Repair: If your textile or garment is new, a skilled seamstress may be able to make the required repairs. Historic or valuable textiles, however, should be examined by a conservator who has the experience and expertise to evaluate condition and recommend appropriate treatment. The American Institution for Conservation (conservation-us.org) offers a free referral service and will give you the names of textile conservators in your region.
Labeling: Identification information should be placed on the storage container so textiles are not unwrapped and handled needlessly. Boxes, tubes, or other supports can be labeled in pencil. Avoid the use of pens or markers around any textile. Sew-on tapes made of cotton twill can generally be used safely. Consult a textile conservator when establishing labeling procedures for an historic or valuable textile collection.
Before planning a storage installation, it is advisable to consult a textile conservator about configuration and materials. The size and type of furniture needed is determined by the type and number of textiles to be stored. Powder-coated steel storage cabinets are currently considered the best choice for textile storage. Wood and wood products, including cedar chests, are unsuitable for textile storage because they create an acidic environment. See Conservation Concerns for more details about wood and other materials. The NEDCC Preservation Manual also has excellent information about the choice of storage furniture.
If wood or otherwise unsuitable cabinetry must be used, it must be completely sealed on all interior surfaces with an appropriate barrier material or coating.
While a textile is in storage it should be protected from damage caused by exposure to light, dust, fluctuating or extreme temperatures and humidity, harmful storage materials, mold, insects, and animal pests.
Temperature & Relative Humidity: Textiles should be stored in an environment that is consistently cool and has a moderate humidity. Attics and basements are not suitable locations for storage of textiles because of their extremes of temperature and humidity. High temperatures speed deterioration and high humidity encourages insect and mold activity. Conversely, a low relative humidity contributes to the desiccation and embrittlement of fibers.
Cold storage is beneficial for textiles because deterioration is slowed and insects are less active. However, many storage areas have other uses and the climate also has to accommodate human comfort levels. The ideal climate is generally considered to be 65-70° F and 50% relative humidity with minimal fluctuations in both. For more detailed recommendations, see the publications in Further Reading.
If necessary, portable humidifiers or dehumidifiers can help maintain a stable RH so long as they are kept clean and are routinely monitored. This equipment must run 24 hours a day.
Light: Light is particularly damaging to textiles because it causes fading of dyes and deterioration of fibers. Its effects are cumulative and irreversible. Textiles should not be exposed to light while they are in storage; protect them with blackout covers or by storage in boxes or closed cabinets. When exposure to light is necessary for examination or display, filter all light sources to remove ultraviolet wavelengths and keep illumination levels as low as possible.
Recommendations for the exhibition and display of textiles are outside the scope of this section, but several of the publications in section 5 contain suggestions for minimizing the risk of exhibition.
Pest Management: There are two main types of insect pests, which can damage textiles: clothes moths (webbing or casemaking), and dermestids (carpet beetles). Wool is the preferred food for both of these pests, although they will eat other materials if they are soiled or to get to an attractive material. These insects prefer a warm, humid and dark environment. The best way to prevent infestation is to provide an inhospitable environment: keep textiles in a cool, dry location. Light exposure and air circulation resulting from periodic inspection will also discourage insects.
Vacuum your textiles before putting them in storage to remove particulate soil that can attract insects (see "Cleaning"). Do not use mothballs, moth flakes or other chemicals to prevent infestation; they are hazardous to your health and can harm your textiles. Cedar chests and herbal preventatives are generally ineffective.
Monitor your storage area for insect activity by placing sticky traps in strategic locations. Several of the references in this guide have more information on pest monitoring. If you find evidence of insect activity in your traps or in your collection, isolate any affected textiles in a polyethylene bag and consult a textile conservator.
Rodents can also damage textiles; they don't eat the fabrics, but will shred them to make nests. Protect your collection by storing it securely in boxes or cabinets, and monitor rodent activity with appropriate sticky traps.
Selecting specific interleaving paper, boxes, cloth, and storage systems requires care. Physical condition, size of collection, anticipated use, and budget all play a part. The second half of this section presents several case studies to show how products available from Gaylord Archival can be used to store a range of textiles.
Flat storage for small flat textiles such as embroideries and handkerchiefs is ideal because it places no strain on the object. Whenever possible, select a box or drawer large enough to store the textile without folding.
A. Storing a single textile in a box
B. Storing more than one textile in a box
If space constraints make it impossible to store only one textile in a box, follow steps A1–3 above, placing the heaviest item on the bottom. Place acid-free tissue between each item and fold the lining material over the top textile.
C. Storing fragile textiles
Small, very fragile textiles such as archaeological fragments should be protected by a special storage mount. This mount consists of a piece of acid-free board covered with polyester felt and washed cotton fabric, with a window mat hinged to one side of the support board. The mat should be larger than the textile and made of material that is thicker than the textile. The textile is placed on a piece of acid-free tissue on the mount, and covered with another piece of tissue before the mat is closed. These mounts can be stacked inside a box or drawer.
Rolled storage is generally the best method for large flat textiles such as quilts, carpets, shawls, and table linens because it prevents creasing and provides complete support. Painted textiles such as flags should be stored flat whenever possible; they should never be stored folded in a box. Folded storage in a box or drawer may be necessary for some textiles because they are not flat enough to roll, or they have bulky surface decoration.
A. Rolled storage
Garments present challenges for storage because they are three-dimensional. Storage in boxes or drawers avoids the strain of hanging storage, but results in creasing of the garment. In general, if a costume is suitable for hanging this is the preferred method. Costumes that are unsuitable include those in poor condition, those with heavy beading or other decoration, garments cut on the bias, and any garment that is weak or insubstantial in the shoulder area. However, we recommend that you consult a textile conservator before storing a collection of valuable, historic costumes.
Costumes that are hung for storage should always be on padded hangers. A hanger with a wide shoulder can be covered with polyester felt or batting and then with washed cotton fabric or stockinette. Additional support can be added in the form of twill tapes stitched into waistbands or other strategic locations and then tied to the neck of the hanger. Some skirts and pants can be stored hanging using commercial skirt hangers padded with muslin-covered batting. Garments can be further protected from dust and light by covering with a cotton muslin or Tyvek® garment bag. Do not crowd hanging garments, as this can cause creasing.
More information on hanging storage and directions for making padded hangers and garment bags can be found in Preserving Textiles, Caring for Your Collections and CCI Note 13/5 "Hanging Storage for Costumes."
Costume accessories can be composites of various materials, including plastics, so it is best to select an unbuffered tissue to isolate and wrap individual items. The boxes may be buffered or unbuffered, but should always be lined with acid-free tissue or washed cotton fabric.
Unless a collection is in constant use, most fans should be wrapped in acid-free tissue and stored in partitioned archival boxes. Consult a textile conservator if the fan is fragile or has painted decoration.
Store gloves flat in archival boxes, interleaved with acid-free tissue.
Shoes can be stored in archival boxes, on shelves or in drawers. Pad them with archival tissue for support. Delicate or fragile shoes should have a padding designed by a textile conservator. Store shoes upright; taller shoes and boots can be stored on their sides. If a shoe has ribbons or flaps that are unsupported, they can be secured with loose twill tape ties.
Hats can be stored in archival boxes or in cabinets. The hat should be supported so that it does not rest on its brim and the weight of the hat is not borne by the crown; there are several possible methods of providing support. The hat can be padded with acid-free tissue, or a support can be made from acid-free corrugated board or some other archival material, padded with polyester batting, and covered with acid-free tissue. In general, cotton fabric is not suitable for padding or wrapping historic hats.
Handbags can be constructed of cloth, tapestry or other fabric. They can also be a combination of leather and fabric. Many handbags are made of synthetic materials—from bakelite to vinyl—or other natural materials such as straw, wicker, or tortoise shell. Loosely stuff the hand-bag with acid-free tissue to retain its shape. If the handbag has exterior decorations, such as shells, beads, or sequins, it should be gently wrapped in acid-free tissue to prevent any snagging or accidental loss. An individual archival box or an archival storage carton with trays and compartments for individual bags is recommended. Be sure to line the compartment with acid-free tissue.
While jewelry is technically not a fabric or textile, it often accompanies a costume and is therefore appropriate to discuss here. Jewelry can be placed in small artifact boxes or in divided trays or cartons. Wrap each piece individually in acid-free tissue or, to be able to see the piece without handling it, you may also use padding covered with acid-free tissue to create a well for the object. Do not place jewelry in loose batting that can get caught in the prongs or tangled between the gemstones and settings. Silver jewelry can be stored in a pouch made of Pacific Silvercloth to prevent tarnishing.