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News Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 9: Small Needleworks

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While those of us in the conservation department are working from home, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. Like so many around the country, we are finally taking the time to clean out our closets, sort through our attics, and look through our family albums. While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.

Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. This post in the Family Treasures series looks at caring for small needleworks in museums and home collections and was written as part of the First-Year Textile Conservation Block. This post was written by Kris Cnossen, a rising second-year textile major and Magdalena Solano, a rising second-year paintings major.

Small Needleworks 

Needleworks are, by design, things of beauty and significance conveying a specific meaning or telling a story through their creation and design. They are anything created through the use of a needle, such as embroidery, crochet, tatting, and lace making.

​Needlework is a broad category that includes embroidery, needlepoint, and lace. Keen, Sarah. Framed lace sampler. 1762. Linen. 1958.2013. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library.

One big difference between the care of small needleworks within a museum and those within a home is that museums often have to consider the wellbeing of an entire collection and may not have the resources to focus staff attention on individual textiles. Needleworks within family collections have the advantage of individualized care.

The proper care begins with thorough examination. It is necessary to carefully examine a needlework for any damages, loose threads, fading, or dye transfer. Always include examination of the area where the needlework had been stored to ensure that there has not been any pest activity. Knowing what materials were used to make the needlework may guide what type of deterioration may take place and help you prepare an appropriate approach in caring for your textiles. 

When storing and displaying needleworks in either a museum or at home, the major concerns regarding care and preservation are light, dust, temperature, relative humidity (RH) and pests. 

​Needlework may be framed or found on an object of use. Framed needlework sampler. 1800 - 1825. Silk and cotton. 1959.0993. Gift of Henry Francis du Pont. Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library.


Light can drastically fade colorants, which is especially important for a needlework, where the color of the thread or yarn often conveys the design and imbues it with intended significance.


Dust causes needleworks to look dirty and dull and, if left for too long, will become ingrained and difficult to remove. Periodic dusting, using a soft bristle brush and brushing dust into the hose of a vacuum, can prevent the need for further cleaning intervention. (See Cleaning below)

Temperature and Relative Humidity (RH)

Fluctuating temperature and RH will cause needleworks to become weak and brittle over time. To avoid damaging temperatures and RH, strive to establish a stable environment without quick or drastic changes in the temperature or RH. 

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) 

IPM is the system-wide prevention of damage due to pests (such as moths, rodents, carpet beetles, and silverfish) through monitoring and cleaning. Please refer to this Caring for Your Family Treasures posting for more information about IPM. Needleworks are at risk of damage from web-enclosed and clothing moths, as well as from carpet beetle larvae and silverfish. The best way to protect needleworks from these pests is by keeping storage and display areas clean, monitoring and using unbaited sticky traps, and examining the needleworks for condition changes.

​Left: Needlework can be integrated into 3D textiles, such as this contemporary needlepoint pillow with a silk/wool blend thread. (Image Courtesy of Bellie Camp.) Right: Wool, such as that used to in this crewelwork, is particularly tempting to dermestids, such as carpet beetle larvae. (Image courtesy of Kris Cnossen.)


Needleworks in museums are often stored in acid-free boxes after being loosely wrapped in pre-washed, undyed muslin, and then the boxes are placed in the dark with covers that protect the objects from dust. When storing needleworks in your home, prewashed, undyed fabrics, such as white sheets and pillowcases can stand in for muslin. Regular cardboard and wood boxes, and even cedar chests, are acidic and can cause deterioration. If storing your needleworks in these materials, avoid contact between the textile and the box by using linings of sheets or muslin. Small needleworks can be stored flat using these guidelines from CCI. In the home, it is best to store needleworks in areas without major fluctuations in the environment (not in an attic!). Basements can also be problematic because of the threat of water damage. If you don’t like to go somewhere - your textile might not like to go there either. 


During display, the threat of fading from light or becoming dirty from dust is in the forefront of discussions when planning for exhibition in museums. Staff and conservators have procedures for protecting needleworks on display that include careful cleaning, mounting onto archival supports and behind glass or acrylic glazing to protect from dust, controlling light levels, and rotating works on display during the exhibition to avoid too much light exposure.  Similar to these guidelines for museums, important textiles in your collection should not receive direct sunlight as this will cause fading and discoloration. Try to close blinds or limit light exposure in rooms where important needleworks are displayed. They should also not be displayed with fluctuating temperature and relative humidity as is often found above radiators and fireplaces. 

Mounting and framing needleworks may allow for the best presentation; however, it is important to know how to safely mount and frame these works in order not to cause further unnecessary damage to them. In general, avoid acidic boards and metal tacks or staples for mounting your flat textiles; instead consider archival mounting boards and using stitching for mounting. For more on this topic, read this publication by the Canadian Conservation Institute.


You may find that your needlework needs additional care. In most cases, a light vacuuming or dusting will suffice.  For methods on how to safely mechanically clean your embroidery without causing stress or damage, check out this publication by the Canadian Conservation Institute.Wet cleaning should be completed with extreme caution and only if necessary. For delicate, fragile, or important pieces in your collection, you should consult a textile conservator or a professional dry cleaner, who may be able to complete this step without harming your needlework. If you decide wet cleaning could be safely completed in your own home, consider these tips:

  • Test the dye sensitivity of each thread to avoid dye bleed during a wet cleaning. 

This can be done using a damp cotton swab pressed against each colored thread. The risk associated with this approach could be dye bleeding if not done carefully. A more interventive approach would be to carefully cut off a piece of thread at the end of a design and press the thread between two wet paper towels. Although the removal of material is seldom practiced in museums, this approach is sometimes used to avoid dye bleeding that can occur in the first approach.

  • Hand wash with mild detergents and cold distilled water
  • Never wring out your needlework after washing
  • Do not use a machine for drying, instead dry your needlework flat

Even with these precautions, cleaning needleworks (especially embroideries) can be a very delicate task. We wish you all the best with caring for your needlework at home! If you are ever unsure, consult a conservator.

We hope you are enjoying these entries in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. This series will continue throughout the summer and cover a variety of items and materials. If you have any comments on the series thus far, including materials you’d like to see covered in future posts, please email us at

You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we focus on saving lives. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.

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This week's post looks at caring for small works created through the use of a needle such as embroidery, crochet, tatting, and lace making.

​This week's post looks at caring for small works created through the use of a needle such as embroidery, crochet, tatting, and lace making.

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