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Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 11: Clothing

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While those of us in the conservation department grapple with the many challenges facing our society, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. We understand that like us, many of you may be turning to your family treasures for comfort during these trying times. Thus, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections and assure you that we are here to support you and the collections that you hold dear. 

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 week’s post focuses on fashion memorabilia and was written by Katie Rovito, a rising second-year Fellow in Paintings Conservation, and Nylah Byrd, a rising second-year student in Objects Conservation with a minor in Library and Archives Conservation. In the Department of Art Conservation, we are committed to uplifting black voices, like Nylah's. In that vein, this week's blog begins with a special note from Nylah on how she takes care of one of her favorite fashion accessories, her bows.

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​Bows from the collections of rising second-year Fellow in Paintings Conservation, Nylah Byrd, and her behind-the-door storage.

"My name is Nylah Byrd, and I wear a bow in my hair every day. I started wearing bows over 10 years ago now, and I have definitely worn some out. Over these 10 years, bows have become more than an accessory, but a symbol that is part of my identity. I store them hanging on the back of my door, where they don’t get much light exposure. The first bow I wore is sadly retired, but still in my possession. A protective enclosure to prevent dust and debris from accumulating would aid in preserving the bow long term. I hope to one day be able to pass down the first bow I wore to my child as a reminder of the little things in life that can represent so much more."

Clothing 

Whether it’s your grandmother’s gown or your child’s Halloween costume, there are certain things we especially want to keep as memorabilia or preserve for future generations to wear again one day. If you’re spending some quality quarantine time cleaning out your closet, it might be helpful to learn about how museums care for their fashion collections, and we have some recommendations for how you can preserve and care for your treasured garments.

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​Many dyes rapidly fade in the light. The dark pink areas of this shirt were protected from light damage and retained their color more so than the areas exposed to light. (Image courtesy of Winterthur.)

Storage Monitoring

Whether at home or in a museum, It’s important to make sure the storage room is accessible enough for regular inspection of the space to monitor the environment and make sure no pests are making a meal out of the textiles. It’s ideal to have related systems like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning regularly inspected as well, to ensure they don’t create problems in the storage space. The temperature, relative humidity, and light levels should remain at an acceptable level for the collections, and fluctuations in temperature and RH should be minimized. Museums often employ draught proofing, thermal insulation, and multiple layers of glass in windows help to reduce temperature and relative humidity fluctuations. These layers of glass also help regulate light exposure, and UV protective coatings are often used on windows to minimize UV light from entering the collection.

​Materials

Now that our room’s environment is well set, let’s talk about the materials that house the textiles. Acidic degradation is something to consider when choosing your storage materials. Wood, tissue paper, and cardboard become more acidic as they age and can damage your clothes. Institutional collections make sure to use conservation-quality materials like archival board, paper, and tissue that are pH neutral and acid free. Unbleached cotton and muslin are used to make dust covers, wraps, and slings for the objects. To pad folds or hangers, polyester fabrics (e.g. stockinette), polyester batting, and polyethylene foam are used. 

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​There are a variety of tools that can be used for dry cleaning textiles. (Image courtesy of Katie Rovito.) 

​It’s important to only use tissue and boxes labeled as unbuffered and acid-free. Clean cotton fabrics like muslin or bed sheets are naturally acid-free and are excellent choices to use as interleaving fabrics and liners for boxes and drawers.  

Cleaning

At home, you might want to give your clothes a light dusting before packing them up for long-term storage. Dust particles can attract moisture and encourage mold growth as well as get in between fibers and become harder to remove over time. To remove some of this dust, we recommend vacuuming the fabric through a screen with the vacuum set to a low suction. This is a common practice in museum textile collection care.

​Flat Storage

Ideally, textiles fare best when they are stored flat with as few folds as possible. In a museum setting, flat storage involves storing the textiles in boxes or folio enclosures. If the object must be folded, the folds are padded in order to avoid forming creases in the object over time which could result in loss of structural stability along the crease lines. Additional mount structures can be built into a box if a textile needs added support. When using box storage, consideration must be taken to how the object will be handled, especially if it needs to be removed from the box or folio. This is where a sling comes in handy. A piece of unbleached cotton or muslin that wraps around the textile can be used to lift the textile out of its enclosure to minimize handling of the object.

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​Katie’s mom’s girl scout uniform getting ready for flat storage. (Image courtesy of Katie Rovito.)

At home, we recommend padding the folds with plenty of acid-free tissue or pre-washed cotton fabric. Place your folded textile in a box or drawer lined with that tissue or cotton. If you are going to put multiple pieces in the same box, interleave a barrier between them such as tissue paper or undyed cotton. If you can, limit the number of stacked garments, as the weight could cause unnecessary stress and creasing.

A note on bugs and cedar: Your protein-rich wool sweaters or silk gowns can be a tempting snack for the larvae of certain species of beetles and moths. Many families, ours included, store their textiles in cedar wood chests or closets to keep bugs out. Our ancestors have long been aware of the bug-repelling properties in the scent of cedar. While it is true that bugs aren’t fans of cedar, this property fades over time, and there are some inherent risks. Museums typically avoid wood storage because wood off-gasses acidic pollutants that can accelerate fiber degradation. If you store valuable clothes in cedar, we recommend lining the interior with cotton muslin or a clean cotton sheet to limit direct contact with the wood. The best defense against a pest infestation is a cool, dry environment, and regular monitoring for signs of bugs.

​Hanging Storage

While flat storage is ideal, you may want to hang some of your stronger, more stable garments to save space. Costumes with heavy decoration, fabrics that were cut on a bias, or any garment that might be weak in the shoulder area can be damaged from hanging storage. Museums use padded hangers to support the textile. Sometimes a more robust mount is constructed to provide the garment with support where it would normally be on the human figure. The hung objects are stored in fabric closets or given dust covers to prevent dust accumulation. 

If you’re planning to hang clothes for long-term storage, there are a few things to keep in mind. Corrosion on metal hangers can get into your fibers. Instead, opt for padded hangers with inert materials. The padding also helps to reduce the stress in the shoulders. For bonus points and extra protection from dust and abrasion, you can cover your hanging garments with a bag made from clean cotton fabric or Tyvek – a synthetic, pH neutral material.

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​Layers of a padded hanger. (Image courtesy of Winterthur.)

Labeling

Don’t forget to label your storage containers! Besides being convenient for your future self, labels help prevent unnecessary handling and moving when you’re searching for something. Museum staff often add photos to the outside of storage containers in addition to object number labels so the stored objects can be readily identified.  

Find Out More!

Storage Monitoring 

Cleaning

Flat Storage

Hanging Storage

Storing Accessories

Ask a Conservator

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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 art-conservation@udel.edu. The previous posts in this series are available on the Department of Art Conservation website here.

You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we face many challenges. 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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