Preserving the Your Heirloom Textiles

According to Webster’s dictionary an heirloom is a valuable object that is owned by a family for many years and passed from one generation to another. Early English law defined such valuables as part of an estate which could not be disposed of, but were willed to the heirs. Today we continue this tradition and place high value on items that have been pasted down to us. Items in the top 10 list of most valued heirlooms, includes many personal items, and high on that list are quilts.

The Top 10 Heirlooms That Family’s ValueQuilt1
#10 Musical Instruments
#9  Clocks and Timepieces
#8  Recipes
#7  Photographs
#6  Letters and Diaries
#5  Weapons/Guns
#4  Quilts
#3  Furniture/Household Items
#2  Stories
#1  Jewelry

Quilt2Quilts are well known treasures among families, often considered an American folk art form. Quilting today remains a hugely popular pastime.  Wonderful heirloom quilts that used to be common flea market fair are now gracing the walls of art galleries across the country. That crazy quilt your grandmother used to drape across the back of her sofa is a treasure with its vivid velvets and decorative stitches and is the stuff of family memories.

The heirloom items that come in direct contact with the body carry a special place in our memories. It creates an almost intimate connection with another person.  If that person is dear to you, the object has enormous value apart from its monetary worth. So it would then follow that jewelry, apparel and other personal textile items are of great value, as we often feel closer to those who wore, touched and cared for them.

Do I have Heirloom textiles worth saving? Many people keep wedding dresses, christening garments and other household items for sentimental reasons. Often people invest in or collect fine old pieces that increase in value over the years. Family textile heirlooms represent a family over a period of time. This means that individual family members are caretakers of the textiles, preserving them for the enjoyment of future generations. The care and giving of heirlooms thus becomes symbolic of the love and continuity of the family. Textiles tell a story.

Quilt3This 1975 wool knit jersey was donated to the collection at Pierpont from the family of Olive Huff, owner of the Colony Shop formerly on Locust Avenue. Olive was proud to own a dress that was also worn by first lady Betty Ford, as seen on the cover of Lady’s Home Journal during her husband’s presidency. This dress has a great story and is the kind of item that is cared for and preserved for others to see and appreciate over the years.

When we become the caretakers of the family textile items, as the caretaker we should prepare the item for the next caretaker. WE need to contribute to the history what we know about the item. Who in your family owned this item? How far back can you trace it? It’s now your job to preserve the history and the item. Making good decisions about care and preservation will ensure the next generation will have the pleasure of knowing this part of the family history.

Quilt4If little is known about the garment, an attempt to generally place the garment or quilt into a period or decade is a good place to begin.  Garments must be carefully scrutinized for evidence of period, free of “add-ons” and alternations. For apparel, determine general silhouette of skirt, bodice and sleeve and make an “educated” guess of the date for a place to begin. Next, use visual references to confirm item details and establish a circa date; meaning around, about, or approximately that date. This is expressed as “c. 1900”. This may not be exact, but any information you can provide is important to the next owner in the family tree. There are great resources available on line, and at the local public library, or your local textile expert at your college, extension service or historical society.

Two of the most common fibers for vintage apparel and household items are cotton and linen (or Flax). These fibers are “cellulosic” in nature, coming from plants as the flower/fruit in cotton, and the stems from the flax plant. Common damage to these fibers is the attack of molds and mildew that feed on the organic materials. Flax is a more brittle fiber that shows with age as breakage or abrasion on fold lines and edges. Linen items should be rolled or hung and “refolded” periodically to refresh the fold lines. Quilts benefit from this practice too. Consider folding in quarters on the even years, then refold in thirds, on the odd years, so folds do not strike a memory after years of storage.

The other two most other common fibers found in vintage apparel and household items are wool and silk. These fibers are “protein” in nature, coming from “living” sources: animals and the silkworm. Common damage to these fibers is the attack of insects, primarily moths in wool. In the early days of imported silk used for dresses, it was routinely “weighted” with mineral salts that contribute to the break down the fiber over time. Black silk is notorious for “shattering” in a ribbon effect with age.

Quilt5In the early days of the twentieth century new man-made fibers began to appear. Rayon was used in machine made lace as early as 1909. Rayon became a popular fashion fabric after 1928, referred to as “artificial silk”, because of its soft and silky look and feel. Rayon’s inherit flaw was its weakness and low strength during washing. It was seldom used for household items due to its lack of wash-ability. It flourished as fashionable dresses that could be carefully hand-washed. After 1940 Nylon appeared, followed by Polyester in the 1960s.

Quilt6Over the years, causes of deterioration may be from ordinary wear and tear, environment, light, temperature, humidity, pests, chemical interaction from dyes and finishes, and even pollution. Natural textiles are inherently unstable so care must be taken to avoid compromising situations including extreme changes in temperature and any contact with moisture.

Unique characteristics of each fiber category will often determine which care procedures are most appropriate for heirloom textiles. Historic preservation and storage requires clean, dry, protected storage in an appropriate manner. Apparel should be cleaned if possible, and then stored according to the condition of the piece. Some garments may be hung on padded hangers in cloth bags, in a protected (moth-free and dry) closet. Fragile garments should be gently folded and placed in archival plastic or acid-free boxes with unbleached cotton muslin and/or acid-free tissue paper.  Some textile items may be rolled and stored.

Cleaning removes harmful substances which attract insects and microorganisms, or cause chemical damage to the fabric. As determined by the fiber content and condition of the item, textiles can be cleaned in the following ways:  vacuuming, wet cleaning, dry cleaning, or spot cleaning. Also a good dose of fresh air and sunshine helps to control molds and mildew.

Remember the 3 “R” of preservation:  Repair first, then restore, and only replace, if necessary!

Quilt7Boxes should not be over filled, but allow room so the garment/s will not be crushed. Opening and refolding over the years is a good idea. Consider displaying the garment occasionally for yours and the your family’s enjoyment.  Archival plastic boxes are made from corrugated polypropylene (such as Coroplast®).  They do not contain additives and do not re-acidify over time from contact with contents or storage surface, so they are a good long-term investment. They are more pest proof, they provide some water resistance, and they can protect the items inside from even smoke and soot.

Quilt8Plastic containers are made in a wide variety of shapes and sizes for consumers from such companies as Rubbermaid and Sterilite which are commonly made of polypropylene. These are approved for archival storage.

Archival cardboard boxes come in a variety of materials and colors, both corrugated and not. The best ones for textile storage are acid free and lignin free. Archival cardboard boxes come fully assembled or flat packed to save space and shipping costs. They either have a full or   shallow lid.

Quilt9Most are buffered to a pH of 8.5, which re-acidify slowly depending on the environment. Because they are made of an organic material, cardboard boxes are less pest proof, are susceptible to moisture, are hard to clean once soiled, and are more easily crushed.  Acid-free un-buffered tissue paper can be purchased at archival suppliers. It is more costly than gift wrap tissue, but a better choice for heirloom storage.  An additional choice is Remay/Tyvek, a non-woven sheeting made from polypropylene. This is an approved wrapping cloth used by museums.

Storing wool and silk items in older archival boxes and cotton or linen textiles in newer or archival plastic boxes, is recommended. The naturally acidic pH of wool and silk make them less susceptible to mildly acidic storage conditions present in cardboard archival boxes. Use unbleached muslin (cotton sheeting) as a wrap for fragile items. A clean, white cotton pillowcase makes a good cover for quilts.

Large items like tapestries or coverlets can be rolled. Cotton sheeting and/or cotton padding can be used as a cushioning layer when the cloth is rolled.  Small items can be carefully displayed in shadow box frames, best covered with UV protective glass.  Quilts can be hung on quilt racks, but should be re-arranged and refolded periodically to prevent stress on folds. Do not place in sunny window area.

Quilt10Never hang antique quilts.  Although you may love to display by hanging, this places undue stress on fragile fabrics and seams. Give your antique quilts the guest room treatment!  Display quilts in seldom used bedrooms (no pets please!) for a luxury display. You can also fold gently and place across the foot of the bed, which makes a nice display with the least amount of stress. Hanging and draping from rails, and cabinets is also not recommended for antique quilts. Purchase new machine made quilts for decorative hanging and daily use.

The Association of Library Collections and Technical Services, a Division of the American Library Association is working to promote the preservation of our personal and shared collections.

Pass it on…

  • Handle With a Clean, Gentle Touch. Protect your treasures from dust, dirt, oil, food and other hazards by handling carefully, with clean hands.
  • Store Safely in Stable Conditions. Protect your treasures from light, harsh temperatures and humidity. Learn what storage options are right for your collections.
  • Foresee and Avoid Possible Risks. Access display and storage surroundings for potential problems like water, pests, molds, and breakage. Relocate your treasures or take other measures (for example, put items in protective containers) to reduce risks.
  • Make a Duplicate. Copy treasures like photograph, newspapers, and letters when possible and appropriate. Store the original safely and use the copy. Digital copies allow the treasure to be easily shared. But remember, digital items need preservation too.
  • Ask a Professional. Seek professional advice before trying at-home repairs or cleaning treasures yourself.
  • Visit Your Library. Consult your librarian for great resources and additional tips on how to preserve your treasures.
  • Share your treasures with your family and community. Your heritage is their heritage.

    Beth Newcome, PhD

    Beth Newcome, PhD

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