How do I store antique textiles at home?

General Procedures

The storage area should be clean, cool, dry, dark, and as free as possible from drastic changes in temperature and humidity, thus ruling out the basement or attic. It is also best to set aside one drawer or chest of drawers just for the storage of family heirlooms.

Specific Suggestions

1. Textiles should be stored as clean as possible because dust particles can actually cut fibers through friction and abrasion. Colorfast and washable items should be washed and stored unironed, unstarched and unblued. (Information on wet cleaning cottons and linens, quilts and coverlets, and samplers is available upon written request.)

An item that cannot be cleaned in any other way should, if possible, be vacuumed. Loose soil and dust can be removed by placing the textile on a flat surface, placing a piece of fiberglass screening between the textile and vacuum cleaner head, and then vacuuming with a weak-suction hand vacuum cleaner.

  • CAUTION: Textiles, such as samplers, painted and embroidered pictures, and beaded work should not be vacuumed, as embroidery yarns and beads can be drawn through the screening.

2. It is preferable to store textiles flat, subject to minimum abrasion, folding, and pressure. If folding is necessary, avoid sharp folds by padding at the points of folds with strips of washed unbleached muslin or old sheets.

For maximum preservation, antique textiles, especially cottons and linens, should have no direct contact with wood, blue tissue, regular tissue, or other wrapping paper. Most paper tends to be acidic; acid is especially damaging to textiles. Instead, textiles can be wrapped in clean, white cotton cloth, such as an old sheet or pillowcase, or in muslin. Because textile fibers need to be in an environment where there is some air movement, fabrics should not be sealed in air-tight plastic bags or containers to prevent damage from moisture condensation. Also, because some plastics give off fumes as they decompose with age, they should not come in direct contact with antique textiles. After wrapping the textiles in cotton muslin or sheeting, they can be loosely encased in an unsealed plastic wrapping. The best place to store antique fabrics is on top in a drawer. Storing them at the bottom of a drawer under heavy items can cause sharp folds, which may be difficult to remove and which may cause splits in the cloth.

Fragile fabrics (which may be light or heavy in weight), likely to wear thin along folds, should be rolled over cloth-covered cardboard tubes (mailing tubes are good; even paper towel tubes can be used for small items). The greatest care must be taken to avoid creasing the fabric in the process of rolling it because creases can split fragile cloth as cleanly as a knife can. Rolling too tight could also be harmful; proper tension can be maintained if rolling is done on a table or other flat surface that is at least as wide as the cloth and that has been cleared for this purpose. The cloth should rest flat and smooth on the table. As the roller glides along, it picks up the cloth as it moves away from the individual(s) doing the rolling. Painted textiles should not be rolled or folded; such treatment can cause the painted surface to crack.

3. Stored textiles should not be exposed to the light because the natural cellulose fibers (cotton and linen) and animal fibers (silk and wool), of which most antique textiles are made, are damaged by the sun's and indoor fixtures' light rays.

4. Air conditioning in which the temperature is in the 65-70°F (18-21°C) range and the relative humidity is between 40% and 50% is ideal for textile storage. With these conditions, excessive drying is avoided and mold and mildew growth caused by excess moisture are discouraged.

5. Mildew and moths can be discouraged in temperate climates by keeping fabrics and their storage places perfectly clean, dry, cool, and regularly aired and inspected.

6. Textiles should be removed from storage periodically and aired. If the item has been folded, care should be taken to refold it, changing the position of the folds so that the same fibers are not subjected to the tension of folding, which can cause fiber breakage over a long period of time.

Tapestries and Rugs

Avoid folding tapestries and rugs. If a fold is ever necessary, it should be made in the direction that is most natural for the textile, usually parallel to the weft (perpendicular to the selvages).

In rolling a tapestry, the pole over which it is rolled should extend beyond the ends of the tapestry. Be certain that no creases are rolled into the textile. Never use a metal pole or pipe as the base for rolling a tapestry. Metal can cause serious damage to natural fibers and can also stain them.

Before storing a tapestry, carefully remove any metal rings, hooks, or other fastenings. If a lined tapestry is to be stored over a long period of time and it has a good backing, which the owner wishes to retain, it might be wise to loosen the backing around the sides and bottom edge of the textile so both layers can be rolled without creases forming on the back.

Costume Items

It is recommended that all costumes and their accessories be stored flat. If folding is necessary, besides following the applicable general procedures, garments should be folded following natural body lines or seamlines, such as waistline, armholes, etc.

Sleeves should be folded carefully across the bodice front. Sleeves, shoulders, and other parts may need to be lightly padded with soft cotton cloth to keep such parts smooth.

It is especially important that costume items stored flat are not crushed by heavier textiles stored on top of them. If they must be stored on hangers, the hangers should be well-padded and the garments should not be stored in a closet in which they are crushed by other garments. If the garment's upper part, especially the shoulder area, is not sturdy, it should not be stored on a hanger.

  • NOTE: This general information is provided in good faith, but without reference to or examination of a particular object, the Smithsonian Institution disclaims responsibility for the possible ill-effects of applying the process to an object.

Prepared by the Division of Textiles in cooperation with the Smithsonian's Public Inquiry Services

Smithsonian Information
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