Textile Conservation Tips and Suggestions

Antique Clothing and Antique Textile Conservation

The Work Environment

  • Regularly clean the work environment, equipment, tools and storage boxes by dusting and vacuuming.    
  • Store textiles in an environment where the temperature maintains consistent levels without major fluctuations.  Fluctuations will cause expanding and contracting of fibers, which leads to weakening and damage.  Heat is a major cause of damage, store textiles in cooler temperatures.  The Smithsonian Institution museums aims to store textiles at a temperature of seventy degrees Fahrenheit with mild fluctuations of only four degrees.   
  • Too much humidity or dryness can cause deterioration.  The Smithsonian Institution museums aim to store textiles at forty five percent relative humidity with a fluctuation ranging between eight percent plus or minus.  Avoid unfinished basements and attics without temperature and humidity control. 
  • Ultraviolet and infrared light from will damage, weaken and discolor fibers.   It is ideal to store textiles in darkness and minimize light exposure while handling or displaying textile objects.  Use blackout curtains and light filters to protect against UV exposure, and limit display time to 3 months (or less in the case of particularly fragile objects).  


Handling Textiles

  • Before handling textiles clean hands with unscented soaps, avoid lotions and hand sanitizer, and use white cotton or nitrile gloves.
  • Avoid wearing bulky clothing or jewelry that could snag threads.
  • Use pencils rather than pens when near textiles.
  • Before transferring textiles prepare the area where they will lay. 
  • Lay the textile down flat on an acid free board to transport it.
  • Keep food, drinks, water, gum, candy and/or smoking out of the work area.
  • Limit the number of people in the work area to those who need to be there.


Cleaning Textiles

  • To vacuum textiles; start by laying the textile flat on a clean acid free board.  Place a nonmetallic window screen or fiberglass screen (tape all sharp edges) over the textile.  Use a lightweight hand vacuum on the lowest setting to vacuum foreign debris.  It is advisable to vacuum both sides of the textile.  Do not vacuum textiles with beads, loose threads, shattering, embroidery, paint or those that are extremely delicate.
  • Only clean antique textiles when it is absolutely necessary, and only attempt to wash strong textiles made of cotton or linen. Silk and wool should not be exposed to water, and should only be cleaned by a trained conservator. Test on an inside seam or on a part of the garment that is hidden to be sure the dye does not bleed.  De-ionized or distilled water is advisable, softened water is acceptable if de-ionized or distilled water is not available.  Do not use hard water, commercial detergents or dry-cleaning services.  Lay textiles flat and placed between two screens or wrapped in netting for support.  Pour the water in a container large enough for the textile to lay flat in.  It is not advisable to submerge textiles for longer than an hour.  Wet fibers are weak, do not rub them or handle excessively until dry.  Not all stains are removable.  Dry in a well ventilated area by laying the textile on a flat acid free surface.  Do not use heat to dry.
  • Steaming and ironing should be avoided.  If absolutely necessary take extreme caution.   Heat and steam may damage the fibers and lock in dirt - make sure the textile is clean first.


Storing Textiles
  • Store textiles in acid free boxes or wrapped in clean, unbleached cotton muslin to protect from dust.  Never store textiles long term in airtight plastic. Let textiles breathe and allow air to circulate.  Never store textiles in wood without a barrier, even cedar, as wood is acidic and will disintegrate fibers. Archival mylar provides a non-poroous barrier if textiles must be stored or displayed in direct contact with wood or metal.
  • Tissue paper can become acidic with time and cause yellowing and brittleness of textile objects.  Use acid-free tissue paper that is buffered to an alkaline pH for cotton or linen (plant fibers).  Use un-buffered tissue paper for silk or wool (animal fibers). 
  • Lay textiles flat with as few folds as possible with no weight or pressure put on folds.  Do not allow sharp folds.  Fill out any folds with acid free tissue. 
  • Avoid hanging, when necessary.  Use padded hangers no wider than the width of the shoulders of the garment. 
  • If displayed on a dress form or mannequin, fill out the garment(s) with acid free tissue or underpinnings to give the proper support.
  • It is advisable to roll flat textiles over acid free tubes and cover in muslin to protect from dust.
  • Periodically inspect stored textiles for creases and damage caused by folds, wrinkles, dust, insects or mold.
  • Do not subject textiles to airborne chemicals like smoke, mothballs or air fresheners.


Sarah Elizabeth Gallery is pleased to share information regarding conservation, however we accept no responsibility or liability for the use or misuse of any tips or suggestions.