Let’s Play Dress Up….

We all played ‘dress-up,’ as kids. Maybe you dressed up as your favourite superhero? Or maybe you would wear your Mum’s clothes and pretend to be her? Many of the clothes we dressed up in would have been hand me downs from generations ago. Even from our grandparents days.

A lot of people now, myself included, remember some of the costumes that we dressed up in. A lot of us also wish we had taken better care of these costumes (myself included!). We wish that our mothers and fathers had carefully preserved them so that we might wear them or our children may use them. Sadly, many of them did not. And now many of us are interested in preserving the old costumes we did dress up in after working with textiles in museums.

I know that I am definitely one of these people, I have clothes from my Nanny (and her 1950’s wedding dress)that I have preserved in acid free tissue paper. Though, these dresses are more for my own use in the present time as I am a Vintage clothing & lifestyle fanatic (or obsessive would be a better word for it). Below, I have compiled a ‘How To’ of storing old textiles which can be used professionally as well as personally.

The document is a work in progress as I am compiling it for my current job. However, I hope it shall be useful!

Before you begin to handle any type of textile, albeit clothing or a tapestry- you need to be equipped. To handle textiles you shall need:

  •  Gloves- Cotton, Latex and Non-Latex gloves for handlers who are allergic to latex. Cotton gloves can be used for most handling of textiles, however this rule must be adhered to by all members of staff (volunteers included) as to prevent minimum damage.
  • A clean, flat surface- If you are inspecting a textile or garment your work area must be clean and free of any dirt, food or drink.

 Additionally, another person or persons may be needed to handle or to carry heavier or larger textile objects such as banners, tapestries or larger garments etc. This is to ensure that the textile is properly handled as well as not causing damage to the person handling the object. Health & Safety is key to successful object handling.

 NEVER carry textiles unsupported; always in a tray, box or carefully wrapped in dust sheets. Make sure they are not jostled or moved about. If necessary, use a second or third person to move the textile. An example can be found below.

 E.g. A tapestry that has disintegrated over time or is in two parts; You will need to make a cushion from some folded material wrapped in acid free tissue paper. You shall then need to proceed with setting the delicate object on this pillow and each person holding one side of the pillow. This procedure ensures that the sash has not sustained any damage and follows standard object handling procedures.

 When object handling whilst assessing a textile item, it is useful to note any damage that the item has. e.g. staining, loose threads, mould. This can be useful for conservators who may be working on the item at a future date. It is also necessary to note any accidental damage caused by the moving of the item. Though with careful object handling training and planning, this should hopefully not be necessary.

 Additionally, one of the most damaging times for textiles is when they are being used in displays or exhibitions. It is essential for curators, archive staff and exhibition development staff to plan carefully and ahead of time to ensure as little damage as possible to textiles used in exhibitions. This means having all the necessary handling equipment, clean workspaces & mannequins and enough people to help with the installation of the textiles (if items are heavy).

 Care of Textiles in Stores

 In any store or archive room that stores textiles, you must make sure that the textiles are protected from any kind of damage. This means mould, damp, insects, light damage, etc. Most textile stores should be temperature controlled and if possible a de-humidifier system should be installed. Other areas that are essential to care of textiles in stores are:

Housekeeping- It is easy to mistake the amount of cleaning that textile stores shall require. A regular system of cleaning (dusting & vacuum; using special conservation vacuums), regular conservation checks and regular monitoring shall be required to be set in place.

  • Try to avoid the movement of textiles and garments by locating workrooms and research areas as close as possible to the textile store.
  • Make sure the textile store is organised so that you can find textiles quickly and easily and that they can be moved and returned easily from their storage facilities.
  • Plan sufficient space for growth of your textile collection. Many institutions have failed to do this and their textile collections have suffered because of this. With careful planning, this can be avoided.

Care of Textiles on Display

 Textiles become more vulnerable whilst on display or in exhibitions. They have to be draped carefully to show them off and gravity can add to the damage of the textile. With careful planning you can reduce the risk of damage of textiles when on display.

  •  Assess ALL textiles that have been selected for display. Any very delicate textiles that have been selected should either be replaced with a replica or not shown at all. Showing delicate textiles can add more damage to the item. If possible, have a textile conservator assess damage to textiles selected for exhibitions.
  • Mount textiles on mannequins/stands etc. in such a fashion that they will receive as little damage as possible. Use toilet roll tubes covered in acid free tissue paper to pad out shoulders, make bum rolls or bustles with folded material and acid free tissue paper & cotton tape to pad out period costumes. Basically, anywhere where the textile could come into damage should be padded and supported.
    • Examine the atmosphere of the room that the textiles shall have to be displayed in. Is the room to warm or to cold? Will there be a lot of people at the exhibition? Careful planning like this can avoid any damage to textiles. It can also make sure that curator’s include appropriate temperature controls and lighting design into their exhibition plan.

    • Use replica textiles/costumes where the atmosphere is not favourable to the preservation of textiles.
    • Also use replica’s where the majority of the textile shall not be seen by the general public. E.g. a shirt under an 18th Century frock coat.
    • Do not move or install textiles single handedly, use a team of movers and installers and take as much time as possible.
    • Use barriers (glass cases, roped off areas) to prevent members of the public touching the textiles.


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