Textiles are prized and collected for many reasons. Wedding dresses, veils and christening robes are often handed down in families and treasured as heirlooms; similarly, many people want to preserve new dresses or baby clothes for future generations. Although historic costume, samplers and textiles are increasingly sold at auction, prices are only rarely similar to those achieved by paintings or sculpture. The value of textiles is found in their association with a person or place, or an interest in the objects themselves and their construction.
Most costumes encountered in the UK date from the mid 18th century to the present day; articles of clothing pre-dating this period are very rare. Because there was once a strong market for used clothing, only those objects of special or sentimental value were kept; this accounts for the large numbers of wedding dresses, evening gowns and christening robes in many museum collections.
Before you donate a piece to the dressing-up box, or decide that it is going to be part of your everyday wardrobe, be sure you know exactly what it is. Textiles are more likely to be damaged during use than at any other time. If you decide to treat your costume items as valuable historical objects, keep them very separate from other items and do not wear them at all. Here are some reasons why:
Textiles need special care if they are to be preserved for the future. The basic textile components of a costume usually belong to one of three categories: protein (silk and wool), cellulose (cotton, linen, ramie) and synthetic (viscose rayon, nylon, polyester, etc). Non-textile materials commonly found on costume include glass, plastics, ceramics, metal, gelatine, wood, straw, leather, rubber, and whalebone.
Textiles are particularly at risk when handled or moved. In general, costume should be handled as little as possible, especially any metal elements as touching these with bare hands can mark the surface easily. When you do have to handle costume, the potential for damage can be minimised by laying it out in a clean space with plenty of room. Wear fine cotton or thin vinyl gloves when handling or touching the textile and remove jewellery that may snag. Keep food and drink away and avoid using pens or markers around this area. Use pencil to write labels.
When thinking about moving costume and other textiles, plan the task and weigh up the risks. Support the textile when lifting it (small textiles can be moved on boards or sheets of paper; larger textiles may be rolled round tubes) and make sure that you have a clean and safe space to take the item to. Keep any pieces or decoration which come loose with the item, in acid free tissue paper or a small bag and consult a conservator as soon as possible.
Light, dirt, fluctuating humidities and pests all cause damage. Keep exposure to light, especially daylight (which contains ultraviolet radiation), to a minimum. Limit the length of time your costume pieces are displayed or otherwise exposed to normal domestic conditions. Colour comparison between the front and reverse of a textile or between concealed and exposed areas will indicate whether light damage has occurred. The fading of dyes is irreversible and may also be an indication of damage to the textile fibres.
Try to keep humidity levels stable (for example, away from extremes of central heating). Damp conditions (over 65% relative humidity) promote mould growth and heat can make textiles brittle. Poor environmental conditions can also encourage pest activity. Check items on a monthly basis for insects and other problems. The larvae of clothes moth and carpet beetles (also known as woolly bears) are particularly damaging to textiles.
The best way to keep costume and textiles safe is to ensure they are properly stored when not in use. Store items in a clean, dry, dark place and make sure they are accessible for regular inspection. Package and cover as much as possible to protect from dust which is often acidic and attracts moisture and insects into the textile.
Garments in good condition can be hung on padded-to-shape hangers. Make padding from polyester wadding (not a flameproofed type), and cover with another fabric, preferably unbleached, washed pure cotton. Sometimes hanging is not suitable and will cause distortion; anything fragile, or which has heavy decoration (like a 'flapper' dress), or a costume which has been cut on the bias (many 1930's dresses) is best stored flat. Pack these items into a clean sturdy acid-free box with plenty of white acid-free tissue paper underneath and between any folds; use as big a box as possible to avoid making a lot of folds. Box up or cover as much as possible; this protects objects from light, dust and excess handling. Boxes should also be labelled to make it easier to find objects later.
Do not attempt to wash anything with proprietary brands of detergent or bleach. Remember that until quite recently, white was not the optically bright white we now expect. Bleaching will weaken the textile and modern detergents are designed for modern fabrics; they contain optical brighteners and enzymes which remain in the textile and can damage fragile objects. Even soapflakes may be too alkaline for a textile and cause problems. Commercial dry-cleaners now have a much-reduced range of solvents available to use, due to more stringent health and safety legislation. This means that after cleaning, clothes are now put into a heated chamber to drive off excess solvent which is then filtered and re-used many times.
Use the Conservation Register to Find a conservator.
© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2011.
This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge use of the MGC publication 'Ours for Keeps' and the UKIC leaflet 'Caring for Historic Textiles' in the preparation of this text. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.
The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.