We all use textiles in one form or another on a daily basis. We are wrapped in them when we are born, they cushion our feet, they provide us with warmth whilst we sleep. They are carefully crafted into garments worn for important rites of passage, such as christenings, bar mitzvahs, and weddings.
Textiles adorn our walls and decorate our homes. A wide range of textiles are passed down through families and institutions, and with it comes the responsibility of caring for them.
The textiles we collect and preserve will generally fall into two categories – those that we display and those that we use in a limited way such items as wedding and christening gowns.
In using and collecting textiles it is important to pass these items onto the next generation in the best possible condition.
Eventually they will become too fragile to use, or may be damaged beyond repair for the damage to be reversed even by the hands of a conservator.
Textiles that are displayed in homes and public buildings are subject to deterioration by many environmental factors such as light, temperature and relative humidity, dust and dirt, insects, and improper storage or display.
The critical factors in maintaining your textile collection are control of environmental conditions, proper display techniques, and proper storage.
Whilst the standards museums strive for are not feasible in the home I still thought, in my naivety, that I was caring for my collection of antique samplers in a responsible way.
One of the greatest threats to textiles is light. The worst damage is caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from natural daylight. I knew that it was important to display my samplers out of direct sunlight and for limited periods of time. I had been advised that I should rotate them every four months allowing them to “rest” in proper storage for the remainder of the year.
What I hadn’t realized was that the same level of damage could be caused by fluorescent light bulbs. I am now re-looking at the way I light my home
While the UV rays damage most rapidly, the entire light spectrum causes textile dyes to fade and the fibers to become brittle. This includes plain incandescent interior lighting. There is some protection in keeping window shades pulled down or shutters closed during the sunniest times of the day. UV filtering materials or films can be placed over windows and fluorescent bulbs.
Other important factors to consider are high temperatures and humidity as they accelerate the deterioration of textiles and provide a climate for insects, mould, and mildew.
A climate of 65-70°F and 50-55% relative humidity is best with as little fluctuation as possible.
Air pollution is also an enemy of textiles. Fumes from vehicles and industry affect some dyes. Dirt and dust is a problem as dust particles act like small knives, cutting into fibers as the textiles expand and contract in response to changes in humidity. A regular schedule of inspection and vacuuming is necessary to maintain your collection.
If you add a sampler to your collection before bringing it into your home inspect it carefully including the frame. You do not want insect pests contaminating your other samplers or textiles. If you see clumps of eggs or even an odd egg beware of cross-contamination.
Embroidered samplers can “yellow” as they age, often so much that they appear a dirty brown colour.
This is a combination of the natural degradation of sampler material and the acidic backboards they were mounted on.
This acidity accumulates over the years, not only yellowing, but also adding to the fragility of the samplers and the degradation of their appearance.
Samplers benefit from being cleaned by a trained conservator – the washing treatment will remove acidic products. The reduction of the yellowing will make the sampler look fresher and will make it more stable for the future.
A conservator can stabilise and secure holes and loose threads but the fading of the threads cannot be reversed.
The conservator will be able to re-frame your sampler using conservation grade materials that are acid free and cause no adverse pressure or environmental effects on the sampler.
We are custodians of the needlework of yesteryear and we have a responsibility to ensure that the needlework and textiles in our care are passed onto the next generation in the best possible condition.