Many people possess historic textiles or costume whether it be for historic, family or aesthetic reasons. Yet textiles are one of the most vulnerable and sensitive items to collect and own. To be aware of factors which hasten their degradation it is important to know how to store and display textiles correctly will prevent unnecessary deterioration. Inappropriate care can lead to further damage and a few simple procedures will ensure that the textile may be enjoyed for many years to come.
There are numerous factors which may lead to the damage of a textile but three main areas are:
One of the major causes of decay for textiles is the effect of light. Light can be in the form of general visible daylight or artificial light such as fluorescent strip lighting. Both sources will cause colours to fade over time, or rapidly if a textile is exposed to direct sunlight and will generally weaken textile fibres. When textiles are displayed, for example a sampler on a wall or any furnishing fabric in a room, then they are obviously at risk from the effects of ambient light. It is recommended that textiles be displayed in areas of low light, for example in a corridor or a North facing room, but if that is not applicable then at all times the textile should be kept out of direct sunlight and away from direct artificial spot-lights. Textiles exposed to high light levels will, within a short space of time, fade and rot.
Textile fibres are susceptible to changes in the temperature and humidity around. If the temperature is too high and the amount of moisture in the air is subsequently low, then textile fibres, especially silk and linen, will respond and dry out. The reverse situation applies as well, that if the temperature is low and the humidity in the air high, and the room becomes damp, then textile fibres will absorb excess moisture which forms the right conditions for the growth of moulds and fungus. Also, frequent changes in the temperature and humidity can be detrimental to a textile because, as fibres contract and expand in response to altering conditions, abrasion will occur.
This is particularly damaging if dust and dirt particles are present, as these can be sharp and over a period of time will cut through moving fibres. The ideal temperature at which textiles should be stored or displayed is between 20°C-23°C and in a well-ventilated area which is not subject to frequent changes in humidity.
Textiles are at risk from dust and airborne pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide in the air, as they can be abrasive and hasten general degradation of a piece. Wherever possible a textile should be protected. For example, a framed embroidery should be covered with glass in front and objects in store should be kept in boxes and not left out in the open.
Textiles are vulnerable to dirt, dust, wear and damage with use and over time. If a textile needs cleaning or is damaged, it is advisable to seek the advice of a trained textile conservator before any action is taken. They can advise on how to treat the textile and if the work can be carried out at home or needs to be undertaken by a specialist. A remedy that may appear straightforward could cause irreversible damage if it is not properly carried out or inappropriate materials are used. For example, in cleaning, dyes may run in water, or tears may occur because textile fibres are more vulnerable to damage when wet. Also, some modern repair methods using "iron-on" adhesive tape, may provide a quick solution to a tear, but causes problems later as it discolours and becomes brittle itself with age. If in any doubt about what action to take, seek advice!