Conservation of those family mementos

The delightful tiny shirt from Emmie Parkes’ grandfather, shown at a meeting of the Armidale Family History Group, inspired me to learn more about conservation of the fabrics I have in my care.

Old textiles need to be handled with gentleness … the mere act of lifting a heavy item can cause damage. I have a beautiful embroidered and beaded evening gown which weighs over 2 kg and such weight would put huge strain on the thin shoulder straps, even if it’s hung on a padded coat hanger [never use wire or wood]. This dress needs to be stored flat because of its weight.

Before storing fabrics, they need to be clean. Deep freezing will kill pests, tweezers will remove debris, and extremely gentle vacuum cleaning will remove surface dust. And don’t forget to empty any pockets; you may even find a historical gem!

Take great care with dry cleaning or washing any item, the chlorine in town water damages old material, so that is one advantage we bushies have with our tank water. If in doubt ask an expert.

Check out the internet, a Google search using “textiles conservation” brought up more than four million web sites, you’re sure to find something useful, including recipes for the laundry.

Once your item is clean you need to decide where and how to store it. You need an insect-free, clean, dry area with some air flow.

Damp means mould, so anywhere damp is definitely unacceptable. This means you can’t use a roof storage space, a linen cupboard in a bathroom or laundry especially if you use a drier, a cupboard above a damp area such as a fish tank or evaporative cooler.

One way you may be able to keep out the damp is to buy the plastic bags which seal and are air tight… they have a valve which is used to remove the internal air by sucking it out with your vacuum cleaner …. but your item must be 100% dry before sealing.

Items are best stored flat but you may be able to roll a large item. If you do have to fold, make sure the folds are not sharp (to avoid splits in the fabric) and support the folds with acid free tissue, that is white pH neutral tissue. Never use coloured tissue, the colour will stain your precious memento. If you can’t find appropriate tissue, a well used clean colourless tea towel or sheet may suffice.

Make sure you have removed any safety pins and badges. Don’t use plastic bags next to the material, don’t use newspaper, don’t allow moth balls or insect strips to touch the textiles and don’t use lavender as it will attract insects after a few months.

Storage in the dark is recommended to prevent fading and check frequently to make sure there have been no winged invaders. My wedding dress had a couple of munchers in its box before I learned how to take action! And my century old christening gown is now under much better supervision.

I decided that my beaded evening gown, made in the fifties,  and a classic-sixties sequined Empire line dress would not enjoy a coastal tropical climate so before we moved I donated them to the Cavalcade of History and Fashion. This organisation is a volunteer not-for-profit community group, which has shared Australia’s social and fashion history for over 50 years. They care for a collection of historic gowns and accessories which date from the late 1700’s.

If you decide to keep your precious items and you are in any doubt, make sure you ask an expert before you start.


Places to contact:

The Cavalcade of History and Fashion <  >

The Australian War Memorial web site < > has excellent information online where you can learn how to care for Works of art on paper, Books, Documents, Medals, Oil paintings, Photographs, Textiles, Disaster Recovery  and Cleaning Soot Damaged Objects.

Victoria Gill of Endangered Heritage in Canberra < > . They have several qualified conservators with extensive professional experience and specialist training in a particular field of conservation including textiles, objects, metals, paper, books, photographs and technology.


by Caroline Gaden ©

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