Collector’s Notebook: Tips and Tricks for Textiles

A Hawaiian feather cape more than 237 years old, traveling from New Zealand to Honolulu, arrived in astonishingly good condition at the Bishop Museum in March 2016. The cape’s vivid yellow and red feathers were plucked from approximately 20,000 birds, and it was maintained impeccably at its previous home at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. 

Protecting feathered antiquities or textiles and soft goods can be tricky when you don’t have an army of curators at your disposal. But you can follow certain guidelines to prolong your keepsakes for generations.

Before your purchase, examine the item thoroughly. “Have eyes for the condition of the object,” stresses Lisa Ranallo, registrar at The Brinton Museum in Big Horn, Wyoming, a home for American Indian artifacts. “Native American leather pieces, like a war shirt, should be pliable, not stiff, so they hang nicely.” Check for broken or missing elements. If a piece has lost its color, it will only get worse.

It’s also important to understand how the textile will degrade over time: silks will become brittle; leather, if not cared for, will harden; cotton, when colored with natural dyes, fades faster than a manufactured print, Ranallo says. Ask the gallerist or artist about maintenance. Do Navajo rugs need to be professionally cleaned? Should a leather saddle be treated with a cream conditioner? 

Next, consider your surroundings. Do you live in a humid climate that may harm the artwork? Does your current lifestyle warrant this acquisition? If small children visit, would you have to constantly remove the piece to keep it from curious hands? 

Once those questions are settled and your acquisition is secure, log the contact information of the gallerist or artist. This is especially helpful if the item needs repair. The seller may be able to fix it or recommend someone.

Once the piece is home, hang your textile away from direct sunlight, which accelerates erosion. Keep it in a dimly lit room or a study with no windows at all, advises Amy DiPlacido, exhibition curator at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles in San Jose, California.

Less than an hour north of the quilt museum, the historic Filoli Estate, a 1917 mansion, is open for tours and classes. To preserve early 20th-century furnishings and textiles, the executive team hired contractors to apply UV filters to windows and updated lighting with LED bulbs. “LEDs do not emit the ultraviolet and infrared light waves which are often the root cause of damage,” explains Filoli’s head curator Julie DeVere.

Collectors should also find a spot in their home with a stable temperature of 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and with 50-percent humidity. Too much moisture attracts insects. When pests pose a problem, place non-toxic sticky traps along the baseboards. 

Textiles that have travelled on an airplane or crossed international borders are vulnerable to hitchhiking critters. At the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, donations are routinely quarantined for three weeks before boxes are opened. “When there’s no water and no oxygen, the bugs will die off and will not threaten our permanent collection,” says DiPlacido. 

Ranallo says that a regular bug check is a must, especially for dense wall hangings where eggs can hide. “Housekeeping is important. If you are not looking behind your textile, you might find an infestation later on and discover something hatching back there.” For that reason, flip your textile to the other side every six months, as if you are flipping over a mattress.

Vacuuming, if done at all, must be handled gingerly. At the Filoli Estate mansion, trained volunteers use HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters on canister vacuums to freshen drapes, carpets, and furnishings. Techniques of the trade include administering a soft paint brush in conjunction with the vacuum to gently brush the soil towards the suction. “Always keep the vacuum nozzle parallel to the surface,” says DeVere. Volunteers also cover nozzles with netting to reduce tugging. Micro attachments are used to get into nooks and crannies, she adds. 

It’s also important to consider how the piece will be exhibited. Quilts are often hung from walls, and the most professional ones look as if they are floating. Museums typically use Velcro strips at the top of a quilt sewn with a muslin sleeve. A wood slat feeds through the sleeve and is attached to the wall. Always use muslin or other non-toxic barriers between the base fabric and the support structure. 

Do what’s needed to fill out intended curves and shapes on clothing. Draping a wedding gown on a dressmaker’s mannequin is a perfect way to accentuate the bustle. “Textiles are the most difficult art pieces to preserve next to paper,” admits Carmen Vendelin, executive director of the Silver City Museum in Silver City, New Mexico. “If you display things like 100-year-old clothing, it must be properly supported. We make sure we have the right underpinnings like corsetry and petticoats.”

In order to showcase The Brinton Museum’s newly acquired 1830s Blackfeet war chief shirt, Ranallo created an armature to display the garment made of sheepskin, human hair, and yellow horse mane. For 3D items, hiring a professional textile conservator to construct a mount is a good idea, she says.

Highlight small articles such as baby shoes or beaded purses inside acid-free frames or shadow boxes. Lace or cross-stitch pieces should not touch the glass in order to breathe. Choose UV-filtered glass or UV Plexiglass and a sturdy frame.

Cycle displayed items for other pieces every six months to ensure longevity. At Filoli Estate, curatorial staff exhibit delicate textiles for a few months and return them to dark storage. 

When you need to store your pieces, do it right. Wash hands or wear cotton gloves. Remove jewelry to prevent snagging. On the days they handle exhibits, staffers at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles arrive makeup-free and tie back their hair as a precautionary measure.

Without exception, articles should be stored in acid-free boxes (not plastic) with fitted tops and lined with acid-free paper. If you have to fold the blanket or quilt, bunch up the tissue and tuck it inside the folds so that they will not create a crease. Puff shoulders, cuffs, and rounded areas with wadded tissue to maintain shape. Do not seal boxes. Resist shoving them into the attic or the basement. Basement dampness breeds mold. Attics get sizzling hot. Keep boxes in a dark, dry, temperate space and store off the floor.

Inspect items every six months and replace the tissue if it is changing color, says Vendelin. “That is an indication that something is coming off that garment, and you’re losing some material.” She adds that large rugs and oversized quilts can be safely rolled on a cardboard tube covered with Mylar, an inert surface.

As you take precautions, be realistic. Accidents occur. If you discover a horrible stain, consult a textile conservator for next steps. When the Silver City Museum suffered flooding, several Victorian gowns got wet, but a conservator successfully cleaned and resurrected them. 

As a collector, you can accept blemishes as part of the next chapter in the artwork’s lifespan. Says DiPlacido, “Time does wear on textiles. That is natural. You can embrace those abnormalities, and let [them] become the personality of the piece.”

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