Caring for Textiles
Textiles are found in many things we use in everyday life including upholstered furniture, clothing, photos, quilts, tapestries, and flags. Materials can range from natural fibers like cotton and silk to synthetics such as nylon and polyester. Most textiles are not meant to be simply decorative, but also have a functional purpose. For this reason textiles are often exposed to more environments and potential damage than other forms of artwork. This damage can also lead to the need to call an expert or art restoration specialist.
ENVIRONMENT | TEXTILE & PHOTO RESTORATION
Like other kinds of artwork, environmental factors greatly determine the longevity of textiles. When deciding where to display textiles, make sure to consider humidity, lighting and exposure to airborne pollutants.
Lighting for textiles is of particular importance as it can not only fade color but also degrade the very structure of the object. Both natural light (sunlight) and indoor lighting cause damage, often regardless of the level of UV light, though UV light will accelerate the process. Once fibers begin to yellow and break down, the damage can not be undone and will need the expertise of a trained art restoration specialist. For this reason light exposure should be limited as much as possible, both in intensity and duration.
High temperature, which can be caused by lighting or other heat sources, will accelerate the breakdown of the fibers because it acts as a catalyst for chemical reactions. Do not hang, store or display textiles near fireplaces, lights or windows. They should also not be kept in attics, where temperatures can get very hot in the summer. Humidity should be kept between 35 – 70% and should not shift rapidly since dramatic changes in humidity can cause fabrics to expand and contract. This humidity range will also deter the growth of mold, the corrosion of any attached metals and prevent the flaking of any applied paint.
Air quality is also very important as pollutants can settle on fabrics and cause chemical reactions, quickening the disintegration of the textile. Dust and gritty particles can also cause small abrasions in the fibers, similar to minute tears. Even household chemicals can become airborne and settle on fabrics, causing them to fade and weaken.
DISPLAY AND STORAGE
All of the above listed environmental factors should be taken into consideration when choosing where to store textiles. Additionally, however, proper framing with archival materials can do a great deal to protect any artwork, especially fragile fabrics.
The area where textiles are stored should be cleaned regularly to prevent insect infestation and the accumulation of dust. Inspect objects every six months. Signs of insect problems include small irregular holes and casings from larvae. Some objects, if not too fragile, may be vacuumed to remove dust. Vacuum in an up and down motion, on and off the fabric, with a soft brush attachment. Do not vacuum across the surface as this is very abrasive and can cause more harm than good.
When moving or handling textiles it is important to remember that they are more fragile than they might appear. It is important to always distribute the weight of the fabric evenly, so that stress is not put on any particular area. For smaller pieces it is advised that you slide a piece of paper underneath it and then carry the paper. This approach limits the contact your hands will have with the actual object and provides for evenly distributed support. It is also very important that you use gloves when handling fabrics. Oils from skin, as well as shedding skin cells which attract mites, can be very damaging to textiles. White cotton gloves, available at many photo supply stores, are recommended. Also, remove any and all jewelry before moving or handling textiles as even the slightest rough edge can damage the fibers.
Smoke and water damage are the greatest risks to textiles. Like paper, textiles become structurally weaker when wet so moving with an all over support is essential. If possible lay the object as flat as possible so that areas of dark dyes are not near lighter areas. This will prevent the transfer of dye from one area to another. While you may rinse debris off with clean, distilled water, it is highly recommended that you contact a textile conservator. If you cannot reach a conservator immediately, you will need to dry the object as thoroughly as possible. Once again, lay it flat if possible, on a clean cotton sheet with good air circulation. The sheet may loosely cover the object to prevent airborne particles from settling on and adhering to the damp surface. Sometimes it may be advised to freeze the textile until a conservator or restorer can be reached, but as this involves drastic temperature and humidity changes and will cause the expansion and contraction of the fibers, it is best to ask a conservator before doing so. When addressing smoke damage the same general rules should be applied. Do not use ozone to remove odor as it will damage the fibers and accelerate the objects aging.
Archival materials such as barrier films, acid-free board, rolling tubes or storage boxes are available through art supply stores and conservation supply catalogues. Contact your local museum for sources near you.
CONTACT A CONSERVATOR
Before attempting to repair, clean, or mount a textile you should contact a professional textile conservator, photo restoration, or art restoration specialist depending upon the type of textile. A conservator will examine the artifact, determine the fiber composition and method of manufacture and document its condition and any inherent problems. Taking into account the client’s concerns and any relevant historical information, a treatment option will be proposed. Questions to consider when determining a course of action include:
Is treatment necessary or is it based on popular aesthetics?
Is the object strong enough to be displayed?
Do the risks of treatment outweigh the benefits?
What treatment provides the most results with the least intervention?
Working with a trained art restoration specialist will help ensure that you can enjoy your objects for years to come.