Textiles are among the most precious items you can keep in a museum, but they are also among the most fragile. Displaying or storing textiles comes with a whole host of complications and a long list of potentially damaging environmental features that could fade or decay your textiles collections.
Whether you have gigantic banners and elegant tapestries or a collection of hats from around the world, you need to think in advance about how you will protect your textiles.
Our guide is here to help. We've outlined many of the different elements that could affect your textiles and offered tips on how to combat them.
This guide will cover damage caused by:
- Moisture and heat
- Other materials
- General care tips
- Next steps
For extensive advice on lighting in your museum, read our guide on protecting your collections from light damage. Textiles present unique challenges when lighting a museum.
How light can damage your textiles
Light is obviously a necessary part of museums, as guests need enough of it to properly appreciate the intricacy of embroidery or the colours of traditional clothing, for example. Yet textiles are very sensitive to light and require lots of attention, otherwise they will be irreparably damaged.
The most visible sign of light damage is colour fading from textiles. Details and subtle hues disappear and the item loses what once made it so special.
This colour loss, however, is symptomatic of a bigger problem. Sustained exposure to light can weaken fabrics to the point where they shred or fall apart. Light causes textiles to first lose their flexibility, then they become brittle before breaking into fragments and reducing to dust.
Quick tips on reducing light damage
Preventing this irreversible damage is essential in caring for your textiles collection.
Here are some of the ways you can conserve your textiles:
- Monitor and control annual light exposure. Light damage is cumulative, so only light your exhibits during museum opening hours and maintain an intensity level of 50 lux throughout the year.
- If you cannot keep levels that low, put the item on display for shorter amounts of time.
- Avoid putting textiles in direct daylight, which is harder to control and fluctuates regularly.
- Install protection from UV radiation. This part of the light spectrum isn't necessary for seeing the items, so can be eliminated using UV-absorbers, glass laminates and acrylics.
- Keep textiles in the dark outside of visitor hours.
- Consider using replicas if you cannot restrict light levels.
For more advice, read our lighting guide.
Moisture and heat
How moisture damages textiles
Textiles absorb water very easily, which can cause irreparable damage. Fibres swell and extend when taking on liquid, then shrink while drying and grow weaker in the process. Fluctuating humidity, caused by temperature changes in a room or display case, can cause this to happen multiple times and old fibres will start breaking up.
Compounding the issue, if the absorbed liquid contains soap, dirt or chemicals, textiles can stain, fade or grow brittle.
The way textiles are damaged varies:
- Silk can lose its dressing and become lifeless.
- Robes can become stiff at the bottom if the starch sinks during the drying process.
- Samplers stain when dyes in the thread runs.
- Paint can curl or lift if humidity fluctuates.
- Mould and pests can break out in high humidity.
- Fibres can brittle and dry in low humidity.
Once these things have happened, conservators cannot return such damaged properties to their original quality.
Protecting textiles against moisture and heat
- Make sure textiles do not accidentally get wet by keeping them in areas where water is absent and risk of flood is very low.
- Do not wash museum textiles.
- Monitor the humidity and temperature of the air so that you can learn what is happening in your building.
- Keep the levels of relative humidity stable, always between 40% and 70% - above 45% and not exceeding 65%, for 90% of the time.
- Invest in [conservation grade display cases to create tightly-controlled environments.
- Establish a heating regime that keeps temperatures between 10°C and 20°C to better control humidity.
- Although low temperature discourages pests and mould, do not allow temperature to drop below freezing.
- Avoid storing textiles in natural problem areas of a building such as dry and hot top floors and humid basements.
- Avoid local problem areas. External walls can be damp and the vicinity of radiators and heaters too hot and dry for storing and displaying textiles.
- Allow air to circulate by avoiding overcrowding in storage boxes and in hanging cupboards.
- If necessary, use humidifiers or dehumidifiers to control the museum environment.
Make your museum a pest-free zone to give your textiles a longer life. Beetles, clothes moths, silverfish, rats, mice and even birds can infest textiles. Wool, silk, fur, hair and feathers are all sources of nutrition for certain insect larvae. Key signs that you have a pest problem include random holes in the surface of your textiles or droppings and pupae left on fabrics.
The old maxim that prevention is better than a cure is doubly true for pest control. Create a pest-free environment so you never have to use pesticides or deal with infestations.
You can anticipate any problems with these tips:
- Keep the museum environment cool and dry.
- Clean rigorously, ensuring that both display and storage spaces are clear of rubbish. Extra attention should be given to areas of the museum near cafés and roof spaces where birds might nest.
- Use a separate area as a quarantined space for packing, unloading and examining for pest activity.
- Thoroughly examine new acquisitions and outgoing items.
- Check regularly for infestations in undisturbed, warm, dark places such as chimneys and fireplaces or under cabinets.
- Screen any open windows with netting and keep doors closed.
- If you identify an infestation, isolate the source and contain it. Section off the area and seal infected items.
- Hire a conservator to treat infested textiles or visit this site to learn about deep freezing textiles.
- Log all pest infestations to prevent recurrence.
- Consult specialists on widespread pest problems.
Mould, the scourge of basements and bathrooms, can occur whenever the environment is both warm and damp, with little air movement. It's hugely damaging to textiles and you'll spot it in the form of furry growth or scattered stains. The first sign of mould is usually a musty smell hanging in the still air.
Mould spores are everywhere in the air, but they only start growing when the conditions are right. If they do start growing, it permanently decays, stains or weakens the fabric. Mouldy textiles are also a health risk, causing allergic reactions and occasionally diseases.
If you ever need to handle mouldy items, wear protective clothing such as dust masks, goggles, disposable gloves and overalls.
Protecting textiles from mould damage
Mould can, however, be prevented. The most important step to take is to control the heat and moisture in an environment, as getting mould out of textiles is almost impossible and could cause further damage.
To create a mould-resistant environment, bear these things in mind:
- Keep relative humidity below 65% and the temperature below 18°C.
- Ensure air circulation, which means not stacking boxes next to damp walls or over-packing boxes.
- Avoid spreading contamination, so keep a quarantined space separate for unpacking mouldy textiles and don't reuse boxes that have held contaminated items.
- Wrap any affected items in acid-free tissue paper to stop the spread of spores while still ensuring air circulation. Then contact a conservator for advice.
Textiles can come into contact with other materials, both in storage and transition, that can adversely affect the quality of the items. Packing and display materials, if not known to meet conservation standards, could pose a risk. Items mounted on hardboard, for instance, can go yellow and brittle due to chemicals in poor quality materials.
As with a lot of damage done to textiles, such damage is irreversible.
Look out for:
- Poor quality card
- Paper and board made from wood product
- Chemically unstable wood
- Chemicals in certain plastics, paints, varnishes, adhesives, dyes and inks
- Rusty metal
- Combinations of incompatible materials
Reduce the risks
Look out for safe, conservation-quality materials for packing, storing and displaying textiles.
Follow these guidelines for choosing materials:
- Use acid-free paper and card products, especially when packing.
- Find materials that are manufactured free from damaging chemicals, such as archival polyethylene and polyester materials, such as Tyvek™, non-woven polyester sheeting, and Melinex™, colourless, transparent polyester film.
- Remove impurities from cotton dust-covers by washing them in advance.
- Keep a record of suppliers and product specifications for all materials purchased.
- Invest in good materials at all levels, as it saves the expensive work of conservators.
- Even if an exhibition is short, ensure you have the correct display materials as lighting can speed up chemical reactions.
- If you have to use unstable materials for storing and displaying, put in acid-free tissue paper or Melinex™ to serve as a barrier.
- If you have to store other materials such as paper, plastics and metals with textiles, prevent damage to textiles by wrapping and interleaving the other materials with barriers such as acid-free tissue paper and Melinex™.
- Keep a range of materials in stock.
Dust is everywhere, an airborne pollutant that consists of small fibres, soil particles and skin fragments, among many others. This chemical cocktail can have a damaging effect on textiles if they are left sitting for an extended period of time. It can act like sandpaper on fibres, change their shape or harbour pests. Brush it off easily to stop it having a lasting effect.
Defeating dust damage
- Use conservation grade display cases when you can afford them, which seal out dust.
- Avoid open display and ensure that thorough housekeeping regimes that are trained to clean all textiles exposed to dust.
- Protect textiles by wrapping and covering with air-permeable dust sheets when items are out of display cases. Only use polythene to protect textiles from water in emergencies.
- Keep building-wide dust levels down through good housekeeping.
- Ensure textiles are not placed on dusty surface and lay clean sheets down when inspecting textiles outside of their boxes.
Textiles are at the greatest risk of being damaged when they are being handled, moved and touched. This might happen when you are rotating an exhibition or moving items into storage. If textiles have been weakened by light, heat and moisture, handling puts these brittle fibres under great strain and could tear or fragment the textiles.
Accidental damage like this is irreversible. Handling textiles also presents long term risks, such as the items absorbing salts and fatty substances from skin. Too much touching causes textiles to fade, stiffen and weaken.
Guidelines for handling textiles
Train staff members in the correct handling of textiles and they can approach it with caution and confidence.
Here are some basic guidelines for handling textiles:
- Everyone should wear clean cotton gloves whenever handling textiles.
- If bare hands must be used, ensure that they are clean.
- Never carry textiles unsupported, instead using trays and boxes or wrapped in dust sheets.
- Make sure they are not shaken, jogged, pulled or slid about.
- Develop a plan for the public interacting with textiles, whether that will involve touching or not. Have designated handling collections of non-accessioned material for the public to touch, protecting more valuable items.
- Plan installations carefully and leave an appropriate amount of time for unpacking, moving and setting up displays. Ensure that nothing is rushed and that everyone is trained.
General care tips
Caring for textiles in storage
- Be vigilant with housekeeping in museum stores and warehouses; they need as much cleaning and monitoring as public spaces.
- Avoid moving textiles as much as possible, maybe locating research areas nearby.
- Plan sufficient space for growth of the collection.
- Organise the stores so you can access individual items quickly without handling other textiles to find it.
Caring for textiles on display
- Take gravity into consideration when displaying textiles, as it could change an item's shape.
- Avoid displaying textiles in a poor condition, as it will deteriorate while on display.
- Use textile conservators to assess the quality of textiles before and after displaying them.
- Mount textiles in a way that fully supports them and so they do not stretch.
- Change displayed textiles frequently if you can maintain the same environment.
- Don't mount and dismount textiles by yourself and allow plenty of time for the process.
- Use barriers to prevent the public from touching the textiles.
- Switch collection items with replicas when they are unlabelled parts complementing a display or simply there to create the atmosphere in unfavourable conditions for preservation.
- If original artefacts are too damaged to display, use photographs for multiple angles of the item.
Textiles can bring an exhibition to life, they just need a lot of care and attention. After reading this brief guide you may want to learn more. Our advice guides covers a wide range of collections care topics, including lighting, display cases and storage.
You can also pick up more tips from the Collections Trust or dip into one of these books:
- An Illustrated Guide to the Care of Costume and Textile Collections (Robinson, J. and Pardoe, T; Museums & Galleries Commission, 2000, ISBN 0948630957). Available online.
- The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping (Butterworth-Heinemann; The National Trust 2006 (Revised 2011) ISBN 978-1907892189)