Protecting your textiles
Textiles are common in museum collections. Displaying or storing textiles can come with risks in terms of fading or decay caused by environmental factors.
Damage can be caused by:
- Moisture and heat
- Other materials
How light can damage your textiles
It can be challenging to get the ideal balance to ensure the item’s display and interpretation are appropriately lit while also preventing damage to the item. The most visible sign of light damage in textiles is colour fading. Details and subtle hues disappear and the object can lose what makes it unique.
This colour loss 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 eventually 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. Daylight is harder to control and fluctuates regularly.
- Install protection from UV radiation. UV-absorbers, glass laminates, and acrylics can eliminate UV radiation.
For further advice, read our lighting guide.
Moisture and heat
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 and old fibres will start breaking up.
Textiles can also stain, fade, or grow brittle if the liquid they absorb contains soap, dirt, or chemicals.
Textiles present damage in a variety of ways. For example:
- 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.
Here’s some tips for protecting textiles against moisture and heat:
- Prevent textiles from getting wet. Don’t wash museum textiles.
- Monitor the humidity and temperature of the air and adjust appropriately 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.
- Implement a heating regime that keeps temperatures between 10°C and 20°C to better control humidity.
- don’t allow temperatures to drop below freezing.
- Avoid storing textiles in natural problem areas of a building such as dry /hot floors or humid basements.
- Avoid local problem areas in your building. External walls can be damp and the area surrounding radiators and heaters can be too hot and dry for storing and displaying textiles.
- Allow air to circulate by avoiding overcrowding textiles in storage boxes and hanging cupboards.
- Use humidifiers or dehumidifiers to control the museum environment if required.
Ensure your museum is a pest-free zone. 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 holes in the surface of your textiles or droppings and pupae left on fabrics.
Prevention is better than a cure, especially in the case of pest control. Create a pest-free environment to avoid using pesticides.
Here’s some tips for preventing pests:
- Keep the museum environment cool and dry.
- Clean rigorously, ensuring that both display and storage spaces are clear of rubbish. Pay close attention 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 to your collection and outgoing objects.
- Check regularly for infestations in undisturbed, warm, dark places such as chimneys and fireplaces or under cabinets.
- Screen any open windows within display areas 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 what’s eating your collection? to learn about deep freezing textiles.
- Log all pest infestations to prevent recurrence.
- Consult specialists on widespread pest problems or contact a subject specialist network.
Mould can occur when an environment is both warm and damp, with little air movement. It’s extremely 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.
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 be prevented. The most important step to take is to control the heat and moisture in your museum. Removing mould from textiles is almost impossible and could cause further damage.
Tips for creating a mould-resistant environment:
- Keep relative humidity below 65% and the temperature below 18°C.
- Ensure air circulation, avoid stacking boxes next to damp walls or over-packing boxes where textiles are stored.
- Avoid spreading contamination. Keep a quarantined space 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, in storage, display and movement, that can negatively affect the quality of the objects. Certain packing and display materials could pose a risk. Objects mounted on hardboard, for instance, can go yellow and brittle due to chemicals in poor-quality materials.
When packing or storing items, 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 free from damaging chemicals, such as archival polyethylene and polyester materials, such as Tyvek™, non-woven polyester sheeting, and Melinex™, and 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.
- Always ensure you have the correct display materials as lighting can speed up chemical reactions.
- If you must use unstable materials for storing and displaying, insert acid-free tissue paper or Melinex™ to serve as a barrier.
- If you must 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 wide range of materials in stock.
Textiles are at the greatest risk of being damaged when they’re being handled, moved, and touched. This might happen when you’re rotating an exhibition or moving items into storage. If textiles have been weakened by light, heat, or moisture, handling puts these brittle fibres under great strain and could lead to further damage.
Accidental damage like this is irreversible. Regularly handling textiles also presents long term risks as the items absorb salts and oils from skin. Too much touching causes textiles to fade, stiffen, and weaken.
Guidelines for handling textiles
Train your museum workforce on how to correctly handle textiles.
Here are some basic guidelines for handling textiles:
- Everyone should wear clean cotton gloves whenever handling textiles, unless the object is particularly fragile.
- Ensure bare hands are clean when not using gloves.
- usetrays, boxes, or dust sheets when carrying textiles.
- Make sure textiles aren’t shaken, pulled, or slid about when moving them.
- Develop a plan for publicly displaying your textiles. Consider having designated handling collectionsfor 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, consider locating research areas nearby.
- Plan sufficient storage space to allow for growth of the collection.
- Organise the stores so you can access individual items quickly without handling other textiles to find them.
Caring for textiles on display
- Gravity can change the shape of an item, take this into consideration when displaying textiles. Avoid displaying textiles that are already in a poor condition, as they will deteriorate further 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, this helps to avoid stretching.
- Change displayed textiles frequently. Switch collection objects with replicas when they’re being used for ‘set dressing’ or working collections.
Collections Trust offer a range of collections care advice.
See our advice guides for more collections care guidance.
Recommended books for collections care:
- An Illustrated Guide to the Care of Costume and Textile Collections (Robinson, J. and Pardoe, T; Museums & Galleries Commission, 2000, ISBN 0948630957).
- The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping (Butterworth-Heinemann; The National Trust 2006 (Revised 2011) ISBN 978-1907892189)