Caring for Art

Protecting Our Material Assets

Some of the most fragile objects in the Museum collection are made of fabric. Our textiles range from delicate silk brocades to hardy raffia piles, collected from all over the world, and ranging in date from 1100 AD to today. Unfortunately, natural fiber textiles are in a state of deterioration literally from the moment of their creation. In order to make these works of art available for the enjoyment of future generations, the Museum carefully controls how they’re displayed and stored.

What actually causes a textile to deteriorate? Poor handling, storage, and display play an important role. A hostile and fluctuating environment accelerates the inevitable degradation of the fibers, but it also contributes to the formation of mold and invites pests, particularly the very damaging clothes moth.

The Museum collection contains hundreds of quilts, rugs and other flat textiles. When a textile arrives at the museum, we perform a physical assessment to determine if it’s stable, or if outside treatment is required. Sometimes the object is compromised and requires the services of a professional textile conservator, even for something as simple as cleaning, since we know that during the cleaning process the dyes can run and permanently damage the object.

If deemed to be in sound condition, the object is prepared for storage. Flat textiles, such as quilts, rugs, and runners, are rolled, never folded, as folds will stress the fabric and inevitably cause creases and breaks. As a general rule, the textile should be rolled “right side out”, so as to reduce stress on layers and minimize possible wrinkling on any dimensional component such as trapunto, beading, or thick pile. We leave several inches of exposed tube on each side for ease of handling, and fully interleave the entire textile with acid-free tissue.

The final step is to cover the rolled textile with a protective covering, secure the cover with cotton twill ties, and attach an identification photo to the tube end. The tube is then threaded with a dowel and suspended in a custom-designed textile storage cabinet. The storage environment is maintained at a constant 68 degrees and 50% relative humidity, with this humidity range high enough to avoid desiccation of the fabrics but low enough to avoid formation of mold. Occasionally a flat textile will incorporate some type of paint treatment, and since rolling might cause the paint surface to delaminate from the substrate, these textiles are ideal candidates for a flat type of storage and should not be rolled.

Many of these practices can be adapted to caring for your family heirlooms. Acid free rolling tubes and interleaving tissues are available for purchase from www.universityproducts.com or www.gaylord.com. A low-cost substitution for an acid-free tube would be a rigid carpeting tube or a new construction Sonotube, covered with a high quality polyethylene, then wrapped with a pre-washed 100% cotton bed sheet or pre-washed muslin. Instead of a tube, some collectors opt instead to make a “snake” from tightly rolled pre-washed bed sheets.

When preparing your personal collection for storage, first make sure the textile is stable and appropriate to roll. Before handling the textile make certain your hands are freshly washed and devoid of lotions or jewelry. Carefully roll the textile around the tube or “snake”, using the principles briefly described above, making sure to roll straight and not crease the fabric, all the while interleaving with acid-free tissue or a pre-washed bed sheet.

Now, protect the object from dust by rolling the exterior with one final bed sheet or muslin, tuck the ends inside the tube ends, and secure all with several loose ribbons of cotton twill tape. If you opted for a fabric “snake” as your central support, the ends can be gathered and secured with the twill.

Next, consider where you will store the textile, since humidity in a typical home fluctuates according to season and time of day. A good rule of thumb is to always store the textile where you live. In other words, never store the textile in the attic or the basement, opting instead for storage on the home’s main floor, perhaps under the bed or on a designated shelf in the bedroom closet.

Remember, too, that light is an enemy of textiles, so whether in storage or on display, be sure to control or eliminate exposure to both natural and artificial light. By applying these simple concepts you’ll preserve Grandma’s quilt for future generations. In the next newsletter we’ll discuss how the Museum cares for its works on paper and how you might apply those principles to caring for your collection, too.