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Vintage Clothing Care For Collectors 101

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#1 kklinejr

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Posted 26 January 2008 - 06:45 AM

Collecting 101: Proper Care of Vintage Clothing (from Kent State University)

The following is from Kent State University's museum studies website. Remember, these tips are designed to care for all sorts of historical garments - hence why a few tips may be a little "over the top" for more common garments. In fact, when it comes to washing, many sources make counterclaims to KSU's advice against washing (many believe recent stains should be taken care of to reduce insect infestations). Remember, this is a museum archival preservation program - its belief is to leave well enough alone. The advice and wisdom behind the article is sound.

The Golden Rules:

-Handle with care
-Absolutely no wearing
-No washing
-Store in a stable environment
-Do not expose to light

If you would like to display costumes and textiles, you should remember that the longer they are exposed to light and to changes of temperature, the faster they will deteriorate. If you break the rules, you have to be aware of the penalties.

Handling artifacts

Consider ALL historic garments and artifacts as fragile. Whether it is apparent to the naked eye or not, all costumes
have become weakened by normal wear and long exposure to the elements.

Always wear clean gloves or wash hands frequently when handling costumes. Remove any jewelry that could snag or pull threads.

Handle costume items as infrequently as possible.

Avoid folding costume items. Creases produced by folding tend to remain and break the fibers more easily. If
necessary, crumple acid-free tissue and insert in folds to prevent creases.

Support fully all costume items when moving or while on display (see costume mounting section for details).

Do not allow pens, sharp objects, lighted cigarettes and smoke, foods and beverages in the vicinity of historic

Do not write directly on any costume or use iron-on labels since the adhesives used on these items will harm
and soil the pieces.

Fasten hooks and eyes to prevent snagging and provide support to the gown.


Why you should not wear historic costumes

Most historic garments were made to fit an individual's unique body. Even a wearer who is smaller than the garment or who is wearing a corset cannot exactly reproduce the original wearer's silhouette and will stress some part of the garment. Wearing historic clothes thus produces enormous tensions on fabric and seams. The wearer's body temperature and perspiration serve as an oven that acts as a catalyst in the deterioration process. Sweating also releases components that attack fibers and can discolor fabrics. Dead skin cells, body oils, dirt and sebum, the oil from hair follicles, are also deposited on the surface of the fabric.

Textiles are among the world's most fragile artifacts. Clothing, assembled from textiles and others materials that can self-destruct, is even more difficult to care for. Additionally, throughout the centuries, numerous fabrics have been treated with chemical solutions meant to enhance their appearances. Silks, for example, were often weighted with metallic salts, mostly consisting of tin or iron. This practice was common as early as the 1750s. It was at it's peak of popularity in the 20th century and was practiced as late as the 1950s. Even with the best preservation efforts, these matallic salts eventually attack and break the fibers. Thus, careful handling becomes essential and any wearing of historic garments ill advised.

Needless to say, all garments entering a museum collection are never to be worn again. Instead, special display forms are used to show garments in a three-dimensional manner. Mounting historic garments requires special knowledge and mannequins in order to emulate the wearer's silhouette and reduce strain on the object (see section on costume mounting for more information).


Refrain from washing historic costumes & textiles

We have become so accustomed to frequent washing of clothing that, for many, the act itself has become automatic.
Few understand the stress washing causes to fabrics and the damage that can follow. Garments with no or few visible
stain should be left as they are and not be washed.

Wisdom recommends that if it is not broken one should not fix it. There are a few exceptions. For instance, a garment stored with moth balls should never be worn by a child without removal of the chemical residue. Paradichlorobenzene, the active ingredient in moth crystals, has been known to be fatal when in contact with an infant's skin. Thus, infant's and children's clothes need to be examined carefully to make sure they can be washed if they are intended to be worn.

In the case of museum garments and all other garments that are being saved for posterity, cleaning often means irreversible damage. If the garments have a musty smell, simply air them inside the house away from direct sunlight. To remove dust, vaccum at low speed, holding the wand of the machine at an angle just above the textile. Protect the surface with a piece of nylon mesh or window screen. Bind the edges of the screen with tape to keep it from snagging the garment. If the garments have noticeable stains, the best thing to do is to consult a textile conservator. Horror stories abound about people who, unaware of the fugitive nature of certain dyes, attempted to wash printed cotton dresses in water and detergent and ruined them as a result. Dry cleaning also is dangerous for it applies considerable strain to the fabric and seams and can dissolve some fabrics and trims such as early cellulose-based sequins.

Keep steaming and ironing to a minimum or refrain from doing it altogether. Heat accelerates the deterioration of textiles.

Ironing also applies physical pressure to the structure and thus is harmful to the item.

Inspect costume items for insects and mildew. If anything is discovered, isolate the items in a sealed container immediately. Examine nearby items for possible infestation. If mildew is found, consult a conservator for the best cleaning advise. If insects are found, remove them and examine the garment for other insects and their eggs.



Select an area with minimal fluctuations in temperature and humidity, good air circulation and a minimum of light. This usually means an interior wall in the living area of your home, rather than the basement or attic. The box must be kept dry. Clean the storage area regularly and inspect for insects or rodents.

Ideally, historic garments should be stored in a controlled environment which is kept at a constant temperature (70 or lower) and a relative humidity of 50 5% year-round. As mentioned before, heat accelerates the acidic deterioration of cellulosic fibers. Low humidity, often activated by high temperatures, can remove the natural moisture content from fibers and cause fabrics to become brittle and further weakened. High relative humidity, very likely to occur temporarily in the absence of ventilation, allows the growth of molds. Fluctuations in temperatures and humidity can cause the fibers to expand and contract, resulting in internal wear.

There are two ways to store a garment: hanging or boxed. Each garment is unique and should be considered individually. If the garment is very sturdy at the shoulder area, one can consider storing it on a hanger with a fabric cover. Gowns with sheer, lacy or beaded fabrics, bias-cut sections, heavy skirts or trains should be stored horizontally because of gravitational strain if hung vertically.

Use inert, acid-free products. To avoid a sharp crease at the shoulder, use a hanger of the proper width padded with
polyester batting and covered with washed, undyed and unbleached muslin. These inert materials will shield your garment from getting yellow stains that might be caused by the off-gasing of plastics, woods and other non-archival materials. Cotton muslin is cheap and safe and can be used for garment covers as well.

Vertical storage (hanging):

Select a sturdy hanger that is the right size and shape to fit the garment. To avoid a sharp crease at the shoulder,
pad the hanger by winding strips of polyester batting around it to shape and cushion the shoulder area. Secure with

Cover the padded hanger with a cloth cover. Because wood and plastics (such as polyester) release acids that create
yellow stains on the fabrics they touch, it is better to use an inert shield over them. Undyed, washed and unbleached
cotton muslin is cheap, safe and can be used for hanger shields as well as garment covers.

Make a cotton cover that completely encases the gown, protecting it from light and dust. The outer dust cover and hanger cover should be washed yearly to neutralize the fabric. Avoid covers of synthetic fibers which create static electricity and attract dust. Do not use plastic garment bags for storage for they create an atmosphere with little or no ventilation in which condensation can occur. These conditions can also encourage the growth of mold and insects.
Make sure the garment sets on the hanger without putting strain on the shoulders, collar, or sleeves.

Horizontal Storage (boxed):

If the garment is too delicate at the shoulder area, if the weight of the skirt and train is too heavy or if gravitational strain will distort the piece, the garment should be boxed. The box should be made of acid-free materials. A few commercial services offer packaging services but the archival quality of their materials is often questionable. If, for instance, boxes have a cellophane window, the cellophane should be removed or tissue paper should be placed between the window and the garment. Molds and mildew grow more easily where the fabric touches plastic, cellophane or glass.

You will need new acid-free tissue paper, clean cotton fabric and a sturdy acid-free cardboard box, large enough so that the garment will require few folds and deep enough to prevent crushing of the folded garment. If you have a choice between the two types of acid-free tissue available for archival storage, use the acid-free paper that will best suit the fabric in the garment: buffered acid-free paper remains acid-free for a longer period of time and is used for cotton and linens. Unbuffered acid-free paper is used for silks and woolens.

Find a box. Acid-free boxes and paper are somewhat costly and can be purchased through mail order catalogs (see addresses of suppliers at the end of the site). Avoid brown cardboard boxes that quickly off-gas, releasing acids that
are particularly harmful to cotton, linen, and rayon fabrics. If one cannot afford archival products, non-acid-free tissue paper can be used but one should monitor the garment more closely and change the tissue paper yearly. Non-archival boxes should be monitored closely and be extremely well lined with undyed, washed cotton muslin so that the off-gassing will affect the cotton sling before it does the gown.

Line the box with undyed and washed cotton muslin so that the cotton fabric completely envelops the garment. This cotton sling can be picked up instead of the garment when handling the contents of the box. Arrange the costume to minimize folds. Place crumpled tissue along major folds to prevent formation of hard creases. Cover the top of the garment with tissue or cotton fabric before closing the box.
Do not use plastic bags inside the box. Plastics are chemically unstable and trap moisture, allowing mold and mildew to grow.

Boxes should not be sealed. Fabrics are frequently made out of organic materials which require air circulation. Some boxes have slits that allow air to circulate but this is not necessary.

Some items do not age well and should be isolated from historic garments by wrapping them with acid-free tissue or stored separately. Such items include plastic and metal buttons, pins, buckles, headpieces and veils with metal parts. Remove rubberized shields and foam padding for they deteriorate with age and may stain the fabric.

You should take your garment out of storage each year. Remove the cotton cover or open the box to check for evidence of darkening of unremoved soils. A number of colorless soils or stains such as white wine or champagne on wedding dresses, turn dark as they age and oxidize . If stains have darkened, consult a textile conservator. If you have followed proceaduresand used acid-free materials, the stains might be caused by dirt and only a conservator can acess the treatment to be followed. Change the position of the folds, replace all of the tissue paper if necessary, and wash any cotton fabric used in lining the box. This inspection should be done whether you packaged the garment yourself or it was done commercially. This part of successfully storing historic garments cannot be overemphasized. Do not wait 20 years to look at the garments. By then, stains will be more permanent, insect, mold, and mildew damage may be irreversible, and folds will have become permanent creases.

Light exposure

Light also generates heat and thus should be controlled. It can fade fabrics irreversibly, weaken the fibers and accelerate deterioration. If garments are exposed to light, its intensity should be kept to a minimum. Time of exposure can be restricted by turning lights out whenever storage facilities are not used. Protective UV filters should be placed over all light sources to screen out harmful ultraviolet radiation from sunlight.

Edited by kklinejr, 26 January 2008 - 07:03 AM.

#2 jgawne

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Posted 26 January 2008 - 06:58 AM

Sorry, I have to disagree with the statement: "Cedar is good for protecting clothing from bugs and other environmental factors."

The reason people store thgins in cedar chests is becasue the wood is generally a tight fit, and bugs can't get in. By itself, the ceder smell really does nothing to protect clothing. I smell may repell a sickly moth, but if you put an infested garment in a cedar chest with other items, they'll eat it all.

It's also highly recomended that you try vacuming (cloth held down with a screen) to remove dirt instead of washing. This will not only pull out a lot of dirt, but alo moth eggs and larva.

#3 kklinejr

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Posted 26 January 2008 - 07:13 AM

Sorry, I have to disagree with the statement: "Cedar is good for protecting clothing from bugs and other environmental factors."

The reason people store thgins in cedar chests is becasue the wood is generally a tight fit, and bugs can't get in. By itself, the ceder smell really does nothing to protect clothing. I smell may repell a sickly moth, but if you put an infested garment in a cedar chest with other items, they'll eat it all.

It's also highly recomended that you try vacuming (cloth held down with a screen) to remove dirt instead of washing. This will not only pull out a lot of dirt, but alo moth eggs and larva.

Duly noted! In order to keep this as academic as possible to stem away from "wives tales" for lack of a better term, I have put in an archival preservation article to begin the topic instead. Please keep in mind that with an article such as this, many times it is the intention that is best learned - utmost care should be taken when preserving and storing historically significant items.


#4 History Man

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Posted 10 February 2011 - 11:45 AM

I have a few uniforms with mothing and I was wondering if there was a way to fix it. if there is, please post it or send me a PM. thanks

#5 skautdog

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Posted 07 December 2012 - 08:40 PM

Any additional or exception information for storing items such as cotton and/or nylon field gear such as pistol belts, canteen covers, rucksacks, ammunition pouches, etc.?

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