Caring for Textiles | Art Restoration
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, as with works on paper or photographs, 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 at 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
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.