Antique Clothing and its Care

Hello Dear Heart!

I am still up in the Midwest enjoying the gorgeous autumn leaves and end-of-the season farmer’s markets, which is wonderful beyond words. We haven’t yet had frost and the gardens are still producing a surprisingarray of vegetables. And, Hon, the apples and pears! I have to make several jars of apple and pear butter to bring back down to Florida with me. Soon, I will come back to Palm Beach for the season; I’m not sure when…I may wait until the first snowfall. But, I do have some family to visit before I leave. I wish they would come to visit me in Palm Beach, but it is so hard to get them to leave their delightful small town. My dear niece Pamela and I did go through some stored boxes of things that were passed down to her from her grandmother. The boxes had several antique keepsakes and we happened upon a little dress that was my mother’s when she was a small child. The dear little thing was precious to see and I am so concerned that if not cared for properly, one day it will simply fall to threads. It seemed to me that you that may have an antique article of clothing or textile and that you would like some advice as to how to care for it properly. Draw close, Hon, Dear Rose is here to advise.

One very important start, Dear, is to be certain that you are storing the item correctly. Sunlight is very damaging. Not only will it fade the original colors, but it also causes damage to the fabric threads themselves. Natural fibers are particularly fragile and susceptible to degradation by mold or insects. The most ideal climate for antique textiles is between 60 to 65 degrees (Fahrenheit) and 50 percent humidity. The storage area must be well ventilated and dark. If you do wish to display the article, you must protect it from sunlight and other forms of light that contain ultraviolet wavelengths.

If you are going to frame the article in a shadow box, consider a special fabric wash made for textile preservation and use ultraviolet light-blocking glass. Also, do not allow the piece to permanently contact the surface of the glass and seal the box tightly, as air pollutants (such as ozone or sulfur-based emissions found in urban environments) can also degrade the fabric through time.

If you are going to store the piece folded, this can also be a problem by causing uneven tension of fabric threads. Fold the item as few times as possible; it is best to lay it flat unfolded or roll the textile onto a pole with a clean sheet. The rolled textile can then be stored in a cardboard tube.

Insects can be a problem but, thanks to modern science, products are available off the shelf that can prevent infestation with minimum odor and danger from hazardous chemicals. Mold and mildew can be avoided altogether by keeping the item in a polyethylene bag with desiccant, especially if you do not have a dehumidifier or air conditioning. But, in either case, if the fabric is clean, it is much less of a target to begin with.

Now, Dear Heart, on to the more gentle and scary topic of cleaning the antique textile. Look over the item very carefully, every square inch of it. If there are places where the fibers are decayed, frayed or falling apart, the item may not be able to be cleaned. The stress of cleaning may cause the fabric to disintegrate, which is worse than having a relatively intact article that is less than immaculately clean. If the item has weakened areas, such as small holes or abrasion caused by heavy wear, but no loose or missing threads, it should be tested before cleaning. To test the weakened area, dampen with water and gently touch and prod it. If the fabric appears to be weak, fragile or decomposes, stop- let the fabric dry and do not attempt to clean the article. However, if the fabric is strong, you may be safe with washing it. If at any time you have reservations about washing the item, consult a very reputable, professional cleaner who has experience with antique fabrics. A museum curator may be able to provide you with a reference.

If you do proceed with cleaning, test colored fabrics for color fastness (the stability of the dye). Wet a hidden or obscure colored area of the item with tepid wash solution (use the directions indicated from a gentle fabric detergent that is specifically manufactured for fine hand washables). Let it set for a few minutes, then dab the moist area with a dry white cloth or paper towel. If dye from the fabric is found on the dabbing cloth, you should not wash the item; doing so will cause the dye to run and ruin the colors of the fabric. Please consult a professional cleaners for advice on how to clean the article; they may have dry cleaning alternatives that are safe. If no color is present on the dabbing cloth, you may gently wash the article by placing it in a mesh bag or cloth bag and swirl gently through a basin of wash solution for several minutes. As mentioned above, the was solution should be a gentle fabric detergent that is specifically manufactured for fine hand washables. Hand the bag up to drain, waiting until most water has run out of the garment (perhaps one drip per minute or so). Repeat this several times. Rinse using the same technique and water runs clear from the washing bag. When the dripping has slowed to imperceptible or has stopped, open the bag, gently roll the item onto a dry towel and carefully spread out flat. Allow the article to air dry away from window light. When the article is still slightly moist, it may be ironed gently with a warm iron. The item can only be stored once it is fully dry. It may be best to wait a couple of days after drying to be sure all moisture has left the fabric.

Now then, Dear, I hope that we all can pass along our precious keepsakes to our grandchildren. Until the next time we get together for our chat, please take care and my kisses to you!


An earlier version of this article appeared in the publication New Directions for Better Living in the May, 1997 issue.

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