Caring for your clothing collection

Hello! I’m often asked how to look after a vintage or antique clothing collection but surprisingly, have never blogged about it before: so here I am playing catch up. I hope it’s useful to you.

As you know, I’ve been collecting for a long time and I’ve also had the good fortune to talk with museums and other collectors about how to best look after a textile collection. I’ve got a couple of museum qualifications under my belt and hopefully (fingers crossed) will graduate from my master’s degree in cultural heritage soon. Anyway, textiles, aren’t the easiest of things to look after: particularly in Australia; they’re prone to all kinds of risks. Here’s a short list:

  • environmental risks: humidity, temperature, sunlight, weather, mould.
  • pests: clothes moths, silverfish, carpet beetles, rodents.
  • treatment: wearing, handling, cleaning, repairing, storing.
  • inherent vice: an issue built in during manufacture eg devil dust.
1930s handknit

So what to do? It’s a big topic and one that a good textile conservator could tell you a lot about but here’s the short answer for looking after your clothes and protecting their condition:

  • Before you store anything, make sure it’s clean and dry. All dirt (perspiration, perfume, food etc) will attract pests and they’ll start their feast there.
  • Store somewhere with a stable temperature and humidity if you can. Museums can control these with tech but most of us don’t have that luxury. Humidity can support mould and mildew growth, staining and weakening the fibres.
  • Clean and vacuum the storage area, to minimise dust and dirt, and the risk of insect eggs waiting to hatch.
  • Keep them away from the sun! Sun fades permanently damage dyes and fibres and are difficult to fix. So no open racks unless it’s a dark room. And best then to cover them with a dust cloth.
  • Natural fibres like to breath, so please don’t use plastic dry cleaning bags or plastic tubs for long term storage, as the moisture in the fibres becomes trapped and can turn into caramel-coloured oxidation stains, often called ‘rust’. You’ve probably seen it. Not an issue for synthetics, of course.
  • If you’re using wooden furniture (wardrobes, cupboards, chests) lay something between your clothing and the wood, as oils can stain the textiles. Acid-free tissue paper or cotton sheets/pillow cases are good.
  • Roll your garments rather than fold them, as folds stress fibres if left long term or the fabric is delicate.
  • Best not to hang anything as the garment’s weight can pull it out of shape, especially around the shoulders. It goes without saying that wire hangers are a big no-no: I can’t count the dresses with shoulder tears I’ve restored. Beaded dresses are particularly at risk as they are both delicate and heavy.
  • If you do want to hang, use a cotton covered-padded coat-hanger, and support skirts from the waist if heavy (the strongest part). Don’t let any pool on the ground.
  • Archive boxes are recommended, ideally with layers of acid-free tissue paper between each layer so that no fabric touches itself. You can also use cotton-covered wadding to support sleeves, shoulders etc.
  • and…..check your collection every six months or so, so issues can be identified and rectified. Damage can be hard to fix but is usually slow to develop, giving you the opportunity to catch it before it’s too late.

If you’d like to know more about any of these, here are some more detailed blog posts:

Deterioration: devil dust, dry rot, iron mordant, silk shattering, sun fade.

Pests: clothes moth.

Something about dry cleaning vintage textiles and some more on vintage fabrics.

Acid-free tissue paper and archive boxes are available from Archival Survival and other suppliers.

My feeling is that it’s good to be aware of the risks, and devise a manageable strategy that will fit with your needs and resources.

For the full story, the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material publishes a good textile conservation guide – download ‘Caring for Cultural Material 2’ here and they can also put you in touch with a professional conservator, should you require one.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for the informative article! Is there anything you can do extra like cedar wood balls for moths?

  2. Hi Brigitte, I like cedar balls: they smell really nice. Their effectiveness for keeping moths away seems to be limited though. If you think you might have some moths, I recommend the pheromone traps, you can get them from hardware shops and they help break the breeding cycle.

  3. Thanks. The information is very useful. While my clothes may not all be vintage, I certainly keep mine for a very long time. I am constantly amazed at the longevity of some of my older pieces and the short life-span of some of my newer pieces. Today, good quality clothes are very expensive and not all expensive clothes are good quality. It’s definitely worthwhile to keep clothes in good order for rewearing.

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