How to Care for Textiles

Here at the Maple Ridge Museum and Archives we are often asked by visitors and community members how to best care for a treasured textile item. Christening gowns, wedding dresses, table cloths, carpets, and doilies and other textiles are often found in personal collections. Historic textiles are made from a variety of materials for example plant-based fibers such as cotton and linen, or animal-based fibers, such as silk and wool. Increasingly man-made fibers such as rayon and polyesters are found in historic textiles. Each type of material has particular needs and degradation risks.

One of the most important things you can do for your textile is to keep it clean. Dust and dirt attract pests and can cause staining and disfigurement over time. A soft natural bristle brush can be used to gently sweep surface dirt and dust off the outer layers. A domestic vacuum can be an effective tool for cleaning textiles. Ensure that it is set on the lowest suction level and cover the nozzle with a netted fabric (stockings, for example), securing it with an elastic band to catch any debris. Hover the nozzle one to two inches above the textile and use a brush to direct dirt and dust into the vacuum. Storing your textile in a covered box will serve the double purpose of reducing dust accumulation as well as light damage, which can result in fading.

The above method is only effective on loose surface dirt, not on ingrained stains caused by rust, fat, oil, and grease. These stains can be very difficult to remove, and may be permanent. Reduce the risk of staining by removing all pins, keeping food products away from historic textiles, and storing the textiles in a covered box or bag. Old stains are particularly stubborn as they have had time to oxidize, meaning they have combined with oxygen in the air overtime to set and become very insoluble. Oxidized stains tend to be yellow or brown and will not be effectively removed with simple washing techniques.

It is very risky to consider washing a coloured textile without consulting a professional as many dyes are soluble in water and will run, potentially disfiguring the whole textile. Also, textiles often have metal or leather attachments, which should never come into contact with water. Historic textiles should never be put through a washing machine. Dry cleaning can be an acceptable method of cleaning your historic textile, but only if it is in very good condition. Contact your local drycleaner for further information.

If implemented properly, these simple tips will keep your historic textile looking great for the years to come.