My goal today is to give you some tips and guidelines for the care and storage of your textiles. I have not tried any of these products or tips; however, each one has been recommended by several "authorities". The web has a world of information about the do’s and don’ts of handling vintage textiles.
It is important to treat your stain as soon as it happens. The longer you wait, the harder it is to successfully remove it. The stain is actually created in layers, so the sooner you work on the stain; the less damage has been done. Because the stain is in layers, cleaning it is like peeling an onion; you have to go one layer at a time. That means you may have to repeat the process several times to get the deep stain out. Even though it looks clean after one cleaning, residue within the fabric may cause it to discolor in the future. Before you start to clean great-grandmother’s vintage lace tablecloth, try the recommended solution on a similar piece of lace.
There are times that it may be best to leave the item as is because cleaning it may permanently destroy the fabric and fibers. Here are some questions you should ask before you start cleaning.
Why do you want to clean it? Dirt and dust can cause wear on your textiles and breakdown the fibers. If you fear you could damage it further, is there a way to display it where the stain or damage won’t show? If you are in doubt, please find a professional textile conservation company.
What type of fabric do you have? It is important to know what you are trying to clean. For example, water on cotton and linen will remove acids and stains, while making the fabric more pliable. However, using water on silk and wools can cause more damage than good.
What type of stain do you have? It will make a difference on what you do to the stain. Some major types are: grease (oil, butter), protein (blood, grass, coffee, mustard, wine), wax (candle drips, gum, crayons), and mold, mildew and musty. We are going to assume the piece can be washed. Be sure to completely read the instructions for the cleaning method you are using. Here are some very basic instructions for common stains. Remember, each stain is different and may not be removable. These are suggestions from numerous sources and Nordic Needle is not endorsing any product or technique.
Grease: Remove the spill as soon as possible blotting it with paper towels. Putting a white cotton towel underneath the fabric will also help blot it. Use a mild liquid dishwashing detergent to help break up the oil. The brand Dawn has been recommended by many people. Presoak with an oxygen based bleach. If the item is sturdy, such as a table cloth or linens, you can wash them in the washing machine, with warm water, in small loads and FULL water levels. If the item is fragile or won’t fit in the washing machine, gently wash it by hand in a tub of warm water.
Protein: Blot up as much of the spill as possible. Wash in cool water with salt (1 teaspoon to 1 pint water). Rinse well. If the stain remains, then presoak with oxygen based bleach. Do not use hot water or dryer as this will set the stain.
Wax: Gently scrape off as much as you can. Put the item in a baggie and into your freezer. When the stain is "frozen", take the item out and bend the textile. The frozen wax should break off the fabric.
Mold & mildew: These are live spores which love warm, damp and dark places. You have to kill the spores before they can destroy the fabric. Chlorine bleach can be used on white cottons and linens. Oxygen bleach can be used on other colors. Be sure to rinse well to stop the bleach damage to the fabric. Air dry.
NEVER twist or wring the water out of your fabric. Place it on a clean white towel and gently roll it up in the towel to absorb the water.
Are there products made for cleaning textiles? Yes, there are several on the market. A good cleaning product will contain sodium percarbonate which is basically hydrogen peroxide and soda. The combination softens the water allowing it to penetrate the fabric and stain better. It also has a bleaching agent however, it is non-toxic and biodegradable. Restoration Cleaner contains sodium percarbonate and is said to be color safe, fabric safe*, environmentally safe and an excellent deodorizer. *However, do NOT use it for silk fabrics or woolen carpets. Restoration will also remove yellowing and works on most stains. Treasure Wash has a formula made for needlework such as cross stitch. Fabri-Care is 100% Orvus which is a safe and effective cleaner without any oils, perfumes, and additives. This product is not recommended for needlepoint because it will remove the sizing in the canvas.
TIP: Most of the articles agree that you should never dry-clean your textiles. The process uses harsh chemicals which can break down your fibers.
Is any method better for large versus small items? For quilts, the major issue may be dust and dirt rather than actual stains. You can air it outside. Lay it on a surface protected by a clean sheet underneath and another one on top. Another way to clean it is with a vacuum that has a low power setting. Gently vacuum using the smallest attachment. Protect the fabric by vacuuming through a fine mesh screen, netting or panty hose stretched over the hose. Use a gentle motion and don’t vacuum loose embellishments. For small items that may have gotten dusty in a drawer or framed, you can use something like the Magic Needlework Cleaner. This has a special grit-free powder that absorbs dirt. You squeeze the bag so a bit of the powder comes out. Rub the bag against the needlework and the powder picks up the dirt. The manufacture says it is guaranteed not to harm materials or fade colors. This product will work on silk, rayon, suede, and even paper. OxyClean is also a product mentioned in many resources.
REMEMBER: Be sure to rinse very well. Remaining detergent can cause yellowing. You might want to use distilled water for your final rinse, especially if you have hard water. You don’t want to do all that work cleaning the piece only to leave in the lime and rust particles.
Why does cotton seem to stain easier than polyester? The Smithsonian Museum tells us that "water swells natural fibers…so a water-based stain will go deeper into a natural fiber. Polyester or acrylic will repel water-based stains but absorb oily ones."
HINT: Keep in mind that dyes are often set in fibers the way a stain is. So, if you use the wrong technique it will try to get the "stain" out of your over-dyed threads. Beware!
Several needlework sites offer tips on cleaning or washing their particular products:
Nancy Kirk offers a free 8-session course on how to take care of your quilt. Many of the ideas also work for textiles. To learn more check out her website.
Keep your work area and hands clean! Remember that your hands and work surfaces can have oils and residue on them. When preparing a clean work surface, use your regular cleaning supplies. However, before you begin, wipe the area down with water to remove any lingering film. As far as your hands, at the very least wash and dry them. Remove your jewelry so nothing gets snagged. Depending on your heirlooms, you may want to invest in plain white cotton gloves.
ALWAYS clean your items before you put them away. Sometimes you won’t see the stain until you take it out to use it. A great example is baby clothes. They look clean, but they have "invisible" protein stains.
TIP: Do not use starch on an item you plan to store. It can cause yellowing and some ingredients may attract insects.
Where should linens be stored? Textiles like to be cool and dry when not in use. Protect them by using the special products made for long-term storage. Do not use regular tissue paper, plastic bags, non-archival boxes, or in direct contact with a metal or wood drawer or cabinet. If you are storing items in a wooden box or drawer then line them with Mylar (available at art supply stores) or polyethylene sheeting. This will keep the oils and acids in the woods from coming in contact with your pieces.
TIP: I’d been taught to throw in a couple of moth balls or cedar chips to keep insects away. DON’T DO THAT ANY MORE!! One is considered a carcinogen and the other has a volatile vapor; neither which is worth what little protection they provide.
How should they be stored? Small linens, doilies, and such can be stored flat between layers of acid-free tissue (#). You can also use washed, unbleached muslin fabric. Another fabric choice is 100% white cotton sheets. If the items are a little larger, you can store them around a cardboard tube. Be sure to wrap the tube with several layers of acid-free tissue or muslin and another layer to protect them after they are rolled.
If the item is so large that it must be folded, use several layers of acid-free tissue or muslin to help cushion the folds. A great tip is not to fold it down the middle. It is likely the item has always been folded that way and those areas may be stressed. Try folding it in thirds.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Once a year take time to examine your stored textiles. Look for any mold, mildew, or insect traces. Take the time to re-fold your items a different way to help preserve the threads at the fold lines.
One of the biggest no-no’s for displaying textiles is to have them in direct light. It doesn’t take long for fabrics and threads to fade when in sunlight or near a very hot light source. Damage due to fading cannot be reversed. Long term exposure to ultraviolet light can also cause some threads and fabrics to yellow over time.
One way to eliminate long term exposure is to rotate your textiles throughout the year. Have several items for one display area, so that one item can be displayed while the others are in storage.
Use display methods that can give some protection from light and dust. There are many display boxes on the market today that will add that finished look while protecting your treasures. Be sure that if you are placing a textile under glass that a spacer is used to keep the glass from touching the fabric.
For large textiles such as quilts, try to display them so they are not folded in a traditional manner.
Digitally record your items before you put them into storage. This is great for insurance reasons. More importantly, you are preserving your family heritage. Don’t stop there! Label all your items with a minimum of a description of the item, any history you know of, and the date the item was stored. Keep a master list of the items and where they are stored. The Nebraska State Historical Society has a fabulous website dedicated to the preservation of heirlooms. Here is just a small segment on how to document your family heirlooms with a form you can adapt for your own documentation use.
I thought it would be helpful to know what some of the archival terms really meant. The definitions I have used here come from the Nebraska State Historical Society.
Acid-Free: "In principle, papers which contain no free acid and have a pH value of 7.0 or greater. In practice, papermakers consider a paper having a pH value of 6.0 or greater to be acid free."
Acidic: "A substance is labeled acidic when it measures lower than a 7 on the pH scale. The lower the number the more acidic the substance is."
Alkaline: "Also known as a base, an alkaline substance measures higher than a 7 on the pH scale. The higher the number the more alkaline the substance is."
Archival: "This term is used loosely to describe a material that has been made for long-term stability. There is no official definition of the term, and it can be used to mean anything from ‘neutral at the time of manufacture’ to ‘acid-free, lignin-free, sulfur-free, and optical brightener-free’, etc."
Buffered: "Materials can be buffered by incorporating an alkaline additive, like calcium carbonate, into their structure during manufacture. The alkaline additive…is designed to neutralize any acids that are formed by the base material during aging. Buffered products should not be used around protein-based materials like silk, wool, some photographs, leather, parchment, or vellum."
Mylar – "Trademark name for inert sheets of clear polyester."
pH: "The measure of hydrogen ion activity in a solution. The scale ranges from 0 to 14. Acidic solutions range from 0 to 7, with 1 being the most acid. A pH of 7 is neutral. Alkaline solutions range from 8 to 14, with a maximum alkalinity of 14. The pH can be measured, always in water, with pH strips or with a pH meter."
Polyethylene: "An inert plastic that is recognized as being safe for the storage of artifacts."
I hope this has helped to clear up some of the confusion on when, how and why you should clean, store, and document your heirloom textiles. If you have a cleaning or storage tip that you would recommend please email us and tell us about it. We may share it in future newsletters or in the Tips Section on the Save Our Stitches website.