Care and Storage of Antique Clothing & Textiles

Posted by Bella Coeur on

One of the questions  I get asked most is .. how to care and store precious antique clothing and textiles.


FAntique Silk Taffeta Dress ca 1860 - Civil War Erairst, let’s define what an antique textile is. The generally accepted definition of “antique” is any item that is over 100 years old. That makes all Victorian and Edwardian clothing antique. Clothing from the 1920s is quickly becoming antique, as well. But it just makes good common sense to include any fragile textile or garment that is collectible and/or meant to be kept over time in this definition.

When you visit my website, you will notice that with antique or particularly fragile items I often state that “measurements are given for reference only since a garment of this age should not be worn”. Certainly, there are dresses that might be carefully worn such as some Edwardian era dresses and Flapper dresses. But generally speaking, 70+ year old fabrics will not hold up well to wear.

Remember, once an antique dress is damaged, it is gone for good and a piece of history has been lost. These items really can’t truly be repaired and they will continue to deteriorate. We can attempt to conserve what remains but we can never restore it to its original state.

The very best way to enjoy and appreciate the lovely clothing confections of times past is to collect and carefully display it. If you really want to wear an antique gown, it is best to reproduce it as faithfully as possible. It’s amazing how much you learn about fashion and the way a gown was worn just by learning how they are constructed. Reproduction sewing patterns, sized for today’s bodies are available. You can also purchase vintage patterns (mostly post 1940). If you don’t sew, I can direct you to seamstresses who specialize in historical sewing.

But since you finally own that beautiful original antique gown that takes your breath away, how should you care for it, so that you can protect your investment and keep it for future generations to appreciate?

Here are some important things to consider:

      • Air
      • Light
      • Clean
      • Storage Method

AIR – Antique garments should be kept in the type of air that makes YOU comfortable! Not too humid and not too dry. Old clothing is often found stored in the worst possible location of a home – the attic or the basement! Try to find a storage area in a closet on an inside wall of your living space. Humidity will cause the most visible damage quickly. Obviously musty smell and mold are caused by humidity and dampness. Extremely dry air causes fibers to become more brittle.

LIGHT – UV rays aren’t good for you and they aren’t good for fabrics, either! Light causes fading and also contributes to the breakdown of fibers. Obviously, if you store your antique gown in a closet, you have the ultimate protection from UV rays. But if you choose to “store” your dress by displaying it in your home be sure to keep it out of direct sunlight. Even filtered sunlight can be harmful, so it’s best to keep it as far away from a window as you possibly can, unless you are fortunate enough to have windows with UV filtering. (The effectiveness of UV filtered windows does decrease over time, so it’s still best to keep your antiques away from windows.) Try to find a dark corner and maybe even place a dressing screen between your dress and the window – just another layer of protection.

Did you know that florescent lights also give off UV rays? Now that many people are switching to the CF light bulbs, this is something to keep in mind. Although they do give off small amounts of UV rays, incandescent bulbs are much safer for textiles. Use them in your lamps where you display your antique fabrics.

If you have small antique items such as fans, handkerchiefs, gloves, lace and similar items grouped together in a shadowbox display, be sure they are protected with UV protected glass.

CLEAN – I know, that seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? But we’re talking about a little more than the obvious dirt and dust … from which, of course, you should protect your antique gowns. Unless you happen to find antique clothing in an attic, you will probably only have to deal with the issue of common house dust and body oils from handling. If you display your gown in your home it will, without a doubt, collect dust. Simply add a can of compressed air to your housecleaning supplies and every week when you clean, carefully spritz the air across the areas where dust collects. (If you clean more often than that, shame on you. If you do it once every 6 months, I won’t tell on you if you won’t tell on me!)

It’s also advisable to use 100% white cotton gloves that fit you … well, “like a glove”! This prevents the transfer of anything that might be on your hands to your textile. If you are uncomfortable handling your textile with gloved hands, at least make sure to wash your hands and rinse well with clear water. It’s best to air dry your hands because traces of fabric softener will remain on your hand towels and end up on your hands. Picky, picky stuff, eh?

You’ll also want to display your antique textiles away from kitchens, where they would be exposed to grease and chemicals in the air. And of course, the bathroom with its high humidity would be a bad idea. (If your bathroom is big enough to store your textiles ... I don't even want to hear about it!) But don’t forget your dressing area. Perfume overspray, hairspray, cosmetics … there are a lot of things that can stain and damage your textiles.

If you do come across some antique clothing that is old, dusty, and musty there are a lot of things that need to be done to preserve it. There are specific ways to clean items that have been ignored in an attic for a century or so. They can be very detailed and care should be exercised when doing so. The Costume Society of America does have a specialized booklet entitled “Your Vintage Keepsake - A CSA Guide to Costume Storage and Display” that you can order through their website.

One more word about cleaning antique textiles: The dry cleaner can be your best friend or worst enemy. It depends on the age and fabric content of your item. “Dry” cleaning really isn’t. Your clothing is just being washed in chemicals. Yikes! Antique textiles are really too fragile to come into contact with chemicals and some lighter fabrics have even been known to have dark spots appear from being dry cleaned. Also, traces of the chemicals will remain in the textile after cleaning and will contribute to deterioration. That said, the dry cleaner can be your best friend prior to storing modern synthetic fabrics. They’re already mostly chemical anyway!

What you don’t want to do is store a special dress, like your wedding gown, with even a tiny spot of champagne or cake frosting because the stain will eventually turn brown and the sugars are food that attracts critters – the rodent kind AND the insect kind. Don’t pay extra to have your gown put in a box with a viewing window and blue tissue paper. Why? The window allows destructive light in and the blue dye on the paper can transfer to your white gown, and it really does not prevent yellowing at all!

STORAGE -- There are a couple different ways to store your antique clothing and textiles. The safest, most conservation-minded method is flat storage in acid-free containers. The good news is that most people find it easier to store boxes than to find hanging space in closets. We are hearing a lot about acid-free papers and “archival quality” items for heirloom documents and scrapbooking these days, but it is equally important to use proper conservation materials with your textiles.

Acid-free cardboard boxes and papers are the most common materials used for textile storage and protection. When a product is said to be “acid-free” it means that it is made without acid producing contents such as lignin, which comes from wood pulp. Acid-free products have a neutral pH unless calcium carbonate has been added to make them alkaline, and then they are called “buffered”. Buffered storage is good for plant based fibers such as cotton and linen. “Non-buffered” remains completely neutral and is good for storage of protein (animal) fibers such as wool and silk. Since many antique fabrics contain a blend of plant and protein fibers, we recommend the use of non-buffered papers. Non-buffered papers are safe for storing all types of fibers. Plastic storage containers are generally considered inappropriate for textile storage because many are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is not chemically stable. Dry cleaning bags, garment bags, and totes are quite often made of PVC. Polypropylene and polyethylene are acceptable plastics for archival storage, but since not all plastics are labeled, it’s safer to stick with cardboard, which “breathes” as well. Cedar chests may repel moths and carpet beetles, but as a chest ages, the oils that produce the distinctive aroma dissipate and the less it repels insects. At the same time, the wood gives off acid as it ages, just the way an untreated cardboard box would. So while we love cedar chests and the memories they represent, they’re not really good storage for your true antique textiles.

Sometimes we have heirloom wedding gowns with accessory items their owners wish to store with the gown. Leathers, plastics, and synthetic fabrics and other items should be stored separately from textiles. To be sure that the items are kept together for posterity, simply note on the outside of the storage boxes information to tell future generations that items belong together. You’ve probably heard that you should roll quilts to store them, and this is also a good idea for storing shawls, scarves, and handkerchiefs. Dresses aren’t so easy to roll, so we carefully fold them, padded between layers with acid-free tissue paper. It is also recommended to re-fold once a year, which also gives you the opportunity to inspect your gown for any insects or other problems that may have surfaced over time.

Should you decide to store your antique gown on a hanger, first consider the weight of the item. Mid-19th century and earlier dresses were usually made in one piece and had a small loop sewn at the waistband for hanging on a peg. Some of these dresses have a lot of heavy fabric in the skirt and can do some serious damage to the shoulder area of a dress when placed on a hanger today. Newer “antique” gowns, such as beaded silk Flapper dresses, are extremely heavy due to enormous amounts of glass beading. The threads holding these beads are now 90+ years old and the stress of this kind of weight is magnified by gravity when stored on a hanger. It also puts the weight of all the glass beads on the shoulders, when on a hanger, so tearing is a danger when stored in this manner. If you must hang an antique garment for storage always, ALWAYS use a padded hanger. Always! I can’t tell you how many garments I have been offered that are damaged beyond saving by hangers. You can pad a regular hanger with 100% cotton batting, covered with 100% cotton knit or muslin for the very best padded hanger. In a pinch, you can buy the satin covered padded hangers and recently I’ve found that Martha Stewart has a line of 100% cotton canvas covered hangers, which are preferable to synthetic satin and also help prevent slipping. I don’t know what the content of the padding is so I would not be comfortable in stating that they would be of archival quality, but if you just can’t get around to making your own these are a pretty decent second choice.Next, you need to make a muslin cover for the garment out of 100% cotton fabric that you’ve laundered (no fabric softener!) a couple of times. Just sew up your own garment bag with ties instead of a zipper.

What about storing your antique gown and displaying it at the same time? Not a bad idea, as long as you remember to keep it out of direct sunlight, do the dusting thing AND don’t try to fasten a gown with a 22” waist over a dress form with a 26” waist! Ouch! Dress forms are very hard to find that are small enough to properly display an antique gown. We’ve found some “junior” sized dress forms, presumably for use when sewing for teens, that have worked fairly well. But the best dress form is made with a soft 100% cotton body. The bodies are made of 100% cotton batting with 100% cotton knit covers so you can squish them down to almost any size. They can also be padded in the bust and hip areas.

Sometimes we have heirloom wedding gowns with accessory items their owners wish to store with the gown. Leathers, plastics, and synthetic fabrics and other items should be stored separately from textiles. To be sure that the items are kept together for posterity, simply note on the outside of the storage boxes information to tell future generations that items belong together.

And finally – one last thing to consider when thinking about the proper care of antique clothing: the decision to wear or not wear them. It is a very personal decision and one that can only be made by the owner of the garment. I think you know where I stand on this issue.

But here are some thoughts on the subject: As modern women, we just don’t know how to wear the clothing as it was meant to be worn. And frankly, most of us are not nearly small enough. The size of our bodies today and the fact that we are used to total freedom of movement are, in my opinion, probably the biggest factors contributing to the deterioration of antique clothing that is worn.

Consider this: The Victorian and Edwardian woman was corseted in some manner since her childhood and was accustomed to the limited movement. She did not necessarily feel constrained by her corset, bustle or petticoats. This is the life she knew. Today, we are accustomed to moving freely – bending at the waist, twisting and turning, raising our arms, lifting and so forth. Our foremothers probably only enjoyed that freedom in their nightgowns. So -- IF you choose to wear an antique garment that you own: DO make certain your own measurements are well smaller than that of the dress. Respect the age of the fabric and the thread holding it together. It WILL be fragile, to some extent. If you attempt to wear an antique dress and your body is too large for the dress size, pulling on the fabric can seriously damage or destroy it. If you barely fit the dress, your movement can cause the same damage. So just be respectful. 

DO wear newly made undergarments proper to the period of your dress! They truly are the “foundation” for any antique OR vintage clothing you wear. Wearing the same type and amount of undergarments that the original owner of a dress wore will not only help you get the realistic look but the undergarments themselves will help protect your investment in an antique garment in the same way the undergarment protected the garment when it was new. 

  • A corset or girdle not only provides the proper shape, but it helps you to move in the way the garment was meant to be worn. When properly fitted – and proper fit IS the key – a corset is not uncomfortable unless it is tight laced. (Tight lacing presents certain dangers to health and Victorian women were warned of the hazards.)
  • A chemise or slip protects the inside of a garment from perspiration and body oil. A chemise is meant to be worn next to your skin and will protect YOU from your corset! A slip is worn over a girdle. 
  • A bustle, if appropriate to the period of the dress, will provide the proper shape and keep dress hems from excess wear by holding them at the appropriate length so as not to drag (obviously, this does not apply for dresses with intentionally long trains).

As the lucky owner of an antique textile, we hope this information will help you preserve it for many, many years to come!

(Originally published 16 August 2016)

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