The environment is almost always the main reason for decay in textiles. As with other parts of our collection the main culprits are light, temperature and humidity. For textiles pests are a particular problem. Chemicals and pollutants can also damage textiles and accelerate their decay.
Light Fading caused by ultra violet radiation from sunlight or florescent lights can occur quickly and is permanent. UV light will also cause fibers to become brittle increasing the risk of tears or holes. Dyes fade when exposed to light. The only thing that will prevent light damage is total darkness. That may be practicable for the wedding dress stored in a box in your closet, but not so practical for your grandmother’s quilt hanging on the wall of the family room. There are some measures that can be taken to lessen the damage, if not to eliminate it completely.
Temperature and Relative Humidity Textile fibers expand and contract as the humidity in the environment increases and decreases. Daily changes in the chemical make-up of fabric will speed its deterioration. Too low humidity can also be a problem for textiles leading to brittleness and fragility. Humidity level should not go below 30%.
Mold and Mildew High temperatures and high relative humidity pose special problems for fabrics and textiles. Mold and mildew are both fungi which thrive in wet, humid places. Mold and mildew usually appear as dark blue or black in color and can stain textile materials. Staining can sometimes be removed if it is caught early enough. Often the damage is irreparable. Mold will eat into fabric causing irreversible holes and tears. If you find active mold growth on a textile object the first thing to do is dry it out and put it in an area that has relative humidity below 65%. According to the National Archives, mold cannot grow in environments with relative humidity below 65%.
Pests – Clothing moths, carpet beetles, silverfish, firebrats and rodents can all wreak havoc with the natural fibers found in our delicate textiles. Be on the lookout for spiders, too. Spiders won’t eat textiles, but may be a sign that other insects are present. High temperatures and high humidity increase the likelihood of having problems from pests. Stated another way, keeping temperatures and humidity low will reduce the risk of pests. Even in cool, dry environments pests can accumulate, which is why periodic inspection of textiles is essential. Silks and wool made from animals that are high in protein are attractive to clothes moths and carpet beetles. Silverfish and firebrats will eat starches and sugars applied to fabrics and tend toward cotton and linen materials. Collectors who regularly purchase textiles from outside vendors, antique stores will want to take certain measures when bringing new items into the collection. Keep in mind that pests will also be attracted to fur, feathers, hair, and horn that may be attached to or part of a garment.
Air Pollution – Dirt and dust within our homes and chemical pollutants outside our homes can contribute to the deterioration of fragile textiles. Sulfur dioxides from automobiles and industrial waste can affect some dyes. Dirt can become embedded in fibers especially with humidity fluctuations, and can stain fabrics. Dirt can also be gritty and razor sharp on a microscopic level, tearing into fibers and weakening them. Harsh cleaning solutions within our homes can also damage delicate fabrics. Never use ammonia or turpentine in the vicinity of fragile textiles.
Inherent Vice The term inherent vice means that the object can be destroyed by the materials that were used in the manufacturing process or in the construction of the object. In other words, instead of being destroyed by things outside the object, the properties of the object itself can cause destruction. For example, in the 19th century, metallic salts were added to silk during the manufacturing process to make it heavier and stiff. Called “weighted” silk, this material is vulnerable to cracking and eventually turns to powder. Light exposure increases the damage, which is irreversible. Weighted silk can be found in clothing, but also in Victorian “crazy” quilts. Black and brown dyes that used iron as a fixative in the past can rust and rot staining fabric or leaving holes. Often pre-20th century dyes were not properly fixed. These dyes can change color or bleed into surrounding fibers especially when exposed to light or high heat and humidity. Even the slightest dampness can cause bleeding making it nearly impossible to clean such items. Because inherent vice is part of the fabric or the object, little can be done to eliminate the damage. The best we can do is to try to slow deterioration.
If you have questions about the textiles in your care, contact a preservationist. One of the best local resources is NEDCC https://www.nedcc.org/