Caring for Textiles



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 IMG_3172places. 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 IMG_1953homes 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.IMG_3170


If you have questions about the textiles in your care, contact a preservationist. One of the best local resources is NEDCC

Preserving Paper

Eugene Baby


The material used in the paper-making process determines the stability and lifespan of the product and is the most important thing to consider as a preservationist or family archivist.

Some materials are very stable and will remain intact for centuries. Other materials deteriorate quickly and need to be replaced as soon as possible. Early paper production used linen, cotton and hemp. These materials are relatively stable and durable and will last a long time. As paper production increased during the 19th century, a shortage of
img011-1990-Andrade (Harkness) Casey-Sportslinen, cotton and hemp occurred which caused papermakers to look for raw materials that were cheaper and easier to work with. In the 1840s groundwood pulp began to be used. This is a form of wood that has not been cooked or chemically treated, and has a high lignin content and is very acidic.[1]

Acid is the single most common cause for the accelerated rate of deterioration in paper.

Most commonly, newspapers use this cheap form of paper, which is why they yellow and brown more quickly than other types of paper. When acid is exposed to light, heat and humidity, it yellows and browns and weakens the paper causing it to become brittle and to break off. Paper made with inferior materials are said to have “inherent vice.” The term inherent vice refers to deterioration that is caused as a result of the materials that make an item, in this case paper, as opposed to outside influences that cause paper to deteriorate such as high humidity, water, or light.[2] The “vice” is inherent in (inside) the product.

Sizing materials used in the manufacturing process are another source that causes poor paper quality. In particular alum-rosin sizing agent, which began to be used in the United States in the 1850s, needs an acidic environment to be produced. Alum-rosin leaves a sulfuric acid by-product that causes brittle paper that browns and deteriorates quickly. Later in the century, in the 1870s, a machine process for making alum-rosin sizing resulted in even higher acidic content further accelerating “brittle book syndrome.”


As early as 1898 the Committee on the Deterioration of Paper in London was formed as a result of librarians’ concern over the deterioration of books in their charge.

IMG_1535By the 1930s it was well known that acid was at the root of the problem causing brittle, browned and yellowed books in large library collections. At this time the search for “permanent paper” began.   Permanent paper as defined by preservationists is: “Paper which during long term storage in libraries, archives and other protected environments will undergo little or no change in properties that affect use.”[3] Not until 1984 was the first ANSI standard for permanent paper issued.

Today the cheap copy/printing paper we use in our printers and copy machines passes ANSI standards.

Librarians and archivists routinely copy old deteriorating paper onto the current acid-free paper. As an archivist I have spent many an hour at the copy machine doing just this. As a family historian, you may do the same.

Acid free paper has a PH of 7 or higher.  Acid free paper made with alpha cellulose stock will have little or no lignin.

Buffered paper has an alkaline reserve, or buffering agent added druing production to lower the PH level.  Calcium carbonate or magnesium carbonate are the most common buffering agents.


[1] 2-2-16
[2] 2-2-16
[3] 2-2-16

Archiving Photographs


The single most important thing you can do for you photographs is store them in a good environment.

Current ANSI/ISO[1] standards state that temperatures should not exceed 65° for prints. Humidity levels should be 30% to 50% for black and white photographs and 30% to 40% for color prints. IMG_4136If you keep all your processed photographs in one place, the temperature should not exceed 65° and the humidity level should be between 30% to 40%.Jerry & Rose Lafond

Film has greater requirements. Acetate film can last about fifty years at room temperature with moderate relative humidity (RH). After that, film will begin to seriously degrade. Those negatives and reel to reels that were created in your lifetime might still be in good condition, but they will not last into the future unless you take corrective measures today.

The best thing to do with reel-to-reel films that are in good condition is to digitize them as soon as possible. Once they are digitized the original is less important. At this point in time, a DVD will provide greater life storage than an old, already deteriorating film. The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) universally accepted by the end of the 20th century that preservation by digitization was the preferred storage mechanism in archives for audiovisual materials.

IMG_2210The standard for black and white films is that they should not be stored in a place where the temperature will exceed 70°. That makes them easy to store with your photographs, but the humidity level needs to be lower, between 20% to 30%. Color film has even higher standards with a maximum temperature of 70° with 20% to 30% relative humidity.

This probably sounds confusing so let me break it down for you. If you have a place in your home where a temperature of 65° and a relative humidity of 30% to 40% can be maintained, your photographs can be stored there. If you have one or two films that you need to store, have them digitized and store them along with the photographs. Digitized film does not need to be kept. Slides inside cropped


[1] AmericanNational Standards Institute

What is a Family Archive

Ma Birth _ Baptism

Everything we own or use does not belong in a family archive.

In the archives profession we try to identify items that have enduring value. A family archive should retain records that show documentary evidence of a person’s life.

Collectively this forms the family history.   I cannot say fully what would have enduring value in your family. To some extent the matter is very personal. But there are certain things that are typically more important than others and are worth saving.

Legal Documents – certificates of birth, death, marriage, passports, immigration papers, military records, lawsuits, divorce decrees, wills, etc. Legal documents reveal a great deal about people, sometimes in ways we don’t always think. Typically all legal documents should be retained.

Financial Value – stocks, bonds, deeds, purchase and sales agreements, loans, appraisals for jewelry, antiques or equipment, family heirlooms such as jewelry, silver, watches, artwork. Keep items that show evidence of value that are still active. Many people are very private about how much money they earn, but saving some of this information First Sales Agreement p1might be revealing to future generations.

Functional – documents used to accomplish a specific task. Blueprints, architectural drawings, maps, navigational records, scientific and observational documents, business plans, cookbooks, dress patterns, knitting patterns. If they were created by a family member or show evidence of something that was important in their lives, you may want to save it.

Show proof that an event occurred – legal documents will do this, but other events not legal in nature will be recorded through graduation diplomas, religious rites of passage such as first communion or bar mitzvah, greetings cards for birthdays, sympathy cards, thank-you notes, awards or certifications for hobbies or sports, course completions or professional training certificates. I’m an avid concert go-er and save tickets of the different concerts I’ve attended. Photographs are the most explicit way we document that an event occurred. Photographs of family reunions, travel abroad, annual holidays, or baby’s first tooth are all events we may find important to save and archive.

Some discrimination will be needed in this category of showing proof that an event occurred.

Ask yourself, does this item have enduring value? Does it show evidence of a person’s life? Is the event significant enough to keep evidence of it?

In other words, do we need to keep every photograph from every holiday? It’s probably not necessary to save every Christmas card you’ve ever received, but you might want to Mom,Dad,Marriage Certsave all the sympathy cards you received when your father died. Think of what would be of interest to your future forebear.

Sentimental – This is a tough category because, depending on how sentimental you are, everything could potentially be saved. Some things have higher sentimental value than others.

You probably don’t want to save the McDonald’s uniform you wore in high school, but you may want to save the baseball cap you wore if that was a big part of your high school experience.

If you played baseball one season and weren’t very good at it and didn’t like it, keeping the cap doesn’t really provide evidence of who you were and what was important to you. Many people save wedding dresses and christening gowns that are passed down to future generations. My family saved the fiddle my mother’s Uncle Freddy played to entertain the family. He died many years before I was born, but I will keep the fiddle and include the stories my mother shared about his wild life.

Recording the Inner Life – many people spend hours carefully creating records of their own thoughts, telling their own stories, or recording the lives of other family members. These documents include journals, scrapbooks, photograph albums, blogposts, videos, emails, letters, memoirs, oral histories, books, especially those that are signed by the Lillian Frenier 4-22-1907author or contain margin notes by the owner. We’ll want to save these documents since the owner took such care in creating them.

Social Interactions – most people have belonged to at least one social organization in their lifetime whether it’s the Boy Scouts as a child, or a quilt group as an adult. Some of these social institutions form a big part of our identity and our personal history. In many cases families participate in a social organization as a group. This is particularly true of many religious institutions. We may have in our possession minutes of meetings, programs of events, membership rosters. Sports organizations also fall into this category, as would recreational activities such as boating, hiking, skiing, golfing, or bicycling. Evidence of political activity such as pins, banners, financial contributions, speeches, campaign activities may have enduring value. It’s not necessary to save everything from every organization we ever attended. We may not want to save any of it. But, if we’ve received special recognition or if it formed a big part of our personality, we may want to save a few treasured items. My Stearns, Donna Quilt Competitionsister belonged to a quilt group for over twenty years. She received recognition for some of her quilts, gave presentations, and participated in the group’s annual events. Retaining some evidence of her participation in this group will show future generations what was important to her, provide evidence of her values, and document how others perceived her and her handicraft.


Donating to an Archive


It always interests me how people react when I tell them that I have a business that teaches people how to create a family archive. A while ago I was working in the stacks with an archivist who was visiting to look at some of the materials in our collection. When I told him about my business his immediate thought was that people would want to give their things away and donate them to an archive. He’s usually at the receiving end of that equation and I could see he was concerned that people would throw things away before they made it to an archive where the archivist could preen over it, and it could be preserved into perpetuity.

I explained that teaching people how to dispose of their materials wasn’t my main intention. My focus is to teach them how to keep and preserve their items.

But, when I thought about it, I saw he was right. Many people don’t want to keep everything, yet they don’t know what to do with it. You may also feel that your house is not the best place for some of the precious historical items that have been handed down IMG_2020to you. This is exactly the reason many people donate materials to a trusted archive that is better equipped to ensure the article’s long-term survival.

If you don’t want to keep everything, or

think you have something of significant historical value, the best thing to do is to contact your local historical society.

I suggest you call the place that you are most familiar with, or the one that is closest to you. If they don’t want your items, they may be able to tell you who will. Make sure the archive you contact is a bona fide repository with real archivists working there. In my area there are small town historical societies that are run by interested volunteers who might not know any more about what to do with the materials than you do. The Staff section of the archives’ website should let you know if there is a qualified person on staff.

Most archives also list on their websites a Mission Statement, and maybe even a Collection Policy. Look under the About section for this information.

The Mission Statement or the Collection Policy will give you an idea of whether or not that archive collects the type of materials you have.

IMG_2014If you own a 19th century doll collection, you might want to give it to an archive that specializes in 19th century dolls. It doesn’t have to go to a place that is that specific, but housing your materials in a place with other like materials will raise the chances that it will be seen by patrons. If you are unsure about where the best place for your materials would be, or don’t want to do the research, make the initial phone call to the archivist. They will set you on the right track. They may know off the top of their heads where they best place for your materials will be.

The next question is should you give it away or should you sell it to the archive?

You could give it away. Many people do. Matter-of-fact, most people do. It depends what it is. If you have an expensive silver tea set that was your great-grandmothers and you have no one to leave it to, and you think a local archive might be interested in it, by all means have it priced by a reputable dealer then approach the archive. Archives will absolutely pay for something if it is of value. But if it something of less value, or very little value on the open market, consider donating it. Archives tend to work on very limited budgets and often they won’t take something unless it’s donated.



Photo Credits:  All Photographs taken by author from the American Textile History Museum


People who have attended my Library Lectures are very familiar with Baby2135.  I teach it in every lecture.

IMG_2222 (1)Before starting to create a family archive consider who you are creating the archive for. If you are not one of those lucky people who have photographs and letters from a long, lost relative who lived during the Civil War or the American Revolution, it’s probably not on your radar to think very far ahead when considering who you are creating this archive for. You may think of creating it for yourself in the event of a disaster. You may think of creating it for your siblings and cousins who you will share with at the next family gathering. Most people think of their children and grandchildren when they think of preserving their documents. Typically this is as far ahead as most people think.

Instead think of the person in your family who will be born after the last person who Edmund Frenier Srhas known you directly has died. Think of your forebear who would think it was cool to have memorabilia from the 20th and 21st centuries. Why do I want you to expand your thinking about who you are leaving your archives to? Because you will tell your story in a very different way; you will describe a letter, a deed, a photograph, a quilt differently. Instead of indicating that a picture is of, “Aunt Mary and her friend, Lou,” you would write instead, “Mary Louise Smith and Lou Johnson. They were a couple for many years, but never married.” If you write for your children you will assume they know who “Aunt Mary” is and that they know that Lou was the boyfriend she never married. The person who is born after the last person who has known you has died, will not know that.

Here’s a formula to help you conceptualize this:

  • If you were born in 1945 and live to be 100, you will die in 2045.
  • If your great grandchild is ten years old when you died, they would be born in 2035.
  • If the great grandchild lives to be 100, they will die in 2135.
  • The person that is born in or after 2135 is the person I want you to think about when you preserve your family history. I call that person, Baby 2135.

I know that sounds crazy and an extremely long time into the future. When I think of Baby 2135, it seems so remote and abstract that I think, “Who cares?” When I’m working in the archives and I wonder whether or not I should save something, I always look back and think, “What don’t we have that I wish we did?” or “What do we have, that I’m glad we do.” Asking these questions changes our perspective. With that in mind, let’s apply the formula to our ancestors.

  • Say you had a great, great, grandfather who was born in 1800.
  • If he lived to be 100, he would have died in 1900.
  • His 10 year old great-grandchild would have been born in 1890.
  • If the great grandchild lived for 100 years, he would die in 1990.
  • The person who was born in 1990 would now be in their twenties.

Doesn’t seem that long ago when you put it that way, huh?




Photographs:  Abby Coelho, Edmund Frenier, Sr.

The Eternal Connection to Our Ancestors

Genealogy shows like Finding Your Roots, Who Do You Think You Are and Genealogy Roadshow, bring to life how connected we are to our ancestors. In each Agnes Flaherty Chadwickepisode people are deeply touched and moved when they learn that a great-great-great-grand-parent who they never knew, lived through a major historical event or disturbing personal tragedy. Whether the history tells of a celebrated past, or a painful circumstance, we are connected to our past. We care deeply about our forebears lives. We often can detect how what happened to them shaped who we are today. Stories and legends get passed down for generations, some true, some only partially true. Today, we have the opportunity to tell the story of our ancestors and to add our story to the mix.

Sometimes values are handed down that are not connected to a story anyone remembers, and yet, everyone in the family lives according to that lore. In a particularly moving Genealogy Roadshow episode, a young woman learned that her grandfather was part of the Tuskegee Experiment. After understanding her grandfather’s tragic story, it made sense that she was brought up believing that she should never trust the government.Tuskegee

In my family after three generations of fathers who left women and children behind, a legacy of strong, independent women who learned to fend for themselves and their children was created. “Always have your own money,” my mother taught. “Just in case.” We all knew the legacy of my grandmother and my mother, but few knew the story of our great-grandmother who also had to support herself and her children at the turn of the 20th century by doing laundry for college students. Her experience most likely influenced her daughter to get divorced in 1930 and her grand-daughter to leave behind her husband in 1972. Unlike most of their peers, their family history provided the permission they needed to get out of bad marriages.Jeanette & Friend

What are the values your family lives by? Some values and traditions are so deeply rooted we may not be aware that they spring from the experience of an ancestor 100 years ago. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves what legacy, values and traditions am I creating? What lessons have you learned, or been forced to learn, that you hope your future forebears will benefit from?