Hello everyone. In this month’s blog post I am pleased to introduce Melinda Hey, a textile conservator who is going to take us through some of the things she encounters when working on different textile objects and how she deals with them.
I originally trained in fine art embroidery but now I’m a textile conservator and company director of the Landi Company. I’ve worked with Sheila Landi since 2018 after I completed a Masters in Conservation of Cultural Heritage at University of Lincoln. Conservation can encompass many elements, bench work, care of collections and research being the main three. I’m lucky that my work includes all of them in some form. Here I’m going to briefly discuss care of collections and the most likely risks to textiles, as well as practical ideas to help care for them.
In conservation most of the deterioration seen on objects is caused by a few common issues. These causes are often referred to as ‘agents of deterioration’ and there are generally considered to be ten of them: incorrect humidity, incorrect temperature, light, pollutants, pests, neglect, physical force, water (flooding), fire, theft and vandalism. In my experience the agents most likely to cause deterioration in textiles are light damage, pests, poor environmental conditions (incorrect humidity and temperature), and neglect. All of these damage both the appearance and integrity of an object, and textiles are particularly vulnerable to these compared to other materials in the decorative arts. An historic house curator recently commented during conversation that, whilst appreciating the wonderful textile collection in his care, ceramics are far easier to care for (providing no-one trips over carrying them that is!).
So how can we mitigate the damage experienced by textiles so that we can enjoy them for as long as possible, whether in a heritage setting or our own homes?
Let’s start with the agent that is arguably hardest to avoid, light. It can’t be overstated just how damaging light is to textiles. The damage is cumulative; as well as light changing the colour of dye, causing colours to fade, it breaks down and weakens fibres. Silk is the most vulnerable natural fibre, with yellow and red dyes the most quickly affected by light.
One of the greatest pleasures and privileges of being a textile conservator is having access to the reverse of objects. We’re able to peer underneath them, and into the seams, and what we often find is the original intent for an object. Textiles were frequently intensely coloured when newly made, the aged, sombre palette of many historic objects betrays the original appearance.
Tapestries are a good example of this phenomena. The tapestry depicting Christ’s Charge to Peter, illustrated here (Fig.2), presents with browns, greys and blues but turn it over (Fig. 3) and it feels like an entirely different tapestry. The rainbow colours of the apostle’s robes are vibrant, the palette joyful and bright. I find such pleasure in these colours, it’s as if I’ve put-on rose-tinted glasses. Somehow I feel the original, often hidden, colours of a textile reflect the joy of those who created and loved them. Perhaps if those people wanted a rainbow palette, then they might have been more colourful and less serious than I’ve personally imagined. The vibrant colours seem modern and I feel the distance of time lessen and more connected to the past.
Similarly, the changes in colours can skew the original intent of a piece. Sticking with tapestries, many were woven in places with gold or silk threads. One reason being to illustrate the wealth of the owner but there was a deliberate visual element too. Lit up by firelight the silk and gold threads must have shone, animating the tapestry as the light flickered across the surface, the blues of the sky lit up as if by sunlight. Over the decades, silk disintegrates while (non-pure) gold thread tarnishes. Darkening over time causes a reversing of tone, light areas become dark, entirely changing the look of a tapestry, so that we must see a very different piece to those who saw it originally.
Of course it isn’t only tapestries but costume, upholstery and other smaller objects that suffer light damage. The little Chinese opera doll in Fig. 4 was displayed with her arms crossed in front of her while she sat on a shelf. It can be clearly seen where the sunlight fell on her. It’s completely bleached the rich blue out of her costume and severely weakened the silk; the weft threads (those woven horizontally) are almost entirely missing now. Her ceramic face however remains in good condition, largely unaffected by the light. I’d love to go back in time and be able to lift her off the shelf and place her somewhere out of the direct light!
The most effective method of limiting light damage is to store objects in the dark and in some cases good storage is the best/only option for conservation. However, this isn’t very practical advice for anyone who wants to enjoy their textiles on display. Museums and historic houses have the option of rotating display objects and using UV film on windows. One extreme method is to have a replica or replacement made although this isn’t an option for most of us.
Light is measured in Lumen. The intensity of visible light is measured in lux (1 lux = 1 lumen per square metre). Ideally, sensitive objects like textiles would only be exposed to around 50 lux, especially objects made of particularly vulnerable fabrics. However, while monitoring light levels for collection care, lumen can register at many thousands near a window on a sunny day. A level which, if not addressed, will vastly accelerate damage.
While monitoring light is advised in heritage settings it probably isn’t necessary in the home. It will be obvious where the lightest areas of a house are. The most practical way to care for textiles at home is to place them in a room avoiding direct sunlight or limit the hours of sun exposure. Blinds are another way of managing light levels; while damage from artificial lights can be mitigated with low-wattage bulbs.
Unlike light, pests aren’t ever present but when they do strike, they can be devastating. Pests use textiles as a food source and / or a breeding ground. They devour fibres, in particular proteinaceous textiles: wool, silk, fur and feathers. Insects such as house flies can stain fabrics with excrement, so although they are not a pest in themselves they can still be a problem. Webbing clothes and case bearing moths are the most likely candidates to cause damage at home but carpet beetles are also a common pest. They all have larvae that eat fibres. If they go unchecked, pests can be hugely destructive to textiles.
It’s always best to first deter pests, rather than have to choose a treatment to vanquish them. Pests don’t like being disturbed so good basic housekeeping including vacuuming and removing dust is effective. This is true in both heritage settings and at home. Moving objects, checking in drawers and storage spaces is another way to disturb unwanted visitors. For those that have a collection which includes fur and feathers, it’s recommended that these are stored separately, to limit the spread of any possible infestations. If an item does become infested, then physically removing the pests can work, although eggs are hard to detect and successfully remove. Quarantining the object by temporarily wrapping it in plastic will isolate the problem and prevent pests from spreading. Quarantining can also help identify if anything is still present without endangering other textiles. Leaving the object wrapped for a number of weeks, allowing for a full lifecycle would be ideal.
Other treatments to remove pests include microwaving, anoxia pest control and exposure to high temperatures, although these are not generally suitable for domestic use. If logistics allow, and you don’t mind having a pest-ridden textile in your freezer, then freezing will kill many pests. Insecticide is another option and there are products designed to be used in heritage settings which could also be used in a home. The debate about how safe they are to spray directly onto textiles is however, unresolved and would never be recommended for fragile objects.
Another method, which remains relatively unexplored, is the use of a microscopic parasitoid wasp. These target the eggs of the moth or beetle, the idea being that the wasps lay their eggs in the pests’ eggs preventing them from hatching. Once the lifecycle of the pest has been disrupted the wasps no longer have a food source and themselves die off naturally. It’s a sustainable, environmentally friendly method of pest control that has been used in horticulture for decades. There have been trials in a heritage setting at both at Burghley House and Blickling Hall, a National Trust property, in the past couple of years that have had promising results. It is not a difficult or expensive method and parasitoids can be bought for domestic use, however knowledge of the pests and process are essential for good results.
Unless there is a serious infestation good housekeeping in the first place is still the best defence over all of these methods.
Incorrect temperature and humidity
These go hand in hand since a rise in temperature will change the relative humidity of a room. These are generally monitored in a heritage setting. Relative humidity (RH) refers to the moisture content of the air. It is expressed as a percentageof the amount of moisture that can be held in the air at a given temperature without causing condensation. The accepted suitable RH for textiles is anything between 30% and 50%, with a temperature of 15-21°C. High humidity is an issue as it encourages mould growth. Mould spores are always present in the air but high RH is a favourable environment in which they can develop. Too low a humidity can dry fibres out, making them brittle and causing splits in fabrics.
These are ideal recommendations but alongside this it is important to avoid frequent fluctuations in temperature and RH. Spikes and dips in environmental conditions cause fibres to swell and shrink accelerating deterioration. Larger, well-funded heritage settings have specialist heating systems installed that run at a stable temperature. Given it is important to have a constant temperature, displaying objects in a kitchen, bathroom or hanging a piece above a heat source are all best avoided. Framed textiles can be particularly susceptible since they develop a micro climate, trapping moisture if hung in areas of high humidity.
This happens when a textile is forgotten or not prized either through lack of interest or knowledge. Poor storage is a habitual factor of neglect and is very damaging to textiles; acid free boxes are the best long term option where possible. Polythene should be avoided as it will trap moisture and can lead to mould growth. Storing textiles in contact with ironwork, such as screws or hinges in boxes risks rust marks which are notoriously hard to remove. Storing textiles flat is best but if things do need to be folded then avoid sharp creases since they cause damage by putting fibres under stress, creating weak areas.
‘Concertinaing’ rather than folding can be beneficial, perhaps with a roll of tissue in the folds to lessen the likelihood of sharp creases. Interleaving layers with acid free tissue or a cotton calico (or similar) is also helpful. Additionally, not cramming too many things into one box can reduce likelihood of damage.
Larger textiles may benefit from being rolled for storage; the golden rule being textiles are to be rolled front out. This prevents embellishment such as embroidery from damage, for instance stitches ‘popping’. It is also preferable for those textiles that have a nap, like velvet, or carpets and rugs. Again interleaving with tissue paper or calico is recommended before wrapping the whole roll and securing the ends to deter pests.
One aspect of neglect is poor record keeping; all too often its entirely absent. If any object, not just a textile, is to be stored for a significant length of time then good labelling is essential. Good record keeping and labelling ensure the knowledge about an object stays with it, which can mean it is cared for appropriately. Including a brief description on the packaging can be so helpful. This would include the date it was made or mended, dimensions and anything else of interest that is known. Its worth considering adding a photograph for easy identification. Good labelling also means there’s no need to disturb a textile by unwrapping it to find out what’s inside a box; especially important for friable textiles.
Inevitably textiles age. Sometimes they become damaged beyond simple care. In this case it may be useful to speak to a conservator and get specialist information and treatment for a textile. Nothing lasts forever but appropriate care can allow textiles to be enjoyed and to survive for as long as possible.
Thank you Melinda for giving us insights into both your work and how we can help keep our own textiles safe for both ourselves and future generations.
Contact: If you would like to contact Melinda or follow her on social media, please see her Twitter and Instagram profiles below:
Twitter: @heymlmelindaml or @Landi_company
Halahan, F & Plowden, A (1987) Looking After Antiques. 2nd edition National Trust Enterprises : London
Landi, S (1998) The Textile Conservator’s Manua.l 3rd edition Butterworth-Heinemann : Oxford
Reynolds, F et al(2011) The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping. 3rd edition Butterworth-Heinemann : Oxford
Halahan, F & Plowden, A (1987) Looking After Antiques. 2nd edition National Trust Enterprises : London
Landi, S (1998) The Textile Conservator’s Manua.l 3rd edition Butterworth-Heinemann : Oxford Reynolds, F et al(2011) The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping. 3rd edition Butterworth-Heinemann : Oxford