One question we are asked frequently at Sew Beautiful is “How do I preserve my family heirlooms?” Properly cared for, precious clothing can survive many generations of storage, and your children’s children will don a history of love when the garments are worn for the special occasions that mark their lives. In the following excerpt from our May/June 2009 issue, experts share their advice for preserving heirloom garments:
Cleaning the garment – Heirloom garment authorities, including Martha Pullen, agree the single most important concern is to put the garment away clean. All stains and chemicals should be removed, including starch, soap, bleach and fabric softener.
Stains, dirt and dust left on fabric can cause holes as the garment ages, according to Judy Ritter of Whiteworks Christening Gowns in Rome, Ohio. Mildew renders a gown useless as well, and even mild chemicals left in fabric will mildew. If you take shortcuts in the cleaning process, you may be shortchanging future generations in the end, so take great care to thoroughly clean your garments. Pullen cleans her vintage clothing and linens by soaking them in a plastic container filled with water and 1/2 cup of all-fabric nonchlorine bleach, such as BIZ. “Sometimes I leave it for two days – sometimes two weeks,” she says. “Then I rinse over and over again and wash with a mild detergent such as Ivory Snow.”
Garments in excellent condition can be machine washed if they are not made with thin fabrics. Pullen recommends putting them in a mesh sweater bag and using the delicates or hand-washable cycle. “Sometimes I wash once with regular detergent and then wash again with just clear water,” she notes.
When the garment has been cleaned and rinsed well, it must be dried thoroughly. Experts recommend rolling the piece gently in a towel to absorb most of the water and then laying it flat to dry. It is crucial to support the garment well as it dries, as the weight of the wet fabric may cause it to tear. Commercial laundry screens purchased at discount stores can be suspended over a bathtub to hold a drying garment.
Storing the garment – Storing heirloom garments is a simple task as long as you follow some basic rules: store flat, if possible, with acid-free tissue paper (such as Sew Beautiful Heirloom Tissue Paper) to cushion the folds; avoid sunlight, dust, moisture and fluctuations in temperature; air occasionally, about once each year. “Fresh, circulating air keeps mold and mildew away, so will cooler temperatures,” Ritter explains on her website. Plastic should never be used for storing heirlooms, she says, because plastic hinders air circulation around the natural fibers and can trap moisture.
Flat storage puts less strain on delicate fabrics and is recommended over hanging storage. “If you store on a hanger in a garment bag be sure the hanger is padded and the garment bag is cotton,” Pullen cautions. “I think it is much better to store flat rather than to hang.” If you are storing a piece flat and folded, place tissue-wrapped packages in a clean cotton or linen pillowcase. Cotton and linen breathe and can absorb any moisture that may be in the air. These packages may be stored in a drawer; however, acid-free boxes or fabric-covered and lined boxes can prevent crushing from the weight of other items that may be placed on top of them. They keep out bugs, light and moisture as well. If storing on a closet shelf, definitely use a storage box. For added protection, throw a few cedar balls into the box to deter any pesky moths.
These guidelines are adequate for the cleaning and preservation of heirloom garments that will continue to be handed down and occasionally worn by generations. They will not suffice, however, for museum-quality antiques, as these require special treatment by trained curators. Many commercial dry cleaners offer museum cleaning and preservation methods, which are also often used in the storage of wedding and christening gowns.
If you’re now inspired to create a new family heirloom, check out our new DVD, Yoke Dress Construction. The yoke dress is one of the most popular garments in heirloom sewing, and this DVD will show you how to construct a perfectly sewn yoke dress as children’s clothing construction master Connie Palmer demonstrates the tricks of perfect piping, how to create and attach beautiful collars, sleeve variations and more.
Sew On, Sew Well, Sew Beautiful,
Cyndi and Amelia