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What Is Textile Conservation?

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  • Written By: Emily Pate
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Textile conservation refers to the care, maintenance, and restoration of fabric and woven materials. Various elements contribute to the breakdown of textiles over time. Professionals trained in textile conservation practice both preventative and restorative techniques. Prevention of damage includes proper handling and storage, while restoration calls for a number of case-by-case techniques, including documentation of the piece's condition, cleaning, and reinforcement.

A variety of factors contribute to textile deterioration and the need for conservation. Organic decayers like bacteria, mold, and insects can destroy textiles. Exposure to heat and UV-rays can also cause fibers to become weak and brittle and can affect textile color. Certain gases may convert to acid and eat at the material as well.

Preventative textile conservation includes proper handling. A craftsperson treats each piece with care, cleaning his or her hands to minimize contact with the natural oils of the skin as well as lotions and other chemicals. He or she may also wear white cotton gloves for extremely delicate materials. This conservationist works on a clean, flat surface clear of items like writing instruments and supplies, and especially food and drink.

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Proper storage involves keeping textiles in special frames that preserve the fabric with a UV-protective glass or plexiglass. Larger textiles like quilts or banners are typically placed in a sturdy powder-coated frame made of metal. Museums and archival centers usually store textiles in a temperature-, light-, and humidity-controlled room as well. Pieces are also kept away from other materials like wood, iron, and newspaper which could contribute to their deterioration. Only size-free cotton, polyester batting, or acid-free paper are ever stored with a textile.

Restorative textile conservation repairs a work to its original state, or as close to it as possible. Conservators thoroughly document the present state of a textile piece, including the condition of the fibers, the weave and dye types, and the thread count. Any paint used on the textile is identified and assessed along with other custom details.

Cleaning and disinfecting a piece in de-ionized water is a common restorative technique. Artifacts are carefully soaked in a special solution sometimes containing sodium silicate solution and hydrogen peroxide for especially soiled fabrics. Cleansing recipes for particular stains, like those created from copper erosion, may be necessary.

Textile conservation may require reinforcing especially fragile pieces. The material may be affixed to a cotton, synthetic, or fiberglass mesh to strengthen it. Especially fragile or worn textiles may be mounted between glass or plastic. A heat-sealed adhesive can also ironed onto the back of the fabric. Any broken or unraveled threads must be glued back together to prevent further damage.

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