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Historic textiles are more fragile than many other objects from past eras. Conservators must take special precautions with these items because some of the most serious threats to textile integrity come from seemingly innocent sources-sometimes components of the textile itself.


Light and, in particular ultraviolet radiation, can damage delicate textiles. Of course, the pieces have to be exposed to some light while researchers examine them or while the public views them on display, but there are lots of ways to minimize light exposure and damage. Christine Paulocik, conservator of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says the illumination intensity may be limited to 50 lux. For some early pieces, there is even a sensor so the display light comes on only when someone is in front of the case. Museums also track and limit the total length of time an item is on display.

"Think of it [a textile artifact] like skin," says Beth McLaughlin, senior textile conservator at the Midwest Art Conservation Center. Textiles are sensitive to ambient conditions, heat, cold, humidity, and fluctuations in any of these. An added challenge is that most textile items are "mixed media"-there are different fibers and different components that are all affected in different ways by temperature and humidity.

McLaughlin explains that fabrics are inherently three-dimensional constructions, even when they look flat. Apparel is definitely three dimensional, so it makes sense to exhibit them on three-dimensional bodies. This gives museum-goers a more realistic view of how the garments were actually worn, but it also puts additional strain on the items. Paulocik says, "there are limitations to what we can do with fragile pieces."

Handle with care-it's no surprise that the oils from your hands can damage textiles, but even carefully-gloved hands can pose a threat to delicate materials. McLaughlin and Paulocik both cite "shattered silks" as an example of particularly fragile textile materials. A certain mordant used in the 19th century causes fibers to become brittle when exposed to ultraviolet light. If the fabric is moved or creased, it can "shatter" or turn to powder.

You'd think that carefully cleaning an item would increase its longevity, but this isn't always the case. Sometimes there is important information hidden in the dirt of a garment. Even when the goal is to make the item look the way it did when it was new, the benefits have to be weighed against the risks. "Cleaning is irreversible," says McLaughlin. Wet cleaning can remove original finishes, alter dyes, or weaken the dye-to-fiber bonds. All this makes the garment more susceptible to future degradation.

Conservators can control the light, temperature, and humidity of textile storage. They can restrict the type of display and the amount of handling or cleaning. What they can't control are the components that make up the original item or their potential for self destruction. Starch finishes attract dust, dirt, and bugs. Cellulose nitrate was commonly used to coat sequins and buttons. Hydrolysis of the compound produces nitric acid, which, in turn, degrades silk fabrics. Iron-based mordants for certain dyes cause rust that then reacts with textile fibers, causing them to swell and break apart.