What’s In Your Hope Chest?

By Connie Lynn Borserine

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in fall 2009. 

Do you remember those ads in magazines years ago that featured a beautiful cedar chest overflowing with a wedding dress, baby clothes, photos and various memorabilia? The lovely picture promoted the idea that the cedar chest was the perfect repository for all our precious memories. I’m sure over the years many of us have carefully placed our own keepsakes in a cedar chest, thinking all the while about that lovely ad that seemed to promise perfect preservation forever.

Unfortunately, the spoken and unspoken promise of those beautiful pictures was terribly misleading. The truth is that cedar is detrimental to everything except wool. That’s right, nothing should ever be put into a cedar chest or cedar closet except those items made of wool (and then only after being cleaned first.) Well, now I’m sure you’re asking, “What do I do with my things, specifically textiles that I would like to protect for future generations?”

There are several principle enemies of textiles of which we need to be aware — among which are light, heat, humidity and insects. Any textile that you wish to store away should first be as clean as possible. Many older items should not be wet cleaned due to fragility and never dry cleaned as the chemicals are too harsh. Sometimes the best we can do is simply to vacuum the item through a nylon screen (so as not to disturb the original ground and any ornamentation) and use a low suction vacuum or a vacuum that has an adjustable suction control. Nylon screen can be purchased at most hardware stores for a nominal cost. This method of vacuuming is also good for most embroideries and should be done on a regular basis. The regularity depends, of course, on where the item is displayed and/or if it sustains fairly constant use like a chair or pillow.

I’m sure you have often observed how low the light is on textiles in museums. Sometimes they are displayed with no light at all and only by pushing a button can they be viewed for a few seconds at a time in very dim light. Light and its resultant heat are very damaging to textiles, both weakening the fibers and causing fading of color. We should be careful when displaying textiles and embroideries to keep them away from direct sunlight and even an excess of electric light. It is a balancing act between keeping things always locked away, never to be enjoyed, and reckless exposition to the elements. For instance, if you have a quilt that you enjoy displaying, consider placing it in a low traffic room or rotating it with other objects so it can rest from its “enemies” once in a while.

Let’s talk about “resting” or storing textiles and some tips and tricks. When we think of textile storage, one of the most important tools to use is acid-free paper and acid-free boxes. Several weeks ago, I visited the home of a fellow stitcher in the Kansas City area to help with the packing of a family quilt and dress. The dress was beautifully constructed of silk and had been made for a 13 year old girl for the occasion of the inauguration of President Zachary Taylor in 1849. Following the style of the time, the dress was designed with a wide and very full skirt. Rolled and squished acid-free paper was used to fill out the sleeves and bodice area to avoid creases in the fabric. A fair amount of paper was used under the skirt area, as you might imagine! Carefully the skirt was brought in over other amounts of paper with as few folds as possible and then placed in an acid-free box that was first fully lined with acid-free tissue. This historic dress is now as carefully and correctly packed as it can be for home storage and not being in a museum. The owner was advised to change out the acid-free paper every 6-12 months and then refold the garment along different fold lines to avoid (as much as possible) stress on the threads from being folded. The box itself should be stored in a dry area of moderate and even temperature that is neither too hot as in an attic or anywhere damp.

When it came to the quilt, very similar rules applied. Acid-free tissue was rolled to insert in the folds —normally first in third lengthwise and then in thirds width-wise. This particular quilt was larger than usual (especially for its age) so some additional adjustments were made in the folding process. The quilt was then placed in a fully-lined acid-free box. Quilts can also be easily stored in an old, undyed cotton pillowcase. When changing out the paper and refolding on different lines, the pillowcase is washed for reuse. Washed (to remove sizing) unbleached muslin is an alternative to the pillowcase.

Textiles should not be stored directly touching anything made of wood such as shelves or drawers, etc. but should be properly wrapped first. And then, of course, be sure to keep anything except wool out of cedar chests or cedar closets. And yes, you will need to remove all those old love letters from cedar areas, too, and find a new hiding place for them (paper conservation is a whole other subject). By now, I think you understand that acid-free paper will become your new best friend! I buy it by the hundred sheet packs (from Kreinik Mfg. Co.; also available in smaller count packages) as I use it for a myriad of things — Christmas ornaments, beaded jewelry, textiles of all types, antique and contemporary, and even wrapping glassware with hand-painted details and gold trim. Now when someone asks you what’s in your hope chest, hopefully you will be able to answer – ONLY WOOL!