Preserving Textiles: A Guide for the Nonspecialist

By Harold F. Mailand and Dorothy Stites Alig
Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1999
Reviewed by Denise Beusen, Teacher Certification candidate
Originally Published Winter 2006

Preserving Textiles: A Guide for the Nonspecialist is an updated version of a similar book written in 1980 by one of the current edition’s authors, H.F. Mailand. The intent of both the original and the new version is to serve as a handbook for nonspecialist textile collectors and custodians. The target reader is someone who appreciates textiles enough to want to preserve them, but does not have any formal training in the field. This spans a broad range of people, including those who like costumes; those who appreciate heirlooms; and those who create textiles as art and/or craft.

Without belaboring the chemistry and physics behind the techniques, the authors address the basics of textile conservation in logical order. Each section of the book addresses a relevant topic in textile preservation: custodianship, suitable environments, cleaning textiles, appropriate archival materials, storage methods, and exhibiting. Each topic is divided into subheadings that can be readily scanned for pertinent information. The book is aptly titled, and decidedly fulfills its purpose. The writing is straightforward, jargon-free, and easy to read; the entire book can be read in 1 or 2 hours.

The chapter on custodianship discusses the steps in accessioning pieces into a collection: examining, documenting, and labeling. (Note to self: start labeling everything when it comes in the door! It’s too late now to deconvolute that drawer of crocheted and embroidered doilies made by sundry grandmothers and aunts.)  The segment on environment discusses the deleterious effect of humidity, light, mold, insects, and rodents on textiles. Ideally, textiles would live in a controlled environment at 70_ F and 50% humidity with circulating air, and be rotated regularly in and out of storage to minimize light exposure. (2nd note to self: Clearly, these guidelines are more readily accommodated in an institutional setting than in the typical St. Louis indoor humidity of 70% coupled with astronomical mold counts!)

The section on textile cleaning reviews methods for surface cleaning as well as wet, spot and dry cleaning, and offers guidance for stabilizing damage. A following section on archival materials and the need for neutral pH is buttressed by an appendix that lists suppliers. The section on storage methods includes detailed discussions and diagrams that explain how to store items flat, rolled, framed, or mounted. For those who organize exhibits, a singularly useful element of this book is a sample sign asking visitors not to touch, which is quoted in its entirety below:

Why We Ask You Not To Touch

We hope your grandchildren – and their grandchildren – will someday visit our museum.  We hope the works of art you are enjoying will be here for them to see in the future, in the same fine condition. Which is why we ask you not to touch.

Textiles are among the most fragile of all museum objects, and damage to textiles in museums is often caused by visitors. The familiarity and tactile qualities of quilts and other textiles may tempt visitors to touch and handle them, but such touching shortens considerably the life of these precious reminders of our cultural heritage.
Please help us preserve our museum’s collection.

I found this book to be a good addition to my library, and one that I would recommend to others because it summarizes in one place a lot of material I picked up “on the fly” in a number of classes. Notably, the number of publications on textile conservation is relatively small. A search on using subject terms “textile and (preservation or conservation)” yielded 91 hits, the vast majority of which were out of print, unavailable, and not relevant. Only a handful of entries covered similar subject matter, and all but one or two were texts for experts in the field and therefore significantly more expensive.

There are a few sites on the web that offer useful information about textile conservation, including:

Preserving Textiles includes the information on these sites, but goes beyond their limited content to give a more thorough overview of approaches, methods, and materials.

The book is published as a small paperback, roughly 6″ x 9″ and is printed on glossy, heavy weight paper. Both authors are highly qualified, having served as textile conservators at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). According to the authors, IMA was one of the first museums in the US to collect textiles. At the time of writing, the collection held more than 6,000 items.  The extensive biography covers general conservation, museum environments, textile and costume conservation, and includes essentially all of the primary sources in the field, excluding those that have been published since the book was released. Photos and diagrams accompany the text, and are illuminating, particularly with respect to storing and mounting textiles. The main text is followed by 10 color plates that illustrate the types of damage seen in textiles, and methods for displaying textiles. The glossary includes most terms a nonspecialist will need in order to understand the language of conservation, and an appendix provides a comprehensive list of professional conservation organizations.

Although Preserving Textiles occupies a small niche in a field with few published works, it is an accessible presentation of conservation information, particularly for those who manage small collections and may not have resources for professional training or more in-depth books. This is not a book for someone who already has knowledge of conservation techniques. The absence of technical rationale for those who already know something about the field could prove limiting – but that may be a sign it’s time to lay out some funds for one of the “specialist” books in the field.