Textiles are produced from a variety of natural or man-made fibres, or a combination of the two, incorporating organic or inorganic materials. Conservators working with textiles have a comprehensive knowledge of fibres, colourants including inks, dyes and pigments and an understanding of design and construction techniques.
Textile conservators work with a wide range of materials and a diverse range of contemporary objects including, apparel, costumes, embroideries, furnishings, hats, memorabilia, screen prints, tapestries, screen prints and other forms of textile art. Textile conservators aim to prevent biological degradation, stabilise the structure of the object or garment while reducing stains and products chemical degradation.
Video: Mary-Anne from ArtLab in Adelaide assesses a 19th century bodice.
Causes of deterioration
Most textiles and furnishings are manufactured with a specific function in mind. After long periods of time performing that function – being worn, sat on, folded, stretched, washed and ironed – wear and tear is inevitable. Fibres break, seams give way and natural weaknesses in manufacture can contribute to the physical deterioration of the textile.
Fluctuations in levels of temperature and relative humidity can accelerate deterioration of textiles, and encourages the growth of mould, mildew and insect activity.
Natural and synthetic dyes are often fugitive, meaning these objects are particularly sensitive to moisture and exposure to light. Continuous exposure to ultraviolet radiation will initiate and increase fading and fibre degradation.
Natural fibres are especially susceptible to insects, with moths, carpet beetles favouring wool and silk, and silverfish and rodents preferring cotton and flax.
Textile conservation treatments include wet cleaning and dry cleaning, stain reduction, repair, and flattening and lining to stablise objects.
Brush-vacuuming, using a HEPA filter system and soft brushes works to remove dust that can damage surfaces and attract pests.
Textile conservators working with costumes may construct mannequins or complex 3D sculptural supports for display, and to use when cleaning or repairing them.
The delicate nature of many textiles means correct handling is important: loose threads, failing adhesive and bulky elements make storage and display of textiles particularly difficult.
Textiles should be hung on padded hangers, stored flat or rolled between layers of acid-free tissue in customised tubes.
AICCM has a Special Interest Group for those interested in the conservation of textiles. Join this group, contribute to its activities, or speak to a specialist conservator.