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How to Safely Store Your Family Heirloom Clothing

There are a lot of mistakes that people commonly make in this department.

We’ve all got those special pieces of clothing that have either been in the family for generations or that we hope will one day be used by future generations. Many people simply hang these pieces up in a closet or pack them in a trunk or plastic storage container. But, there are some risks with each of these methods. It can be confusing as to how exactly store family heirloom clothing. But, if you follow some of the tips below your family heirlooms will be better off for the next generations.

1930 bridal portrait
Via/ Flickr

Hanging Is Both Good and Bad

Hanging up your heirloom pieces in a closet means they are given the same climate as your regular clothing, free from moisture and dirt. Those are all good things. But, an heirloom piece hung in a tightly packed closet can worsen creases.

Damage often occurs at deep creases because the item has been in one position until the threads and fibers break at the folds. Also, an untouched item at the back of the closet may be left in the same position for years on end and this can also contribute to creasing and damage.

clothes on hangers in closet
Via/ Flickr

One more thought on hanging: the weight and tension on the garment may cause further tears or lead to stitching coming loose. When in doubt it is usually better to store a garment lying flat in a box, rather than on a hanger.

Choose Your Container Wisely

Many people will chose any clean cardboard of plastic box to store these items in and this is not ideal at all. Many types of materials are not acid free (like regular cardboard boxes). Over time acidic environments can lead to discoloration or disintegration of fabrics and threads.

early 1800s embroidery sampler
Via/ Auckland Museum

Plastic boxes can also off-gas over time which can lead to further damage. In addition, plastic containers can trap moisture which can cause mold or decay. Clear plastic boxes also allow sunlight in which is something you should keep away from your precious fabric heirlooms. Even indoor light can damage some fabrics in the long term.

The Best Storage Solutions

The ideal place to store delicate items is away from extremes of temperature and away from moisture and light, preferably either laid out flat or folded gently. All this should ideally be achieved in an acid-free environment.

heirloom handmade lace collar
Via/ Unsplash

In order to shield the fabric from any dust or acid, it is often recommended for pigment-free acid-free tissue paper to be used to wrap up the item(s). This type of paper can be expensive, so here’s another way to do it. You can wrap antique or vintage fabric items in an old, clean white cotton sheet. Any sizing or stains will have been washed from the sheet years ago and cotton does not inherently contain acids or off-gas any fumes.

You can purchase acid-free storage boxes for wedding dresses. These, too, can be quite expensive. For smaller items any acid free box will work and wrapping the item in cotton or tissue will help preserve it. This means you only need to purchase a larger box for items that truly need it, like wedding dresses and very long lace veils.

Folded Storage Tips

Conservators in museums will often refold items every so often to avoid those dangerous deep creases. Folds can also be softened by using padding at the fold area. Whatever you do, do not put an heirloom into a vacuum bag. This may keep critters, dirt, and moisture out, but it will ultimately lead to a lot of creasing and potential damage points where the fabric has simply disintegrated. This kind of damage is nearly impossible to patch.

1960s baby dress and shoes
Via/ Flickr

Always put the item away as clean as possible. Extremely fragile items or those with beading or embroidery can be dusted gently with a brush. Hardier pieces can be very gently vacuumed. Museums use a screen to help in this process. It prevents the fabric and decorations from being sucked into the vacuum hose. Recent pieces, like a new wedding dress, should be dry cleaned before going into storage. Sturdy pieces, like cotton dresses in good shape from the modern era, should be washed and air-dried.

If items go into storage dirty then you may find that a tiny stain that was unattended to is now a dark brown spot– or worse yet, a hole caused by a chemical reaction. Sweat and nicotine stains are common on old clothing and those stains can become much deeper over time. It’s best to remove them before the items are safely put away.

Finally, one of the best things you can do is to regularly inspect your fabric pieces so that you can assess if any damage is happening from moths, acid, moisture, old stains, or light. Not checking on a item can be one of the worst things for it.