Caring for Textile Heirlooms

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension

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Heirloom coverlets, quilts, afghans, blankets and linens need special care.  Don't lock them away in attic trunks—use them.  Extreme heat can harm the fibers, so storage should be selected carefully.  Don't fold these treasures any more than necessary, and at intervals change the position of the folds.

With careful cleaning and storage, heirloom textiles can be preserved for a long time.  Proper cleaning will keep insects from being attracted to food and grease as well as improving the appearance of the item in most cases.  Keep in mind that cleaning should only be done if it will not affect the color, shape and strength of the fabric.

Vacuuming textiles can be a very beneficial and safe way to remove dirt that can damage and cut fibers. Apply this cleaning method on low suction, with vents open.  For items too fragile to take direct suction, place a clean piece of netting or fiberglass screen over the cloth to protect it during vacuuming.  

Clean old textiles only if the process will not affect the color, shape or strength of fabric.  Color loss, bleeding, shrinkage and distortion can result.  However, the correct choice of cleaning procedure can protect the fabric by removing materials (foods, grease, etc. that attract insect pests, helping to rid fabrics of insects, improving the appearance, and neutralizing the piece.

Wet cleaning (use of water) removes the acid build-up from cotton and linen textiles and leaves them cleaner and more flexible.  Wool and silk are more difficult to wet clean as they become weakened when wet.

Check fabrics for colorfastness using a few drops of water in an out-of-the-way place.  After the liquid soaks in, blot with white cloth or tissue to see if any color is present.  Try it with detergent solutions too before immersing washable textiles.  Check each different color in a multi-colored item.  If any part of the textile item is not colorfast, do not wet clean it.

Dry cleaning can damage fragile textile items.  The friction and abrasion of agitation as well as the heat can damage the item.  Solvents used in dry cleaning also remove the oils and waxes in natural fibers.  Request use of fresh or filtered solvent if you have a textile heirloom dry-cleaned.  Ask also that, for most textile keepsake items, the item not be steamed or pressed after cleaning.

To preserve the condition and extend the life of textile items, keep them as clean as possible.  Cover them with unbleached, 100 percent cotton muslin or with acid-free tissue paper when you are not using them to keep dust and dirt from settling.  Repeated cleaning is hard on textiles and can shorten their lives considerably.

Eleanor Summers
Extension Agent
Family & Consumer Sciences