Here are some simple tips to help you care for your antique fabric items. These are just general rules - please remember that each antique textile is unique, and some require special care and handling by professionals.
Provide a stable environment for your old textiles. If it’s necessary to handle them, do so carefully. The less handling, the better. Clean your hands first, so that body oils and dirt don’t transfer to fabrics. Don’t wear sharp jewelry - preventing snags and tears is much easier than trying to repair them later.
Light can be harmful to antique textiles. Keep your textiles out of direct sunlight. As many old textiles are made of cellulose (cotton and linen) and animal (wool and silk) fibers, they can be damaged by sunlight’s ultraviolet rays. Even fluorescent light can damage old fabrics. Heat from incandescent lights can also cause problems.
Minimize light damage to fabrics by drawing the shades in a room so that sunlight and it's UV rays don’t reach textiles. Place antique textiles in a room location that is not exposed to direct sunlight. Keep artificial lighting as far from textiles as possible.
Climate control is important. Try to maintain temperatures around 70 degrees, and humidity at 50%. Do not store antique textiles in garages, attics or basements - the idea of preserving old textiles is to prevent excessive heat, dryness and dampness, all which can destroy your old fabric item. If somehow your item becomes damp, mold can grow quickly. Fast drying will discourage mold - you can use fans, electric heaters, handheld hair dryers, even sunshine on a warm day.
Insects and rodents can cause serious trouble for antique textiles. If you can, regularly vacuum areas where you store your antique textiles. At the same time, inspect for signs of rodents and insects. If you find them, either eliminate them or move your precious textiles to a different location. Again - a few moments preventing damage will save you from spending a lot of money on restoration later - IF your item can be restored. Insects and rodents often cause damage which cannot be fixed.
Textiles with fresh stains should be treated as soon as possible. Cool water with a lightweight soap such as Ivory will often resolve many fresh stains. Textiles with fresh blood stains should be soaked in cold water first, then carefully and gently washed with Ivory, then rinsed in tepid water. Test first for color fastness. Sometimes old blood stains can be removed by covering the stain with a paste made of meat tenderizer and water. After a 15 to 30 minute application, sponge carefully with cool water.
If you are storing textiles, don’t wrap them in plastic. Plastic traps moisture, which will endanger your vintage textile. Instead, wrap it in a plain cotton sheet, which will allow your textile to breathe. Try to avoid folding quilts, or, if that’s not possible, change the fold direction a few times each year to avoid stressing the fibers and creating permanent fold lines.
If it’s a hooked rug, roll it with the top on the outside, which will keep the foundation from being stressed. Mounting a hooked rug on a strong backing material and then attaching that material to a wood frame will allow you to turn your rug into a work of wall art - there are many professionals who can do this kind of work for you.
Antique fabrics are wonderful collectibles, and should be enjoyed as a display. Protect them and use them to warm your home as a reflection of your personal taste!