Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tips for Preserving Your Precious Heirlooms

One question we are asked frequently at Sew Beautiful is "How do I preserve my family heirlooms?" Properly cared for, precious clothing can survive many generations of storage, and your children's children will don a history of love when the garments are worn for the special occasions that mark their lives. In the following excerpt from our May/June 2009 issue, experts share their advice for preserving heirloom garments:

Cleaning the garment - Heirloom garment authorities, including Martha Pullen, agree the single most important concern is to put the garment away clean. All stains and chemicals should be removed, including starch, soap, bleach and fabric softener.

Stains, dirt and dust left on fabric can cause holes as the garment ages, according to Judy Ritter of Whiteworks Christening Gowns in Rome, Ohio. Mildew renders a gown useless as well, and even mild chemicals left in fabric will mildew. If you take shortcuts in the cleaning process, you may be shortchanging future generations in the end, so take great care to thoroughly clean your garments. Pullen cleans her vintage clothing and linens by soaking them in a plastic container filled with water and 1/2 cup of all-fabric nonchlorine bleach, such as BIZ. "Sometimes I leave it for two days - sometimes two weeks," she says. "Then I rinse over and over again and wash with a mild detergent such as Ivory Snow." 

Garments in excellent condition can be machine washed if they are not made with thin fabrics. Pullen recommends putting them in a mesh sweater bag and using the delicates or hand-washable cycle. "Sometimes I wash once with regular detergent and then wash again with just clear water," she notes.

When the garment has been cleaned and rinsed well, it must be dried thoroughly. Experts recommend rolling the piece gently in a towel to absorb most of the water and then laying it flat to dry. It is crucial to support the garment well as it dries, as the weight of the wet fabric may cause it to tear. Commercial laundry screens purchased at discount stores can be suspended over a bathtub to hold a drying garment. 

Storing the garment - Storing heirloom garments is a simple task as long as you follow some basic rules: store flat, if possible, with acid-free tissue paper (such as Sew Beautiful Heirloom Tissue Paper) to cushion the folds; avoid sunlight, dust, moisture and fluctuations in temperature; air occasionally, about once each year. "Fresh, circulating air keeps mold and mildew away, so will cooler temperatures," Ritter explains on her website. Plastic should never be used for storing heirlooms, she says, because plastic hinders air circulation around the natural fibers and can trap moisture.

Flat storage puts less strain on delicate fabrics and is recommended over hanging storage. "If you store on a hanger in a garment bag be sure the hanger is padded and the garment bag is cotton," Pullen cautions. "I think it is much better to store flat rather than to hang." If you are storing a piece flat and folded, place tissue-wrapped packages in a clean cotton or linen pillowcase. Cotton and linen breathe and can absorb any moisture that may be in the air. These packages may be stored in a drawer; however, acid-free boxes or fabric-covered and lined boxes can prevent crushing from the weight of other items that may be placed on top of them. They keep out bugs, light and moisture as well. If storing on a closet shelf, definitely use a storage box. For added protection, throw a few cedar balls into the box to deter any pesky moths.

These guidelines are adequate for the cleaning and preservation of heirloom garments that will continue to be handed down and occasionally worn by generations. They will not suffice, however, for museum-quality antiques, as these require special treatment by trained curators. Many commercial dry cleaners offer museum cleaning and preservation methods, which are also often used in the storage of wedding and christening gowns.

If you're now inspired to create a new family heirloom,  check out our new DVD, Yoke Dress Construction. The yoke dress is one of the most popular garments in heirloom sewing, and this DVD will show you how to construct a perfectly sewn yoke dress as children's clothing construction master Connie Palmer demonstrates the tricks of perfect piping, how to create and attach beautiful collars, sleeve variations and more. 

Sew On, Sew Well, Sew Beautiful,
Cyndi and Amelia


  1. This article is awesome! The tips are great as well. preserving precious heirlooms is indeed important. These are symbols of special memories that is why proper care muxt be done. Storing these graments must be done with proper care so as to preserve the beauty. These tips really helps so much. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Just pulled this up again for reminders, as I was just given a bag of yellowed Edwardian baby clothes - so useful! Thank you.

  3. Great informational resource as always!I really love the way of explaining this post.You are just ouststanding..Keep posting more..
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  5. It’s really important to save the heirlooms as they remind us of tradition. I will try these tips. Thanks for sharing. I am getting married in a few months and right now we’re just looking for good wedding venues for the same.

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  8. Many good tips, but absolutely DO NOT USE CEDAR BALLS. Please edit that from the text. The strong scent of cedar comes from a volatile gas that is highly acidic, which is exactly what you DO NOT want. Anything that you can smell, you want to keep away from fabrics. Over time, cedar will cause fabrics to deteriorate, as the acid breaks down the fibers, and cedar will also permanently discolor fabric, leaving you with brown staining. I'm a professional textile conservator. At the museum where I work, we too often see lovely heirlooms such as quilts, wedding dresses and christening gowns because of damage caused by storage in grandmother's cedar chest, or from storage with bags of cedar shavings. All woods give off acidic gases, and should be avoided, but cedar is especially problematic because of the very volatile chemicals that it emits, which cause the strong scent. Store your treasured fabric heirlooms in an acid-free environment - an acid-free and lignin-free box made for archival storage, or in a laundered and double-rinsed, white, 100% cotton or muslin bag that you can easily sew from a an old sheet, if the cotton or linen pillowcases mentioned above are too small for your garment. No plastic, as plastic also gives off acidic gases. Your descendants will appreciate the care you take with family treasures.