In the past, tradition stated to keep wedding dresses, quilts, clothes, and other important family items in cedar chests, as cedar repels insects and halts mold growth, while giving your objects a pleasant sandalwood scent.
While these are all nice, cedar chests should be avoided when housing your artifacts; historic textiles; wedding dresses, christening dresses, or uniforms, or any other family heirloom. As wood ages, it gives off an acid, which in the museum world is called 'off-gassing,' that reacts poorly with other objects. This gas, while unseen, changes the chemical properties of an object, often staining and increasing the speed of deterioration of the item housed within. Once this process has begun, it's near impossible to reverse the deterioration or remove the yellowing and ugly discoloration seen on many baby clothes, wedding dresses, or other textiles housed within.
Here are some other don'ts when it comes to preserving your families textiles,antiques, or other vintage heirlooms:
1. Skip the cedar for plastic
Plastic, like cedar or other wood chests, off-gases over time. If you HAVE to use plastic, cover your item in muslin before placing inside the plastic, or use a chemically inert plastic like polypropelene (PP - recycle code 5) or polyethelene (HDPE or LDPE - recycle codes 2 and 4 respectively)
2. Use mothballs
While this may seem like a great idea to keep away those pesky casemaking and clotheswebbing moths that burrow into your wool, silk, or other organic clothing, mothballs are actually poisonous! Inhalation of mothballs can lead to dizziness, headaches, nausea, disorientation, and difficulty breathing, and handling mothballs causes skin irritation. Prolonged exposure to mothballs can cause cataracts and liver and kidney damage. If you find mothballs in your grandma's (or other relatives') items, wear gloves and dispose of them as you would with other household hazardous waste.
3. Place in direct sunlight
There are 3 types of light: ultraviolet light (UV), visible light, and infrared light.
Ultraviolet light is not visible to the human eye, but is the most damaging to museum objects. Damage from UV light comes from daylight (from displaying items in windows or in a high light area) and from flourescent lights.
Visible light is what is determined by the types of lighbulbs used in order to see in museums, stores, or your home, when daylight is not an option. Visible light, especially in museums, is monitored, in order to not cause damage over a period of time.
Infared light, also not visible to the human eye, causes rises in temperature, which can then cause oxidation and deterioration of organic components in objects.
Once you have light damage (from any of the three sources above), it is irreversible. I'll make sure to write more about light damage in an upcoming post!
4. Store in a basement or attic
The constant and often rapid temperature and humidity changes seen in attics and basements, especially with the change in seasons (and even from day to night in extreme locations) leads to the expanding and contracting of materials. In furniture, textiles, and many other types of organic materials, this leads to cracking or breaking as the object attempts to absorb or release water to match the temperature. There's a lot of science involved in the relationship between temperature and humidity compared to objects, and I'll write a separate post on this soon.
Sealing a bag or box allows gases (especially if plastic) and condensation with humidity changes to stay trapped inside the bag or box. As textiles are made of organic, porous materials, the only place for these gases to go is into the object itself.
Instead, make sure to do the following:
1. Use acid free materials, such as acid free and lignen free boxes and buffered tissue paper,
2. Fold or roll textiles with acid-free tissue placed in each fold/roll
3. Store items in a cool, dry place
4. Check your items yearly or more to monitor if there are any changes in condition, color, pest activity, or odor.