Care of Heritage/Heirloom Textiles - Home Collection

Updated: Nov 3

Meena has just been to an exhibition of exotic Indian weaves in a world-renowned museum. While the collection itself was breathtaking, the astonished reactions of non-Indians around her made her feel extra proud of her own roots. However, she came back from the exhibition a bit gloomier. The exhibits made her remember, how many similar pieces (she probably spent a fortune buying them back then) were lying unattended in her own wardrobe back home while work and destiny took her around the world. Add to this her mom’s priceless collection that she is often requested to take as her mom is not able to take care of it anymore.

What would be the collective worth of this family collection of heritage weaves, hand-embroidered textiles, and much more? A quick check on Google baffles her how much treasure is locked in her wardrobe, probably degenerating for lack of care and upkeep.

Maybe, one day she can wear it all or put it to some other good use, but how to ensure that it survives until then? Museums have trained conservators, protocols & infrastructure to take care of their collections…it’s sorted for them…… par Meena ke pass kya hai???...Uske pass Maa hai!! (What option does Meena have….She has her Mom!). Her mom was not trained to be a textile conservator but her textile collection is still wearable and beaming to its full glory. Time to call mom….!


Here is a list of the questions she asked and the responses she received for the same.

Care of Heritage Heirloom textiles


How to manage expensive heirloom for longer durations?

What is the key to extending the useful lifetime of heritage textiles at home?


Good housekeeping is the key to extending the useful lifetime of heirloom textiles. Traditionally, it was a norm to reshuffle the wardrobes with every change of season. While it would help in reorganizing the storage arrangement with the clothes meant for the season readily available on most reachable shelves, the exercise was also accompanied by a deep cleaning that would destroy the habitat of any discreetly developing pest ecosystem.


Remember how with the change of every season, mom would declare one fine sunny day, “don’t expect much from the kitchen today, I am busy rearranging the wardrobes!” The wardrobe would then tell 100 stories, one tied to each saree, dupatta, shawl, and more. There would be a potli passed on by great-grandmother, a dupatta bought for a favorite cousin’s wedding, and most exciting, her own wedding attire. Through those pieces of heritage textiles, the child in us would be on a fantasy visit, remembering/imagining the foregone family members, rituals & customs. This was the best example of artifacts providing an experiential sneak into our past, well without the help of AI & VR......because this home museum & its stories were real and about your own ancestors!

Best practices for textile heirlooms housekeeping can be summarised as follows:

1. Keeping shuffling and reorganising the textiles storage every few months.

2. Keep storage area dry and dark.

3. Do not keep any clothes that have been not washed but worn at least once, near heirloom textiles. Clothes, even when worn for a short duration, may contain body odour or food smells that can attract infestation and decay. Remember, it only takes one bad fish to destroy the pond.

4. If possible, keep your heirloom and everyday wear clothing collection in separate closed compartments. This ensures that your heirloom collection is not exposed to polluted air frequently as the doors of the storage would be opened infrequently.




How long can my heritage textile/family heirloom textile survive?

What can be the expected useful lifetime of Heritage textiles?


The standard useful lifetime of a textile product could be anything between 1- 100 years. This would differ in different articles with factors like material, construction, usage-light exposure, number of times washed, stress environment, etc. Additionally, the statement does not imply that a textile artifact cannot survive beyond 100 years. However, if it does, it would be rather useful for research & amusement and not for the practical purposes it was originally made for.

Degeneration of textiles cannot be arrested; it can only be delayed as textiles are organic in nature. Research suggests that a piece of textile undergoes maximum degeneration in its first 20 years of age. This would be applicable to a certain extent to even those artifacts that are being used less and kept in storage for long durations.

Remember, the family stories of a deceased great-grandmother whose trunks revealed bulk packets of premium, unused fabrics that became fragile and yellowed just lying unused.

After first 20-25 years of degeneration, the rate slows down and can be long delayed with good care and upkeep. This implies that care and upkeep of heritage textiles should be approached differently for artifacts above or below 20-25 years of age. Textiles less than 20-25 years of age should be regularly reshuffled, used, exposed to limited sunlight, laundered, and refolded to be sent back to storage. Textile articles more than 20/25 years of age should preferably be kept in a stable environment. So long spans of dark and dry storage, limited exposure to light and polluted air, water-less cleaning, avoid folding storage as far as possible.



What are the visible signs of infestation and aging/degeneration in heirloom textiles?


The visible signs of infestation in textiles could be

1. Unexplained holes in the fabric

2. Irregular patches of darkening/yellowing

3. Presence of small, dark pellet-like structures which could be pest faeces.


Ageing/degeneration in textiles could be identified by

1. General yellowing/discoloration which would be more visible on the top layer of the fabrics

2. General weakening of the fabric yarns which would be characterized by fabric tearing off easily on the application of little stress

3. Cracks or tears on folds (especially in fabrics that have metallic threads).



What is the best way to store heirloom textiles?


Heirloom textiles need to be stored as per their individual characteristics. However, these generic points might be applicable to most of them.


1. Do not hang heritage textiles for long durations.

While it is a common practice to place our everyday wear in hanging storage, heritage textiles should avoid hanging storage. This is due to the fact that heritage/heirloom textiles are used infrequently and often have the extra weight of woven or superficial embellishments. This leads to the lower hanging areas taking all the stress from gravity and one can see horizontal cracks appearing after a few years. These horizontal cracks are a result of yarns giving away to gravity after prolonged vertical stress.

Best practices recommend flat storage for heirloom textiles with each individually wrapped. However some textile made-ups are 3D in shape (with fullness-gathers, ruffles etc.), these could be effectively stored by providing customised support made of acid-free paper/cardboard and placing them in deep drawers.


2. Every heritage textile article should be individually wrapped

Traditionally, unbleached cotton /calico/ markeen or muslin have been used for this purpose. One could also use acid-free paper that is widely available for heritage conservation purposes. This ensures that embroideries, embellishments, dyes of adjoining articles do not abrade, stain or decompose each other. It is customary to keep layers of these divider fabrics between every layer of some heritage textiles like the ones which are heavily embroidered (ex. Phulkari), to ensure that layers of the same article do not damage each other.

If possible, one could also avoid keeping different fibres like wool & silk in the same shelf. Natural degradation of fibre molecules happens over a period of time and the by-products could be small quantities of acids, gases that could harm adjoining textiles.


3. Pest Repellents

While it is a common practice to keep pest-repellents like naphthalene balls in textile storage, most chemical-based pest repellents emit fumes that can discolour/fade some textiles over a period of time. It is best to use non-chemical pest repellents for safeguarding storage.

Do not place any artifact back inside the wardrobe after use or laundry if it is not completely dry and deodorized. Residual moisture and body/food odours can attract a pest ecosystem that can grow over a period of time to damage the whole collection.

It would help if the wardrobe housing heritage textiles is not kept near doors, windows, bathroom, or kitchen doors. This helps in mitigating the risk of exposure to moisture & fluctuating temperatures by weather conditions or common household practices.



What are the chemical free, least toxic pest prevention methods for storing heirloom textiles?


1. Neem leaves (Azadirachta indica):

Semi-dried neem leaves can provide long-term protection inside heirloom wardrobes. Neem is a natural pest repellent and can efficiently save textiles storage from infestation when in long storage without risking discoloration and toxic fumes.

Neem Leaves -Azadirachta Indica
Neem Leaves -Azadirachta Indica

The leaves should be thoroughly washed and sun-dried to remove all superficial moisture, but not to the brittle stage. These semi-dried leaves can then be spread in layers around and between fabrics. The technique can keep your textile heirlooms safe from pest infestation for a couple of years at a stretch. However, it is advised to change the leaves every one or two years after deep cleaning.



2. Turmeric potli /pouches:

Turmeric Roots-Curcuma longa
Turmeric Roots-Curcuma longa

Like neem, dried turmeric roots (Curcuma longa) can be tied in fabrics and placed in the corners of the cupboard. Although turmeric is a strong pest repellent, it can sometimes lead to staining of textiles if not tied properly.




3. Whole spices potli /pouches:

Cloves
Cloves

It has been customary in India to keep muslin pouches of cloves or dried red chilies in the corners of every clothing storage shelf as protection against pest infestation.



4. Camphor Pouches:

Camphor pouches in muslin fabric have also been used traditionally for keeping textile storage safe and free from pests.


5. Microwave for short duration:

Interestingly, microwave radiation can be an interesting technique to sanitize textile artifacts before keeping them in long storage. As a principle, microwaves destroy the liquid components of the exposed article first, be it food or fabric. You can confirm this by placing a piece of cake and a glass of water together in a microwave. The water will get heated much before the cake. This principle can be used to ensure that any pest hidden in the folds of the fabric has been potentially killed. However, long exposures to microwaves can destroy the fabric itself by drying out its inherent moisture content. Also, be careful about using a microwave chamber full of food stains as that would be counterproductive.


Do you have some family recipes too? Let our readers benefit from your traditional wisdom about textile heirlooms. You can add your tip in the comment box at the end of this story!



What should 'not be done' to a textile that has not been used, opened for a few years, or more?


Do not wash a textile lying unused for years with water or any other aqueous medium immediately. This can prove disastrous as fabrics kept in storage for years together often have an invisible layer of dormant acids produced as a by-product of the deterioration of fiber molecules over the period of time. Adding moisture to these fabrics may lead to instant activation of these acids and the laundry attempt may result in fabric partially dissolving leaving holes and tears.




How should I sanitise / clean my heritage textiles collection?


The collection, if it has been taken out of the storage after more than a couple of years, should preferably be aired followed by limited sun exposure. The surface can also be tested for acidity by wetting a tiny corner of the textile and placing a litmus paper over it. If the test reflects extreme acidity, the artifact should be first neutralized with alkaline sprays. In either scenario, dry-cleaning with organic solvents is a better option than laundering with water and detergents.


Should my heirloom textile collection be included in my insurance document?


Unfortunately, there is no specific insurance cover available for family heirlooms in textiles. Most heirloom/heritage insurance policies place emphasis on pieces like jewelry & paintings. A new product is the ‘art collection insurance’, which has been in vogue with collectors. However, the valuation and validation of a piece of textile art that has been used personally is still a grey area. Often the value is much more sentimental than commercial, and thus cannot be defined in insurance documents.



What are Couture Vaults?

Do I have an option of keeping the Heritage Textile Collection safe outside the home?


Couture Vaults are the latest addition to the fancy world of expensive clothing. These are businesses that typically provide services under different packages, where they would:

1. Collect your luxury couture from your location, sanitize and store it in object-appropriate storage. These vaults are often air-conditioned and therefore save artifacts from temperature fluctuations. Also, they might have material-specific sections, where your fur coat would be placed in the fur chamber (maintained at appropriate temperature/humidity) & silk skirt would be placed in the silk chamber. The vaults would also take care of the 3D storage of artifacts that cannot be rolled, hanged or laid down flat.

2. Maintain couture pieces safe for long durations

3. Provide these textile articles to you, ready-to-wear at the location of your choice

4. Mending, sanitising etc. after every use.


While the trend is hugely popular with celebrities in western countries, the huge cost involved can make it impractical for personal heirloom collections at the moment. On second thought, the services can be tweaked and repackaged into a sustainable, affordable model (After all even mobile phones were considered out-of-reach at some point in time!)

Not sure if you have a Couture Vault around you? Well…why not think of starting one!



What can I do if I am no longer able to take care of the heirloom/ heritage textiles?


It would be a shame to unrespectfully discard these skillful pieces of art and design, that not only carry forward the art traditions but also supplement our understanding of the past.


A few options that can be looked into are:

1. Donating the artifacts to museums or collectors.

2. Recycling them into objects of contemporary use.

3. Hand it over to environmentally conscious, sustainable practices recycling workshops.

4. Auction them to collectors, refurbishers at common C2C sites like e-bay, etsy that have dedicated sections on pre-loved objects or vintage collection sites.

5. Digitise them and convert them into NFTs (Non-fungible Tokens) that can then be handed over to future generations.


Meena has already marked her date for the wardrobe reshuffle and she’s promised herself that she would let her daughter fiddle and drape all the exquisites, including her wedding attire. After all, it is these memories that will become her emotional support when...well mom is not around but may be her drape will still be there!

Have you marked the date yet?


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