The Archive Lady: Preserving and Displaying Silk Clothing

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Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, lends her expert advice on preserving silk garments and textiles!

Pat Richley-Erickson (aka DearMyrtle) asks: “I’m planning to mount some intriguing second-hand Chinese silk articles of clothing in large shadow boxes for occasional display to illustrate the history of an ancestor. I’m looking for archival plastic pins to mount on foam core. The best I can come up with at Gaylord Archival is tubes that shrink wrap over an existing straight pin but it comes in multiple diameters. Also, which type of archival tissue paper should I use to fluff out the bodice a bit?”

Pat has a wonderful question to start off The Archive Lady column for 2020! Many of us have articles of clothing or textiles handed down from our ancestors that we would like to preserve and even display. There are some preservation steps that should be taken to insure these items are not damaged or become damaged. In this instance, Pat is working with silk which should be handled a bit differently.

The Archive Lady: Preserving and Displaying Silk Clothing
Silk Dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum

In this case, Pat is going to be displaying the articles of clothing, so she would like to stabilize the garment in a shadow box. She will be using archival foam core and straight pins. The heat shrink tubing that Pat found at Gaylord Archival to cover her straight pins is a good choice. Another option would be specimen mounting pins also found at Gaylord Archival. Using pins will insure that the garment does not move around in the shadow box, especially while it is being displayed.

As for archival tissue paper and which kind should be used, in this case I recommend unbuffered archival tissue paper. Since Pat is working with silk garments, which are protein based, they do not react well with the buffering agents found in buffered acid free tissue paper. Both buffered and unbuffered archival tissue paper can be purchased from any archival materials store (see list below). To read more about the difference, see my previous column Buffered vs. Unbuffered: What’s the Difference. Pat also asked about using tissue paper to puff up the bodice and that is perfectly fine. Many of our old garments have aspects about them that we need to preserve such as puffed sleeves or bodices. Putting crumpled up tissue paper in them to puff them up a bit will help to keep the integrity of the garment intact.

The Archive Lady: Preserving and Displaying Silk Clothing
University Products Archival Tissue Paper

Pat has said she will be displaying these garments “occasionally” which I was glad to hear. Original documents, photographs or textiles should never be on permanent display. They should only be brought out for display for a brief period of time so the elements do not damage them. Sunlight is the most damaging element to displayed records and artifacts. If sunlight is allowed to get to the item on display, it can literally wash off handwriting from a document, remove an image from a photograph, and dull significantly the pigment in a textile.

The Archive Lady: Preserving and Displaying Silk Clothing
Williamson County, Tennessee Archive and Museum Exhibit

Our ancestors left us some wonderful artifacts and textiles that we want to display for everyone to see. Following good preservation practices will insure that they last for generations to come.

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The Home Archivist: Preserving Family Records Like A Pro! (includes a 9-Page Syllabus!)

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Melissa Barker - The Archive Lady

Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

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One Response

  1. Colleen

    12 January 2020 5:55 am

    Interesting tips on handling silk clothing. I am guessing cotton fabrics would be different. I wonder if that is true.

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