A museum shares its textile conservation process so you know what to do when you inherit precious clothing, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup.
IMAGINE inheriting clothing from an elderly relative who had recently passed away. These may be their wedding trousseau or treasured songket and sarongs.
Imagine the pieces to be old and unworn for several decades, yet beautifully crafted and heavy with familial significance. These are physical reminders of days and people who will never return, yet caring for them is tricky.
“If you have received these clothes, I suggest taking out each piece individually and lay it on a flat surface like a table. See what it’s made of and check the condition, whether it’s still good to wear and hold or otherwise,” says Nur Alifah Ajlaa, assistant textile conservator at Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), following the Caring For Your Textile workshop recently.
“Inspect it for damages, whether surface or structural. Surface damage is like stains, creases and discolouration. Examples of structural damage include tearing, holes or loose weave. Look at the piece in its entirety before you do anything,” she adds.
TO WASH OR NOT TO WASH
Our natural instinct is perhaps to launder these old clothes. But consider the age of the fabric and its fragility, and whether it can stand the motions of a washing machine or the harsh chemicals of dry cleaning.
Handwashing seems like a good idea but be warned that water can leave a stain and cause colours to fade. Natural dyes are particularly susceptible to bleeding. Nur Alifah suggests swabbing an inconspicous area with a moistened cotton bud to check for colour transfer.
Additionally, pieces like songket should never be washed. The concern is that the metal threads, woven to make its signature pattern, may come loose or oxidise and discolour upon contact with water and detergent.
Most objects that arrive at the museum can only be dry cleaned, which in conservators lingo means brushing the surface with a small, soft brush to remove any dirt, dust, mould or insect remnants. A low-powered vacuum picks up the lifted residue.
For isolated areas, spot cleaning is done using cotton buds, moistened with water and a mild detergent. An absorbent paper is placed underneath to soak up the stains.
But Nur Alifah notes that the older the stain, the more difficult it is to remove. Some stains, such as the brown dots called foxing stains caused by fungus is irreversible. Trying to remove them with bleach will weaken the fabric and cause discolouration.
“We don’t normally remove stains at the museum because they are part of the textile’s history. We only try to reduce its appearance by spot cleaning, in addition to cleaning the garment with a dry brush,” says Nur Alifah.
LIGHT IS NOT FANTASTIC
The book Practical Conservation: Our Guide To Caring For Your Treasures, published by IAMM, details the steps that most museums take to handwash a textile.
It includes immersing the piece in the purest water possible and using a special detergent. Water is maintained at a certain temperature to control the reaction rate. Soft sponges are pressed down on the dirt to remove it.
Once cleaned, the fabric is lifted out of the water using a net and is dried flat without any one section holding its weight. Though it’s not stated, it’s assumed that the textile is not squeezed to remove excess water.
At home, the safest way to “clean” fragile clothes is to air-dry them in a cool place with good ventilation and away from direct sunlight. Light causes fabric to lose its colour, slowly but surely. So it’s best to avoid getting to a point where the shade difference is noticeable, because the damage cannot be reversed.
This explains why museums display its objects behind glass coated with UV filters, or re-orient large textiles after a period of time so that they discolour evenly.
COUCHING THE FABRIC
Some damages occur during storage, especially if the clothes were folded and forgotten for an extended period of time. Crease lines can form and weaken the fabric, causing it to tear. There may be holes left behind by pests and fungi.
“When clothes are made of natural material like silk or cotton, they become food to pests like termites, cockroaches and silverfish. These pests can breed and live in the wardrobe for years, eating the fabric,” says Nur Alifah.
It’s the same with mould. With Malaysia’s high humidity coupled with the stagnant air in wardrobes and store rooms, it doesn’t take long for fungus to establish. This should stop after the garments are taken out of that environment, but the disintegration is permanent.
“For everyday repairs, you can fold and stitch the fabric over its damaged part. But for conservation purposes, you need a support fabric. This is what the stitches hold on to, otherwise you’d weaken the textile you want to repair,” says Nur Alifah.
The museum uses a special material called Crepeline. It’s a lightweight, fine-woven fabric made of silk that is almost invisible when used for this purpose. But at home, any fabric should do as long as it matches the degraded material in colour and weight.
The thread should match too. Professional conservators sometimes use clear nylon threads on multicoloured textile to avoid drawing attention to the stitches, but this may also be difficult to find.
Most repairs are sewn using a couching stitch, especially on tears or weak areas of the fabric. With the support fabric in place, a long stitch is laid over the tear followed by a series of smaller stitches across the long stitch.
The next long stitch is laid about 3mm parallel to the previous one, and this continues until the tear is secure. Holes are patched with the support fabric, attached using a blanket stitch that tidies up loose threads. Smaller holes are secured with a back stitch.
Meanwhile, ironing is risky but necessary to remove creases and wrinkles. There are obvious cautionary measures, such as using low heat or a buffer fabric.
The museum sometimes uses a large translucent plastic board to smoothen the textiles. A workshop participant shares that she placed thick, heavy books for days or weeks over creases to get rid of them.
If the inherited garment is good enough to wear, then by all means do so.But if it’s going back into storage, ensure the space is well-ventilated and cleaned periodically to ward off pests.
Wooden cabinets should be lined and avoid using pins or staples to keep fabric in place because these can rust and stain.It’s advisable to take the garments out occasionally to air and check for damages.
“You can hang tops and tunics but use padded hangers and make sure the ends extend beyond the shoulder seam. This is to stop the weight of the sleeves from pulling it open. Don’t store in plastic garment bags as these trap moisture and encourage fungus growth,” says Nur Alifah.
The museum drapes individual hanging garments with acid-free paper. This is to stop the different fabrics from touching, so the colours won’t bleed into one another. Some textiles, such as table cloths can be rolled around a wooden dowel, cardboard tube or plastic pipes.
“In conservation, most garments are stored flat without folding them. But you probably don’t have the space to do this at home. So you can fold, but take your clothes out from time to time and fold it differently to avoid creating a permanent crease and stressing the area,” she adds.
“For songket or sarong, lay it flat and roll up some acid-free paper to tuck that between the folds as padding. You can stack other pieces on top, but separate each piece with acid-free paper. That said, you can use white mahjong paper but replace it when it starts yellowing.”
Nur Alifah says Malaysians have yet to understand the significance of garment conservation.
Of course nothing will last forever, but this is worth doing to uphold the individual family history for future generations.