Antique linens, gloves, embroidered fans, lace, christening gowns and bridal dresses are often among a family's most cherished possessions. Yet if they are not handled carefully, these heirlooms can deteriorate or become damaged beyond repair.
"We see more and more beautiful pieces lost to insensitivity," said Gina Bianco, the vice president of Helene Von Rosenstiel Inc., a textile and costume restoration workshop in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The cold, dark winter days offer a chance to check your storage closets for things you want to preserve.
Three important procedures must be carried out. Textiles must first be washed or cleaned with specialized products, then folded between layers of crumpled acid-free tissue and, finally, placed in an acid-free box and stored in a cool, dry place.
If you are unsure about what you are doing, Ms. Bianco said, you should call your local historical society or museum for guidance or ask for a referral to a local expert. But storage procedures will be the same whether the item is washed at home or cleaned professionally.
If the item can be washed, supermarket detergents, even those marked safe for delicate fabrics, should normally be avoided, preservationists advise. Instead, use a special washing product sold by textile restorers or museum suppliers.
Before putting any piece in water, metal hooks and eyes and other metal fasteners should be removed to prevent staining, Patsy Orlofsky, the director of the Textile Conservation Workshop in South Salem, N.Y., said. If the piece is made of fabric dyed in different colors, each color should be pretested for colorfastness.
Place a few drops of warm water on the fabric, let it stand for a few minutes, then pat it dry with a white cloth or blotter. If there is no color transfer that is, if the blotter remains clean repeat the procedure, this time with whatever specialized washing product you plan to use, Orlofsky said.
Never use a washing machine. It could damage the fabric and the mountains of suds that many of the specialized washing products create could damage the machine.
Be very careful when lifting the fabric out of the water you do wash it in. Wet lace, for example, will tear easily.