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A Genealogist In The Archives: Preserving Our Ancestor's Heirloom Textiles

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Preserving Our Ancestor's Heirloom Textiles

Some of the most interesting items we have in our own family genealogy collections as well as in archives are items made of some sort of fabric. Things such as a christening gowns, quilts, high school sweaters and doilies are just a few of the items some of us have as part of our family archive.

Preserving and storing these items can be a challenge and if not done properly could result in the destruction of these precious heirlooms.

Hand embroidered handkerchief. Houston County, TN. Archives 

For most fabric items you will need archival tissue paper and the correct size archival box for storage. 

Put a layer of tissue paper in the bottom of the box. Then put your fabric item on the tissue paper. If the item is large, such as a quilt or a piece of clothing, it is okay to fold it but put layers of tissue paper between the folds making sure that none of the fabric touches itself.  I also like to put extra tissue paper as a "filler" in the box so that the item doesn't move around in the box. Just ball the tissue paper up and put it around the item and that will keep it still in the box. Then place the box in a dark, cool and dry storage place. With fabric items I like to take the archival box and place it in another box such as a plastic tote which can be sealed, this is to deter moths and insects which can destroy fabrics.

Be sure to put documentation in the box to explain in detail all pertinent information about the item.  If it was handmade, include the name of the person who made it. Also, if applicable, include the "chain of ownership" of the item and how it has been passed down in the family and which ancestors owned it before it was passed down to you. The more information you include in your description, the better!

Handmade christening gown. Houston County, TN. Archives 
Finding fabric items in an archives can be a challenge but they do exist in collections housed in many of the our wonderful repositories. Most items of this kind will be found in families records collections which are normally part of the archives larger Manuscript Collection or Special Collections. When family records have been donated to an archive, the collection could include fabric items and they would be processed right along with the documents and should be listed in the finding aid.

Another way a fabric item could be cataloged in an archive is in a group collection such as a "Quilt Collection" which could include many quilts by different makers and are housed in one collection. Or maybe these items are cataloged in a local high school collection, such as the letterman sweater in the photo below.

Letterman sweater from Erin High School. Houston County, TN. Archives 
As genealogists we are always searching for that next important document to help tell our ancestor's story.  Don't forget our ancestors are also trying to tell us their story through things that they made, things that they wore and things that they used on a daily basis. The story behind a handmade quilt can be just as interesting as the story behind a document.

Preserving the fabric of our ancestors and the stories that go with them should be part of every genealogists journey to document our families.



Gaylord Archival Quilt Preservation Kit at Amazon


  1. This article is timely; last week my husband received the christening gown and jacket that his dad and all his dad’s siblings wore. It had been kept by a cousin for 29 years in a cardboard box in her basement. The 2 pieces are in rough shape. Who would I ask to find a conservator, somewhat local, that could clean these pieces?

    1. Debbie, I would suggest that you contact the state archives in your state. They might have a conservator on staff that could help you but if they don't they should have a name and contact information for someone who can. Thank You for reading my blog!

    2. Melissa, Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. I'm planing a trip to the state archives soon, so this is perfect.

  2. Have my ggm's embroidery on linen towels. Have been kept in a cedar chest for probably 50 years. In fairly good shape. There are 3 pieces that look like table runners. My cousin has a 4th piece. They will be used (after tacking to a sturdier piece of fabric) as part of a wedding ceremony of a great-great-grandchild of the orignal embroiderer. A few rust type marks on them and some of the linen has ripped but in fairly good condition for being well over 100 years old.

    1. Marcy, what treasures you have! So glad to hear they are in good enough shape to be used. Thank You for reading my blog!