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A Genealogist In The Archives: Preserving Your Ancestor's Textiles

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Preserving Your Ancestor's Textiles

"31 Days of Tips from The Archive Lady"

DAY #6

Preserving Your Ancestor's 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 and laced handkerchief. Located at the Houston County, TN. Archives

For most fabric items you will need archival tissue paper and the correct size archival box for storage. First, 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. Located in the Houston County, Tennessee 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. Located in the 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.



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  1. This is great advice! I have several family quilts that are currently wrapped in plastic and in a cedar chest. I also have my grandmother's WWII Navy uniform hanging in a closet. I've been thinking of upgrading their storage for a while. I'll be finding some large archival boxes for them!

    1. EvaAnne, sounds like you have some true family treasures! Keeping them preserved is the best thing you can do. Thank You for reading my blog!

  2. do you have a good source to buy these items from? I also was told there are different types of tissue paper, one for between photos and another for textiles. Can you please give me details? thanks!! great advice...I have a large table sized tapestry backed in red satin with detailed macrame fringe that I need to store securely

    1. Michele, yes there are several archival stores, Gaylord Archival, Hollinger Metal Edge, Light Impressions, just to name a few. Here is a blog post that I did about the difference between buffered and unbuffered tissue paper, hope it helps. Link: