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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Preserving Your Ancestor's Textiles

Some of the most interesting items we have in our own family genealogy collections as well as in our many archives are items made of some sort of fabric. Things such as a christening gown, 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. 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. I just ball the tissue paper up and put it around the item and that will keep it still in the box.

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 a families 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 lettermen 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 they made, things they wore and things 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 textiles 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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