Proper and adequate quilt storage is essential to the longevity and care of your quilts and fine textiles. The following information is presented with the help of Ann Russell, a conservation consultant, with The Hollinger Corporation, manufacturer of archival storage materials that are excellent for the individual quilter or collector. Hollinger boxes are the very same boxes and acid-free tissues that have been supplied to the textile curators and collection managers of museums world-wide, like the Smithsonian Institution and The National Archives.
You've invested countless hours creating a treasure . . . How do you protect your heirloom?
1. Choose the best quality storage box available for your textiles and quilts.
Hollinger box boards are acid-free, lignin and sulphur-free to provide the best storage protection. Ordinary brown kraft corrugated boxes and many decorative dry cleaner or craft storage containers are comprised of poor quality, acidic materials. Physical contact with these acidic materials will cause staining and deterioration of the fibers of the quilt. Hollinger fiberboard and corrugated "Bully" board have a minimum alkaline pH of 8.5 with a 3% calcium carbonate buffer. This means that the box will retain its own integrity and that the buffering material will neutralize any environmental acids. Laboratory aging tests indicate that the Hollinger boards will provide archival protection for five centuries.
Boxes protect your quilt from ambient light and airborne contaminants like dust and cooking/heating oils. Ultraviolet rays, found in sunlight and incandescent and fluorescent lights cause fibers to deteriorate more quickly. Choose a room with a constant temperature and stable relative humidity (like a bedroom - not an attic or basement) for your storage area. Avoid placing perfume sachets, moth balls, photographs or other artifacts with your quilt. Their own particular chemistry may add damaging elements to your collectible.
2. Choose a rolling tube that is SAFE if you don't wish to fold your quilt.
Many conservators do not like to fold their textiles because of the pressure and distortion that occurs on the folded sections. Long-term compression on the inside of the fold creates a setting or creasing of the fabric. The outside fibers stretch around the curve of the fold. Quilting stitches will be more stressed in the folded areas. If you do choose to fold your quilt, take care to refold it periodically along different lines.
Hollinger supplies us with a textile rolling tube with a 3" diameter in lengths up to 120". It is made of a chemically inert polyethylene plastic. If you are currently using a brown kraft tube, protect your quilt by isolating the inferior tube material with an absolute barrier of Tyvek or archival quality polyester film before rolling your quilt on to the tube for storage. You may use several layers of acid-free tissue as a temporary barrier but even they may eventually convey the inferior tube's acidic properties. Roll your quilt with the image side out and consider interleaving it with tissue. Use acid-free tissue or Tyvek as a final wrapping layer. Periodically rotate the tube to relieve the flattening effect of shelving pressure.
3. Support your quilt with acid-free tissue.
Interleaving and Wadding: Use acid-free tissue for interleaving or layering to give the proper pH environment and physical support for your quilt whether it is folded or rolled. Tissue may be purchased on 36" X 250' rolls or two sizes of cut sheets. (You'll need a friend to help with the next step!) To interleave your quilt, place a clean bed sheet on the floor. Cut two or three lengths of tissue from the roll slightly longer than your quilt. Overlap the sections slightly. It is best not to try to attach lengths together at the sides with tape or adhesive because they will contribute an unwanted element to the storage environment. Place the quilt on top of the tissue, face or image side down. Fold the quilt to fit your box size. Loosely wad or crumple acid-free tissue to place in the folds. This tissue wadding gives loft or support to the quilt during storage. It helps the quilt fibers to resist the inexorable pull and set of gravity during storage. If you want to reduce the crimping of fold lines during storage, do not store more than one quilt per box (or Tyvek bag). The weight of the added items will compress the folds.
4.Which acid-free tissue do you choose? Buffered or Unbuffered?
Buffered tissue has a minimum pH of 8.5 with a 3% calcium carbonate buffer. Choose it for quilts comprised of cotton, linen or jute fibers. It is not necessary to use the tissue to line the box (or Tyvek bag) as the Hollinger board materials are already buffered and the Tyvek bag material is inert.
Unbuffered tissue has a pH between 6.8 and 7.2. This neutral range is best for wools or silks. Conservators also use it for leather, fur or feathered artifacts. When in doubt as to the fiber content of your quilt use unbuffered tissue. The three standard sizes of Hollinger textile boxes arrive with 20 sheets of 20" X 30" unbuffered tissue. You may choose to place a layer of unbuffered tissue inside the buffered box as a neutral pH layer between the wool/silk quilt and the buffered box.
Acid-free tissue may be used in multiple layers as a lifting sling to remove the folded quilt from the box. This will reduce the contaminants and abrasion that human hands may contribute to very fragile antique quilts.
5. What is this Tyvek stuff?
Tyvek is a chemically inert (neutral pH=7), water-resistant fabric-like material that is strong, versatile and inexpensive. This archivally safe material resists mold and mildew. It's smooth, white surface will shield collectibles from ambient ultraviolet light damage and dust when used as a final wrapping material for unboxed or rolled quilts. Tyvek Quilt Bags (which you can easily sew) will serve the same function for a folded quilt to be stored in a bag instead of a box. Unlike tissue or other papers, Tyvek will not easily tear and remains strong even if crimped. According to DuPont, who manufacturers Tyvek, the material can also be washed. If you are rolling your quilt, cut a length of Tyvek that is at least 8" longer than your rolled quilt or tube. Secure it around the quilt with flat woven tapes or ribbons, or long wide strips of cotton muslin (not cord). Tying too tightly will set unwanted crimps in the fabric.
Cedar chests have been in use as a protective storage container for textiles for many years. However, contact with any acidic wood will be harmful to quilt fibers. If you wish to use your cedar chest for sentimental reasons, consider lining it with Tyvek on the bottom and sides to protect your treasures.
6. Tips for handling your quilt when arranging it for storage.
A. WASH YOUR HANDS! Human sweat contains oils and sulphur that may remain with the fabric of your quilt or fine textile. Perfumes, hand creams, shaving lotion and other cosmetics may damage fibers over time. Be sure your hands are washed before handling and packing. Another option after washing your hands is to put on a pair of CLEAN white cotton gloves.
B. DISCARD THE PLASTIC BAGS OR PREVIOUS WRAPPING TISSUES. Not all plastic bags are safe for archival storage. Inexpensive dry cleaner and garbage bags may contain harmful PVCs (polyvinyl chloride) which will out-gas and contribute to rapid deterioration of fibers. Tissue paper from retail establishments or original packaging materials may not be of a very good pH. However, storage bags made of Tyvek will be appropriate for your quilt storage. A Tyvek bag will resist moisture, dust and ward off insects if the quilt is completely encased in a Tyvek Quilt Bag or wrapper..
Read more about Textile Preservation from Hollinger Corp: Quilters & Quilt Collectors Tip Sheet
At the very least, or until you can follow the quilt storage advice of the experts, try something that quiltmakers often use; store your 'clean' quilts individually in 100% cotton pillow cases, and occasionally take them out to let the cotton fabrics breathe. You can also refresh your quilts in a dryer on a 'no-heat' or very 'low-temp cool' dryer setting for a few minutes, but don't use a dryer sheet for fragrance. Refold the quilt a different way each time you put it away, to avoid breakage of the threads by using the same folds.
Clean quilts are less subject to damage from moths, silverfish, and other unwelcome pests who love dirt and grime. Read more about how to wash your quilts.