This post is by Paige Myers, Textile Conservator at the North Carolina Museum of History and instructor for C2C’s “Textiles Intensive” workshop.
Vacuuming is the easiest method of cleaning a textile and often the only safe treatment possible for museum collections. Visually, it will improve the look of the textile, but more importantly, it will remove particulate (dirt, dust, insect casings, etc.) that could be damaging to the fibers over a long period of time. Select a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter vacuum. These are now widely available and fairly inexpensive.
To vacuum clean, a couple of methods may be used. The first method is to use a piece of fiberglass screening (not the aluminum or metal kind), cut to a manageable size. A 6 inch by 6 inch square should be sufficient. It can be made bigger if large objects such as coverlets or quilts are to be vacuumed. To protect the textile from the rough edges of the screening, cover them with blue painter’s tape, or for a more permanent solution, sew on wide bias tape around the edges. It is best to use a canister type vacuum since most modern upright vacuums are extremely powerful. Use a low setting on the vacuum, if possible, and open the vents on the handle to reduce the suction. It is important that, whatever method is used, the textile should not get sucked up into the nozzle. Start by placing the screen in one corner. It is easiest to work downward in rows. Gently vacuum over the screen in a straight line and move it along as you go. Make sure you have vacuumed all sections before turning over the textile to vacuum the other side.
The second method uses tulle or netting (like a wedding veil) or cheesecloth instead of screening. It can be easily obtained from fabric or craft stores. Only a small amount is needed. For this method, fold the netting for two layers together (this reduces the chance of loose threads or beads being sucked up into the vacuum) and put over the end of the nozzle; secure with a rubber band. As with the screen method, work downward in straight rows with gentle vacuuming. A helpful hint is to keep the hand you are not vacuuming with between the nozzle and textile. I use the nozzle between the thumb and first finger. It keeps the nozzle a natural 3/4- inch distance away from the artifact.
Be careful to vacuum around objects containing beads or small parts. Don’t let them get sucked into the vacuum. They could be easily pulled from the textile by weak threads. It is also possible to use a small vacuum made to dust computer keyboards. They produce less suction and are safer on more fragile textiles. When in doubt however, consult a textile conservator for advice. It is better to do nothing than to risk damaging an irreplaceable heirloom.
Posted on April 27, 2012, in cleaning, collections care, Connecting to Collections, guest bloggers, workshops and tagged hepa filter vacuum, NC Museum of History, Paige Myers, textile conservation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.