Preserving Family Linen

By Denise May Levenick Premium
Fall and winter often bring friends and family around the table for casual get-togethers and holiday feasts. Share your family history this season by unpacking the heirloom linens and china for display or for your holiday table.
Q. I inherited a white embroidered cutwork tablecloth my great-grandmother made in Russia. It appears to be linen. I’ve stored it rolled up in a drawer for 30 years. How can I safely display the cloth to share its story?
A. Handmade textiles such as your whitework tablecloth are often a favorite family keepsake. You can imagine the hours spent carefully stitching the heirloom cloth and almost feel the connection to your great-grandmother as you touch its fabric. (See the opposite page for more on often-inherited needlework heirlooms.)
You have good instincts to roll the cloth—which prevents creases and breakage along fold lines—and store it away from harmful UV lighting. Any light source, whether natural or from lamps and fixtures, is harmful to fragile textiles.
Wearing white cotton gloves to protect the cloth from skin oils, carefully inspect it for any stains, tears and other damage. It’s best to clean linens and textiles before storing, but avoid using detergents (including homemade ones) unless directed by a conservator. Instead, lightly vacuum any surface dust with a nylon screen over the vacuum hose to diffuse the suction. Depending on the condition of your tablecloth, you may want to seek help from a professional textile conservator for repair or cleaning <>.
You could roll linens around an acid-free tube, or carefully fold a cloth and pad the folds with acid-free tissue. Then place the item inside a 100 percent cotton pillowcase to protect it from dust and handling, and store it in a drawer or archival box (find suppliers listed at <>). Contact with wooden surfaces will cause the fabric to yellow over time, so you can provide a barrier by sealing the wood with polyurethane or lining the drawer with clean cotton sheeting.
Avoid storing heirlooms in plastic, which can cause yellowing and trap moisture. Your home archive should be located inside your home where the temperature and humidity are consistent, and items are protected from light, dust, pests and odors.
To display the tablecloth at special occasions, gently spread it over a clean, dry surface. If the fabric is sturdy and you choose to serve food on it, have it cleaned immediately after use (even if it doesn’t look dirty) by a professional dry cleaner experienced with antique table linens.
 From the October/November 2015 issue of Family Tree Magazine