Most people know to buy acid-free photo albums for old family snapshots, but the same care goes for old garments. For years I’ve been relying on inexpensive, unbuffered acid-free tissue paper to ensure some dear family heirlooms will remain in tact for years to come, including a piece of beaded silk from my step-grandmother’s dance costume from the ’20s. Regular tissue paper is acidic and will yellow over time and damage fragile fabrics, especially silk. Unbuffered, acid-free tissue paper is completely PH neutral. If you want to spend a little more, you can also buy acid-free cardboard boxes from an archival supplier, but as long as you have a buffer of tissue between the plastic and the contents, a standard plastic storage bin is an easy and inexpensive solution. Just make sure to keep the lid slightly ajar to avoid creating a microclimate of heat and moisture. I also separate each garment with additional tissue. The textiles themselves need to be positioned as they are intended to be worn, with as few folds as possible (sharp folds will eventually turn into breaks in the fabric). If I must fold a piece, I go back and refold it every six months in order to avoid permanent creasing and tearing. I also use the acid-free tissue to pad out the inside of the garment in order to maintain its original shape. There are a few important environmental conditions that must be maintained, but this is not particularly difficult: store bins in a dark, cool place (65 degrees Fahrenheit) and maintain the relative humidity level (50% is ideal).
A cardboard box carelessly stuffed with baby clothes or a wedding dress that’s left in a non-regulated environment can suffer a variety of damages: disintegration of delicate fabrics from contact to acidic surfaces (i.e. cardboard boxes); breaks in fabric due to creases, folds, and tight storage; fading from exposure to light; swelling and distortion of the fabric and the running of colors due to moisture; whereas too dry causes brittleness and breakage; and, of course, insect infestation. Moth larvae will eat just about everything: wool, feathers, fur, hair, leather, lint, dust, paper and occasionally cotton, linen, silk, and synthetic fibers. They’re also attracted to blood, sweat, and other biological substances, so you MUST clean your clothing prior to storage. You can also get stiff, buffered acid-free tissue, which is specifically intended for balancing the PH of cellulosic textiles such as cotton and linen. However, unbuffered really is the way to go if you’re dealing with a range of organic material, especially if it’s going to be housed in one box — it’s also slightly cheaper. I took graduate classes in museum conservation, but didn’t decide to properly pack away my own treasures until I assisted with the treatment of a rather large 20th century costume collection infested with moths. We rehoused literally hundreds of garments, ranging from turn of the century wedding gowns to 80’s silk shirts with shoulder pads, using the same unbuffered acid-free tissue paper you can get from any archival supplier.