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Flat Textiles

By Stephen Ball and Sharon Manitta

The broad category of flat textiles comprises a large range of museum and other collectible objects, including carpets, tapestries and wall hangings, banners and flags, and embroidery and samplers. This fact sheet takes two of these groups as representative of the whole class: carpets and rugs, because their often gruelling lives highlight many care and conservation issues; and at the other end of the size scale samplers, whose commemorative or sentimental value ensures that many have survived, even in domestic settings and small collections.

Most of the general conservation, cleaning, storage and display guidance below is easily transferable to other classes of textile, such as church and trade union banners or regimental flags. Also see the fact sheets on Costume and Fashion Accessories for more on the care of other textiles or textile-based objects.

Carpets and Rugs

Carpets and rugs are among the most vulnerable of textiles. This is especially true of hand-made or early power loom pieces. The principal problem is that most carpets and rugs are designed for a very demanding form of use. By the time an historic floor covering reaches the security of a museum collection, it has endured years - and probably decades - of wear and dirt from people's feet, furniture and the environment. Some neglected examples may also be suffering from pest infestations.

Present-day carpets use a variety of natural materials - typically wool, with backings of jute or hessian - and plastics in the form of polypropylene or acrylonitrile fibres and foam backs, but museum pieces are more likely to feature wool examples, with silk and cotton as possible alternatives. Both cotton and linen are found in the foundations of older carpets.

Storage and Display

Traditional textiles, with their preponderance of organic materials, are prone to damage from excessive light and unsuitable or unstable temperature and humidity conditions. Light is a particular danger. However, the good environmental conditions that probably already exist in your museum should prove suitable for most textiles.

Some traditional locations are unsuitable for museum display of carpets and similar materials. Windows are an example, and carpet on nearby floors should be protected by drawable curtains, and ideally by UV filters over the window - something that becomes mandatory where the curtains themselves are items in the collection. Another case is the 'hearthrug': textiles should not be placed near to an open fire, however authentic this looks, because of the obvious risks from heat, soiling and sparks.

If you decide to put a carpet into storage, carefully roll it into a tube that is more than long enough to support the entire width and of sufficient diameter to prevent the innermost turns from being too tight. The pile of the carpet should face outwards. Cover the completed roll with white - preferably unbleached - cotton material (colours could be transferred to the carpet) to keep out dust and dirt.

The selected method of storage or display should not put any part of the carpet under mechanical stress. This precludes any form of folding or tight tying, either of which will cause permanent damage. Take specialist advice before wall hanging flat textiles: the key questions here are the nature of the supporting frame or mountings, and the effect of the object's own weight on the integrity of the fabric.

Flat display boards of a safe material angled towards the viewer may provide the answer for smaller rugs; small areas of large carpets could also be displayed in this way, perhaps using an end partially unwound from a storage roll behind - provided there is no gap, ridge or kink at the point of transition from roll to board, and that partial display does not cause uneven fading of the exposed portion.

Do not use plastic coverings on stored carpets unless the object is being quarantined, pending specialist attention for active pest infestation. If so, isolate the covered roll, and after treatment replace the plastic covers by cotton versions as soon as your conservator advises that the danger has passed. Never use mothballs with textiles in museum storage.

Cleaning and Routine Care

Carpets in sound condition can be vacuum cleaned with care; use a standard head with gentle action in the direction of the pile, and do not scrub or apply pressure to the surface. This treatment is too vigorous for fragile or damaged textiles. Some of these may be gently dusted with a soft brush towards a vacuum cleaner nozzle covered by a muslin filter, but consult a conservator first.
Wet cleaning is not an option within the museum, and should only be undertaken by a specialist conservator. Present day carpet shampoos are designed for household use and contemporary fibres, and not with traditional carpets or rugs in mind. Take a conservator's advice before working on any stain, ancient or modern. Remember that old soiling may provide important evidence for a textile's history. And prevention is the best way to prevent new soiling: keep food and drink, pens, smokers and animals well away from the textiles.

Regular inspection is the key to pest control. Look for clues such as frass, dead insects, larval cases, and - especially on new acquisitions that may have lacked previous care - recent damage to pile or foundation. Get to know the life cycles of insects such as the carpet beetle, and step up inspections at such crucial times as late spring and early summer, when moth and beetle damage is most likely.

Physical damage from whatever cause must be referred to a textile conservator. Do not attempt any kind of repair yourself, and resist the temptation to use adhesives, tapes or colourants - and never cut up a textile. Withdraw the item from display as soon as practicable, and keep damaged cords, frayed foundations and loose pile together within an overall wrapping. Where the item is otherwise sound, it can be rolled and wrapped to await specialist attention, as described above. If rolling causes more damage then the textile may have to wrapped against suitable flat backing. As always, take specialist advice first.

Carpets as Floor Coverings

In the museum, there is a presumption that carpets and rugs in the collection will no longer be laid as floor coverings. This is a form of use, and threatens the long-term survival of the piece.

However, some display contexts may require carpets to be placed in 'natural' settings. For example, a museum may create a themed display with items of furniture arranged on a carpet to resemble a room from a particular period. This should only be taken against the background of the museum's collection policy, and after careful assessment of the carpet's importance, rarity and physical condition.

Some common sense precautions will safeguard carpets displayed under these conditions. Always lay the carpet on a safe underlay over sound, dry floors. Needless to say, nails, tapes, gripper rods and other fixing systems that can penetrate the carpet or deposit adhesives are almost certainly unnecessary - a displayed carpet should not be subjected to the dislodging tendencies of passing feet. If the display is small, or can be viewed from the room's doorway, then the whole display can be simply roped off. Alternatively, if visitors need to move through the room, provide clearly designated walkways that avoid the carpeted area.

Avoid heavy furniture altogether. Use castor cups to reduce pressure from the feet of objects such as tables and chairs, and beware of narrow plinths that crush rectangular shapes into the carpet (a suitably sized board of a safe material under the plinth will spread the load).
Periodically turn the carpet and change the positions of the furniture to reduce these effects still further.


European samplers that survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tend to be long, narrow pieces of linen with random patterns worked in silk or linen threads. These samplers carry their original function as exemplars, fixed 'records' of embroidery designs that could be rolled up and easily transported to friends who may have their own examples to exchange.

Samplers also provided recreation and a way for the females in a family to practise their needlework skills from an early age - an important ability in a time when all clothing and other textiles were made by hand. This practice and training function slowly took precedence over the exemplar, and by the middle of the eighteenth century samplers had taken on the form most familiar to modern eyes - a small textile embroidered with alphabets, designs and religious or moral sayings, and often signed by its usually youthful creator.

The eighteenth century also saw materials being to change. The standard material of early samplers was linen, which was stitched with silk or linen thread. This combination continued through the first quarter of the nineteenth century, but by then wool was often used for the foundation and sometimes for the embroidery itself.

Some samplers have high monetary value, but it is usually the decorative quality and sentimental value of samplers that makes them so popular. A family sampler is an important piece of personal history, which is perhaps why so many of them have survived - usually with the aid of framing or careful storage.

Storage and Display

As for the larger textiles discussed earlier, normal museum conditions - stable temperature and relative humidity, and minimal exposure to light - will prolong the life of a sampler. Light is the main cause of damage to textiles, and many samplers have faded threads. Display samplers away from direct sunlight and sources of heat or damp.

Samplers may well have been acquired already framed. If the frame is old and stable - perhaps contemporary with the frame - then it may be better to leave the combination intact. However, a frame may be unsuitable for a number of reasons and may thus need replacement, or at least repair. When assessing the condition of framed samplers look for general physical condition, unsuitable framing materials (such as resinous ore recently painted or varnished woods), glass in contact with the textile, and evidence of glues-on backings that stain or stress the textile. Also search for signs of insect activity.

If a new or replacement frame is needed, consult a textile conservator before removing an old frame, and make sure that the replacement frame is constructed to conservation standards (see the fact sheet on Conservation Framing).

Cleaning and Routine Care

Normal cleaning and care should be restricted to the dusting of framed specimens, and regular inspection for condition changes and fading. Check the front and back of the frame during the spring and early summer for signs of insect activity.

Wet or other direct cleaning, repairs and stain removal are the province of a specialist textile conservator. Some specimens originally from private homes may have been 'killed with kindness', suffering such indignities as machine washing, ironing, folding and amateur repairs; these too should be referred to a specialist conservator in case the inevitable deterioration can be slowed and stabilised. Training in embroidery is not sufficient for this kind of work.

If the sampler is not destined for framing or other display, wrap it in conservation quality tissue and store it flat in a light-tight drawer or box. Do not fold the textile, and ignore (but do not press) any original folds. Most samplers are small enough to make rolled storage unnecessary.

Sources of Information and Advice

A more detailed guide to the practical care of costume and textile collections is:

Robinson, J. and Pardoe, T., An Illustrated Guide to the Care of Costume and Textile Collections, Museums and Galleries Commission, London, 2000.

Sandwith, H. and Stainton, S., The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping (revised edition), Penguin/National Trust, London, 1993.

Averil Colby, Samplers, Batsford
ISBN 0 7134 4647. (Contains historical information and designs, and brings the continuing history of samplers up to the present.)

For more information about private conservation work please contact:

Conservation Register
Tel: 020 7721 8246

Conservation Register (Scotland)
Tel: 0131 668 8668

Copies of this fact sheet can be provided in alternative formats. Please contact Viola Lewis, Information Officer at MLA for further information.



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