One of the things that kept me from collecting antique clothing early on was that I didn’t know how to store it. I remember passing up an 1870s bustle dress for $25 because of this reason.
Yes. I am kicking myself for that one.
I’ve been doing some research since then. It’s still daunting to store old clothing, but there are ways to do it. Here’s my basic battle plan.
1) Plastic Boxes
Check out any museum storage company like Talas or Gaylords, and you’ll see corrugated plastic storage boxes. They fold together, have loose-fitting lids, and seem very simple for the high price tag – especially since you can use ordinary plastic tubs. It’s not as simple as going to WalMart and buying any tub, however.
If a plastic is marked #2, #4, or #5, it’s “safe” meaning it doesn’t degrade under UV rays or leech too much icky stuff. Museum storage boxes are usually made from either #5 (which is polypropylene) or a mixture of polypropylene and polyethylene.
Clear (not tinted) Sterilite tubs are made from polypropylene (#5) and are acid-free, which makes them a good choice. The Container Store carries a line of clear polypropylene tubs as well, which are just as good. Rubbermaid tubs are a different story. The Rubbermaid website doesn’t quite say what theirs are made of.
Avoid Dresser Drawer Syndrome; use shallow tubs for storing flat clothing. It’s easier to find things, keeps less weight on the pieces on the bottom and creates fewer creases.
Clothing needs some air circulation. I have no real solution for this, but I sometimes leave tub lids slightly off. I put small desiccant packs directly in the tub, in case any excess moisture is sealed in when I close the lid. It helps to pack clothing in paper; crumpled, it keeps the layers of cloth separated and allows a little air to move. I also try to check the clothing regularly.
2) Padded Hangers
There are a billion tutorials on building your own padded hangers out on the internets, so I’m just here to say “do it”. Padded hangers are incredible for supporting clothing, they keep the insides of the garment apart for better air circulation, and they reduce creasing and wrinkling. So just do it, unless the garment isn’t stable enough for hanging. That’s an educated decision that will have to be made multiple times for each garment. Because the passage of time. And because gravity.
I use unbleached cotton muslin, thick plastic hangers (WalMart), and fiberfill. I get fiberfill at WalMart by buying cheap pillows for a few dollars apiece. It’s cheaper than the craft isle and it’s the same stuff(ing). Also comes in a handy storage bag. And another life hack: throw the pillow in the washing machine before you use it. Voila, clean fiberfill.
Another great thing to do is to add supports to the garment itself to keep stress off the shoulders. Carefully sew white (or unbleached) cotton loops to the bottom curve of an arms eye seam or at a waistline seam; sewing through all the layers of fabric. Make the loops short enough to just support the weight of the garment when they are placed over a hanger.
5 3) Garment Bags
Garment bags are so easy! Buy unbleached cotton muslin, and cut a width that’s five or so inches wider than a hanger’s width. Fold it in half and sew up the tube, then just sew the top together, leaving a small hole in the center. I like to use the woven edges for the lower hemline and the upper seam, and for the vertical seam I use the cut edges. It saves time sewing them up.
Homemade custom garment bags: a large one for a 1930s sailor dress, and a small one for a 1920s swimsuit. I try to save muslin this way.
Some clothing can’t handle the friction and pulling that putting a garment bag on creates, so these can also be made to button up the front. Instead of the vertical seam, hem each cut edge. Add loops or buttonholes to one side and buttons to the other. Just make sure there’s an overlap so you can’t see much of the garment inside. It all needs to be covered.
If I’m keeping one piece in the same bag for a while, I tack tags on the bag so I don’t have to open it to see what’s inside.
4) Humidity Control
I went on Amamzon.com and bought a gallon of orange-indicating desiccant beads. They’re much safer than the blue-indicating variety, and on Amazon, they’re many times cheaper than museum storage companies.
Talas offers a great system of desiccant beads in little tins that look like Altoids containers with holes in the lids – I didn’t want to use actual Altoids containers for fear that they would rust, so I bought some food-storage plastic containers. Being meant for food storage means they are (or should) be made from a stable plastic like polypropylene. I dumped a handful of beads into those, punched some holes in the lids, and snapped the lids on. They work great, and don’t rust.
5) Support (Hose)
Use cheap stockings (tights, hose, whatever you call them; the thin nylon things), stuffed with fiberfill, for temporary support. Like, if you’re trying to bulk out a little dress form, or if you’re working on a more permanent storage support but need a temporary one immediately. I went to WalMart recently and picked up a bunch of short knee-high type stockings for $.33 each. Stuffed and wadded into balls, they’re been great for keeping the toes of shoes supported. They also make good shoulder supports for those tops with puffed sleeves – pin them onto your dress form. Just remember, the fibers in the stockings will break down after a while. Try not to use them for long.
1972 Converse which have been pretty much destroyed. Stockings stuffed with fiberfill have helped get them back into a normal shape after having been flattened. It would be silly to use a good support in these before they’re cleaned, so I’m using the disposable stockings and fiberfill for now.
6) A Note of Importance
One note about cotton muslin: WASH IT FIRST. Also AIR DRY it. Fabric comes coated in a sizing, like starch, for a better hand. I’ve gotten chemical burns from washing cheap cotton and getting the sizing on my hands. Not all sizing is this bad, but this is not stuff you want touching your antique clothing.
So wash your cotton, and if it smells like anything other than fresh water or your detergent when it comes out, wash it again. The best bet is to wash the cotton with soap meant for washing antique clothing, but if you’re on a budget like I am, just make sure to get all the sizing out of the cotton with your own detergent. Air drying means you won’t be putting additional softeners and perfumes in it, which can transfer to the clothing.
7,854.413 1/3) Random Linky Links
Museum Textiles Services: a company that does archival storage consulting. They have some tips for storing textiles on this page and this page.
Talas: while they’re still kinda expensive, they’re a little cheaper than some other companies.
Gaylord: they carry everything you never thought you needed. I love to browse this site and drool over shelving and tissue paper. Please tell me I’m not the only person who does this.