Q&A: Julia Brennan on preserving heirlooms

Sep 19, 2019

Julia Brennan, who has worked in textile conservation since 1985, founded Caring for Textiles in Washington in 1996. Her company provides textile treatments, display, installations and other services for museums, institutions and private clients. She frequently lectures on conservation education Her clients include George Washington's Mount Vernon, The White House Historical Association, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Andy Warhol Museum. She is committed to conservation education and lectures on the care and display of textiles all over the world including Bhutan, Algeria and Thailand.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Greetings to Julia Brennan, who runs the Washington business Caring for Textiles. Julia is a conservator who has been in the business for a long time. Send in your questions now. And meanwhile, read my story on heirlooms that includes Julia and how she rescued some World War II military maps on silk right here.

Good morning - so pleased to be Jura's guest today to chat about caring for your textile treasures. 

I have some very old lace table runners that have since yellowed. Is there any method to safely whiten lace to its original color?

Cloth, lace, linens yellow and discolor with age.....just like humans. These stains and discolorations are sort of like 'age spots'. Some we just have to learn to live with. Any colored embroidery or other embellishment could bleed......The discoloration may also indicate that the fabric/fibers are weakened, and therefore any cleaning needs to be done carefully. No bleaches, harsh chemicals,  or washing machines. Just a simple flat wet cleaning with mild detergent - dry flat in sunshine for no more than 30 or 40 minutes. Sun does weaken fibers, but a short exposure will help the wet linen to brighten. 

Hello Julia, I have a set of crocheted placemats given to me by a friend whose mother made them in the 1950s. I would like to use them, but not as placemats. I wonder if you have any suggestions? I’ve thought about piecing them together to make a dress or bedspread. Also, I am in the market for a large suzani to hang on a wall. There are many from Turkey for sale on Etsy, but I would like to be able to see the color in person before purchasing one. Do you know of a shop that sells them in the DC area? Thanks for your help! Charlotte

I don't know of shops locally with suzani, sorry. Re your crochet placemats, we don't re work and re configure old textiles. But we have certainly mounted and framed individual pieces of crochet, lace, embroidery - with great results. Maybe a clever pillow maker or textile artist could be your co inspiration. 

Wool or cashmere knitwear- should we hand wash on our own versus dry clean?

Certainly can be hand washed in cool water with a mild detergent and laid flat, blocked out to the shape you want. I think this is an easy and great option. If a dye might bleed, or there is a bad stain, consult with an experienced dry cleaner. 

Hi I have read various articles about using OxyClean or Biz or other products for removing old brown stains from vintage tablecloths or pillowcases. What formula do you recommend?

We don't use either of those products. They are too harsh for most of the delicate work  in textile conservation. They can eat at the stains and create holes in old fabrics. I think a simple washing with mild detergent, flat, gentle, and then dry for about 30 minutes in the sun. But only if the linens are all white. The sun will fade colors and weaken fabric, so it is just a little brightening boost. We learn to live with some stains and age marks - just like our own skin. 

I have some 100 year old pieces and they are pretty clean. Can I use acid free tissue and boxes to store them? Is that the best way?

Yes perfect! Acid free boxes and tissue, and also washed clean cotton sheets for inner linings or lining drawers. You can order acid free boxes and tissue at University Products, Gaylord - to suggest 2 companies. 

Should you hang on a hanger or fold flat ?

This depends on what the textile or garment is - and the condition, and where you can place it in your home....many variables to consider. Some garments that are super heavy or embellished are better off long term laid flat. Others that are very 3 dimensional are better hung up - on a padded hanger. 

I guess food stains on cotton or linen. What are your tips to get them out.

To many variables to respectfully address this. Cleaning and stain removal is very complex. There are entire university programs devoted to this topic.....you can consult a good local dry cleaner with your textile in hand. 

I have three quilts that were made by my great-grandmother (circa 1920/1930) and I'm wondering how to clean and store them. Thanks.

Quilts are tricky....so many different materials and colors, stitching methods and battings. I do not recommend trying to clean quilts yourself. They are cumbersome and each one needs to be treated as a one of a kind. You can certainly vacuum them front and back carefully with a gentle non powerful suction vacuum, and or shake gently outside, air in a non sun location for a couple of hours. This is what our great grandmothers and grands did. For storage, try to place in a clean, dry, cool location in your home. If you are using a trunk or chest or bureau, line it with cotton sheeting to prevent wood acids from discoloring the quilts. Fold gently and pad out folds best you can with acid free tissue. Or store in acid free boxes, available from various archival and conservation supply companies. For example University Products and Gaylord. Best practice - check the stored quilts 1 or 2 times a year, especially during seasonal changes, to see if there is any excessive moisture or insects. 

During WWII , my mother knit a ski sweater from wool army socks while at a displaced person camp in Germany. I wore the sweater as a young woman but now would like to save it and store it properly.

What a treasure of memories. Make sure there are no little critters or insects in the old wools. If it is not super soiled or stained, I suggest storing it wrapped in acid free tissue and in an acid free box or even a plastic tote. Check on it regularly and place it somewhere that is not too hot or damp, or in bright light. 

Is the delicate cycle on these machines too rough for heirloom linens? Should you always hand wash? Favorite cleaner/soap?

All machines are too rigorous on any heirloom and delicate and special textile or garment. Hand washing can be controlled and textiles treated very gently, and handled with care. Use a gentle detergent without brighteners, bleaches, enzymes, boosters etc. Often a surfactant called Orvus is used - it is pretty mild and works well to remove soiling. 

Do those pheromones traps work? Or is cedar or mothballs useful to deter them?

The pheromone traps attract insects. Yes they work and they attract more. If you don't have an infestation, then I don't think you need to lure the insects with these strong lures.....many things deter insects, but not eliminate. In general cedar chips, clove sachets, lemongrass deter the insects, but will not prevent an invasion. Mothballs are unhealthy and again only deter and so I just don't use them. 

Not textiles, but I inherited some old 1960's newspapers from my parents' house: the JFK assassination and the moon landing. I have them in a plastic bag in my closet. Do you have any suggestions for preserving them?

Consult a paper conservator, American Institute for Conservation has an online referral for conservators in your area. Plastic is generally not good, as moisture can build up inside sealed or closed plastic bags or containers, and cause mold or mildew. There are many local paper conservators, and often outreach programs at local libraries and historic houses. 

Julia and Jura, I have a number of textiles I'd like to preserve and possibly display -- any suggestions? 1. Handkerchiefs with tatting, done in the 1940s/1950s by my grandmothers and great grandmothers, kept in a sewing basket from the 1950s. Some are yellowing. 2. My simple cotton wedding dress with stains all over the front -- keep some lace from it maybe, and display it in a shadow box? 3. My father's WW II uniform, currently hanging in a garment bag, and medals with ribbons. The uniform was probably re-issued to him when he returned from service, and it's in surprisingly good shape. I probably can't really display it but would want to preserve it and perhaps donate it to his Army division's museum at some point. Thanks!

Hello and happy to hear you have such a collection of beloved textile memories. Honestly, they are all so different in materials, fibers, and your purposes are varied.....so it would be best to consult a textile conservator and have each one looked at. This way each piece can be evaluated and professional suggestions made and proposals for a range of conservation actions - including cleaning, stain removal, mounting for display or framing, long term storage of uniforms etc. Each textile is so unique and approached differently. The process of working with a conservator to explore the condition, options for display and storage can be really fun. 

I have several old family quilts made by my great grandmother - they were probably made in the late 1800's, early 1900's. They are in good to excellent condition. I don't use them because I don't want them to get damaged and honestly they don't fit into the style of my home. So they take up room in drawers, rolled inside acid free paper. I struggle with what to do with them! Part of me wants to get rid of them. Is there a responsible and respectful way to do that?

Oh these sound wonderful. And family pieces too. If your great grandmother made these or was from a particular town or state, why not contact the historical society or a local museum in her area of origin. You can provide family history and photos to accompany the quilts, and make a meaningful donation that will honor her. You can also invest in having them appraised and then decide if you want to consign to a good antique or folk art gallery, or donate to a museum that collects and studies quilts of this period and type. 

How do you wash a quilt that's not antique but a valued family piece.

Every quilt is so unique and may have many colors, dyes, embellishments, different batting materials inside, or added pen or paint on surface.......so I can't say what is a safe method for cleaning any quilt - antique, semi antique, or even just 20+ years old. A valued family piece is just that, so I suggest that you have it professionally reviewed to confirm best practices for long term care and use. 

What a fascinating business you have! Are you still stumped on occasion with a garment or fabric or have you seen it all?

I'm always learning and seeing 'new' textiles and constructions and fibers......the world of textiles is so rich and diverse - I've seen but a fraction. Often textiles come into my lab and pose a good challenge. This requires long and thoughtful consideration of different approaches to conservation treatment, testing, learning more about the particular piece or genre, and a 're thinking' of what is the most minimal and suitable methods to apply. Often a perplexing textile takes weeks to mull over  and then there is usually a 'eureka' or a collaborative decision with other conservators consulting. That is what keeps the daily work alive, exciting, and challenging. Knowing my professional limits is also key; I turn down projects that I do not feel I have the skill set to apply. 

Is there anything you can think of that we can do to make millennials appreciate old linens? They seem to have no interest in them at all. We have such beautiful family pieces. What will happen to them?

Maybe knowing personal history and family stories will make these old linens more compelling. Stories about specific holidays or ancestors, along with photos, could make these textiles more important......and you could just make little 'care packages' with a small number of linens in them for each child.....Linens are a 'burden' to many who use paper throw away napkins with take out food, so loving old white linens is a quantum leap. Alternatively, pack them up in archival storage boxes and add in your written notes and letters and explanations. Know that later in life, someone, and hopefully one of your off spring will come across these, and perhaps by that time appreciate the stories and the delicacy and beauty of these linens. I've seen some old linens, such as damask tablecloths, made into really fun swing skirts, tunics, curtains.......I have a textile 'fairy god mother' who has encountered the 'no child wants any of our multi generation linens and lace' and has graciously given them to me. I use linen sheets for wrapping textiles, and have a circle of friends, colleagues, stitchers, and history buffs who simply adore old linens. 

What typically causes a dark rusty stain on old linens? Or is it just the age of any stain that turns dark?

Dark brown stains and a sort of 'foxing' pattern of brown and dark yellow stains on fabrics is pretty common. The cellulose breaks down and discolors. Often the wood or acidic paper, or just the humid climate cause the fabrics to stain and splotch with brown stains. Rust stains are usually directly associated with a pin or metal component. Often in white linens, the foxing and acidic stains can be diminished or removed by gently hand washing and a short little 30 min sun bath - but only for those linens and textiles that are white and strong. 

I'm about to embark on a kitchen remodeling project. I've purchased new GE appliances to replace the 23-year-old models. Not high end. The vendor is pushing their service contracts. Not hard sell, fortunately. Is it worth it? Gas stove, not many bells and whistles, top freezer fridge (no water on the door or smart electronics), apartment size dishwasher and microwave. I live alone so likely light usage. Dishwasher maybe once a week, oven and stove several nights a week but not every night. I'd say no to purchasing contract on a less than $250 microwave but what about the others? Are they really likely to give out after the manufacturer's warranty? Thank you.

Gosh this is a very personal decision. I must say honestly that I don't buy any appliance service contracts. I'm usually gobsmacked by the price of the appliances and don't want to spend more. What about the rest of you?

I have inherited a large box containing many (hundreds?) of womens' handkerchiefs from the 30s/50s/60s. Many different prints/styles/sizes. I have no idea what to do with them, or even how I really should be storing them. Perhaps some place I can donate them? Any ideas?

What a treasure! Store them in acid free boxes with acid free tissue, and perhaps select some you love and have them framed. I don't know of hanky collectors, but maybe contact some of the universities with textile apparel departments - Rhode Island, FIT NYC, Uni of MD for example. 

Julia: What an interesting career. What are some of the most amazing things you have preserved?

For iconic American textiles - President Lincoln's Great Coat; Frederick Douglass's suit, shirt, gloves, hat, personal clothing; George Washington's waistcoat and Martha Washington's needle case, Howard Hughes flight suit........and in Asia I have conserved and cared for the couture clothing of Queen Mother Sirikit of Thailand. And most recently preserving the remaining clothes of the victims of the Khmer Rouge Genocide in Cambodia. 

How can I preserve my 1960s jeans?

Dont' wash them! keep them out of the light and safely wrapped up and take them out occasionally and love them and wear them gently. 

I have a very lightweight, almost sheer American flag. No hem, no housting edge. It was my father’s, probably WW II. Any idea what it was for and how best to preserve, maybe display it? Currently rolled in a tube.

Not clear what is was for - would have to see it. The flag could be mounted and framed and look stunning. Or it can be safely stored in an archival cardboard flag storage box. If it is not too large, yes, it can be rolled on a tube for long term storage. 

I think you are correct in turning those contracts down given your light usage of appliances. I did take one for my double oven which I do use daily and it did come in hand after the warranty wore off. I have to say that I had a great experience with a Fridgidare dehumidifier stand alone unit that runs almost non stop all summer in my basement - for $45 I got an additional 2 years after the first warrantied year and in fact last month I got a new unit for no charge sent to me since the unit froze over. So an example of a often used appliance where it does pay off.

thanks!

Wonderful questions and discussion about the world of beloved textiles that we share. Thank you. Please visit my website at www.caringfortextiles.com  

What a pro - thanks Julia for all this wonderful advice.

I have a number of old family quilts - late 1800's early 1920's. I don't think there is a shortage of old quilts so I don't think they would be considered valuable but on the other hand I would like to get them in the hands of someone who would appreciate them. This isn't a conservation question I realize, I just want to be respectful! Any suggestions?

This is our challenge today - finding people who love quilts. Talk to local historic society, or small museums. Maybe you have friends who have children who appreciate quilts......

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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