Storing Wedding Gowns and Textile Heirlooms
HYG-5545-94Joyce A. Smith
Keepsakes from special occasions provide a sense of continuity and
richness to our lives. Rites of passage, in particular, are often
characterized by special clothing or textile items. Wedding gowns or
christening gowns, for example, might be worn by subsequent generations or
members of the same generation. Proper care and storage of textile heirlooms
can prolong their longevity in family traditions. No special treatments or
storage procedures guarantee against textile deterioration or damage. A few
simple precautions can help limit deterioration and maintain the textile for
future use. Whether the expected storage period is long or short term,
consider the following recommendations. (Note: Examples in this fact sheet
refer to wedding or christening gowns; however, recommendations generally
apply to other clothing and textile items.)
After wearing for an event, the garment should be cleaned within several
days or weeks at the most. The longer soil and stains remain, the more
difficult they are to remove. Many individuals quickly examine a garment and
seeing no obvious stains, believe no soiling has occurred; therefore,
cleaning is unnecessary. Over time, colorless soil and stains can age and
discolor, as well as damage fabric. Soil and grit cause abrasion and
deteriorate textiles. Food stains can discolor fabrics and attract insects.
Sugar stains, as might be found in soda or alcoholic beverages, dry clear
but over time turn brown and are difficult to remove. Perspiration stains
and body oils in fabric can oxidize, turn yellow, and cause permanent damage
Most wedding gowns and some christening gowns require dry cleaning,
especially garments made from silk, acetate, rayon or wool. Drycleaning
removes oil-based stains including greasy foods, body oils, make-up, and
general soil that might collect at the hem of wedding gowns. Drycleaning
solvents alone do not remove water- and sugar-based stains. Be certain to
tell dry cleaners about these stains, both type and location, so they can be
pre-treated with appropriate solvents.
Specify to drycleaner that you want a fresh or filtered solvent. Soil
from dirty solvent can redeposit on garments, especially light-colored
fabrics. Some drycleaners offer special treatments to kill fungi or
bacteria. These treatments are not only unnecessary and more expensive, but
may not be safe for humans wearing the garments in the future. Standard
drycleaning solvents generally kill fungi and most bacteria without harm to
Occasionally, wedding gowns include recommendations to send the garment
away for special cleaning. Before doing so, check with your local
drycleaner. The procedure may be both expensive and unnecessary. Some
drycleaners offer processing that does not involve tumbling the garment.
This would be a consideration for historic garments. Always work with a
reputable drycleaner to discuss the possible options.
Some newer garments can be hand or machine washed satisfactorily at home.
Christening gowns or country style wedding gowns in cotton, linen or
synthetic blend fabrics can often be laundered. Check the care label on
garments and ask the salesperson at time of purchase. If garments are hand
sewn, fabrics should be pre-washed before cutting out the garment pieces.
Laundering can remove water-soluble sugar- and oil-based stains. Some
pre-treatment may be necessary for specific types of stains. Be certain to
rinse fabrics thoroughly and do not starch if the item will be stored.
Chlorine bleach should be avoided. It can damage fabrics and, if not
thoroughly rinsed out, can cause continued deterioration over time. If
bleaching is necessary, oxygen type bleaches are recommended, followed by
When handling older garments to use for a wedding or a christening, or to
clean after use, do so with special care. Take them to a reputable
drycleaner who has experience with historic textile fabrics. Antique cotton
or linen fabrics, such as christening gowns and some wedding gowns, can
sometimes be hand laundered at home. This can be done using special cleaning
products for delicate fabrics, such as Orvus
; or Delicare
warm water, and washing the garment(s) flat in the bathroom tub. Delicate
garments should be supported by a fiberglass screen underneath. Use it to
lift the wet fabric from the tub. Fiberglass screens are available from
hardware stores. Wash the screen first in soap and water to remove oils,
then bind edges with muslin fabric. Excessive heat and pressure can damage
older textiles. Avoid ironing these items, if possible.
Packing for Storage
Most drycleaners offer a special package to clean and box wedding gowns.
This could be requested for other heirloom textiles. The service usually
involves a large box of acid-free cardboard in which the gown is packed with
acid-free tissue between folds of the garment and as padding in the bodice
and sleeves. Over time, the acid produced by standard tissue paper and
cardboard can deteriorate textiles, especially cellulosic fibers such as
cotton, linen, and rayon. The initial box is usually placed in a larger
protective box. Sometimes slits are present in the box to allow air
Some drycleaners offer an optional vacuum seal. The International
Fabricare Institute (IFI) indicates that this process isn't necessary. No
seal is permanent. Also, heirloom textiles should be checked yearly for
general condition, at which time the seal would be broken. IFI also suggests
that clear plastic or cellophane "windows" on boxes be removed or punctured
to allow air movement. Moisture could condense on the clear window and
support growth of mildew.
At Home Packaging
Packaging heirloom garments can be done at home. Before doing so, check
garments carefully in sunlight for soils and stains, even if they have been
professionally cleaned. Look for soil, stains, or the presence of wrinkles
that have been pressed in. Both stains and wrinkles may be impossible to
remove at a later date.
To package garments at home, use a large, deep box to avoid excessive
folds. If possible, the box and tissue should be acid-free. (Contact your
county extension agent for sources). Cardboard boxes should be avoided since
they produce an acidic environment which weakens textiles over time. White
tissue is recommended. Blue or other colors can bleed onto fabric if they
Use of non-acid-free tissue is acceptable if it is replaced yearly.
Washed and thoroughly rinsed white cotton sheets can also be used to line
the box. Acid builds up over time in cellulosic materials such as cotton,
linen, and rayon. Wash and thoroughly rinse storage materials made from
these fibers every year or two to remove acid build-up and limit potential
To pack a large garment, such as a wedding gown, line the box with tissue
or cotton sheeting. Place the garment in the box so as to limit folds. Place
crumpled tissue at folds and in the bodice and sleeves for shaping. If
possible, remove fabric-covered metal buttons, rubberized dress shields, or
foam padding. These items can oxidize, rust, or deteriorate and result in
damage to fabric over time. If not possible, use crumpled tissue as a buffer
between these items and the garment. Place tissue over the garment and add
the lid. Do not seal. In fact, slits to allow air circulation could be
added. Avoid wrapping in plastic unless water damage is possible. Plastic
bags are unstable. Plastic bags can give off damaging fumes, trap moisture,
and provide an environment for mildew to grow.
Horizontal versus Vertical
Storage Box, or horizontal storage has been discussed above. This is
desirable for heavy garments with beading or wedding gowns with heavy trains
or sheer bodices. Knitted garments should be stored flat to avoid stretching
over time. Also, small garments such as christening gowns are easily stored
In some instances, vertical or storage on a hanger is acceptable.
Vertical storage reduces wrinkling, but can weaken shoulders or bodice since
the full weight of the garment hangs from these areas. If vertical storage
is possible without undue damage to the garment, generously pad and wrap a
sturdy hanger with cotton batting and cotton sheeting. Sew cotton twill
straps or a bodice shell slightly shorter than the bodice to the waistline.
The weight of the garment will fall primarily on the twill straps or shell,
and distribute the stress on the fabric. Stuff the bodice and sleeves with
crumpled tissue or cotton sheeting. Make a clean cotton sheeting cover.
Avoid synthetic materials, as they develop static and attract dust. Wash the
cotton cover and other cotton storage supplies yearly. Also, do not use
plastic bags for long term storage.
Occasionally, small textile or accessory items can be stored flat or
rolled on tubes. When using tubes, they should be acid-free or wrapped in
clean cotton sheeting. If the textile is subject to dye fading, contains
metallic threads, or is unusually fragile, interleaf acid-free tissue as you
roll the item. Roll without tension and be careful to prevent wrinkles or
folds from forming. Wrap the tube in cotton sheeting and tie loosely with
cotton twill tape for storage. If possible, avoid rolling textiles that are
painted, as cracking may occur over time.
Store heirloom textiles, either hanging or boxed, in cool, dry areas,
free from drastic temperature changes. Basements, attics or exterior wall
closets are generally unsatisfactory. High attic temperatures cause
oxidation of stains, finishes or trims. Basement areas are subject to
moisture, mildew and flooding. Exterior closets have less stable
temperatures. Select an area with adequate air circulation, but away from
Each year, remove the item to check its condition. This is especially
important the first year. If stains are noticeable, the potential for
removal is greater than if left for longer periods. Replace non-acid-free
tissue or wash cotton sheeting wrappings. Repack the textile so folds are in
If garments are kept in drawers rather than boxes, do not place heavy
items on top of them which may cause crushing and folds. Also, certain
fibers, such as cotton, linen or rayon, should not be stored in cedar
chests. The acid given off by the wood in the cedar chest can weaken the
textile over time.
Caring for textiles and garments worn for special occasions can prolong
their beauty and reduce deterioration over time. With proper treatment,
items bought or made new today can be the family heirlooms of future
generations. A little extra effort now can enrich the lives of family
members to come. References Hints for storing antique textiles in the home
(1985). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Museum of American
History, Division of Textiles. Kline, J. S. Care and Storage of Textile
Heirlooms. Publication TC414. Clemson, S.C.: Clemson University Cooperative
Extension Service. Oehlke, N. (1985). Selection and care of wedding gowns.
IFI Bulletin FC-93. Silver Spring, MD: International Fabricare Institute.
Ordonez, M. T. (1987). Cleaning and storing your wedding gown. Fact Sheet
360. College Park, MD: The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension
Avoid Potential Problems When Selecting Garments
Despite using recommended care and storage procedures, some problems can
occur in textiles when stored over time. Careful selection of new garments
could reduce this potential. Trim which is glued rather than sewn on can
oxidize, change color, yellow or come off over time. Even when sewn on,
sizings present in lace or other trims can oxidize and yellow with age.
Occasionally, dyes, especially ivory or ecru, are soluble in drycleaning
solvent and bleach to white during cleaning. Little, if anything, can be
done to correct these problems once they occur.
Sequins or beading may not survive cleaning well. Some glues dissolve in
drycleaning solvent, causing the beading to come off. In some cases, the
beading or sequins may lose color or become dull if not treated with solvent
resistant coatings. Polystyrene beads are being used increasingly. They may
look like pearls but will dissolve or soften when drycleaned. Once the
damage has occurred, it cannot be reversed.
These problems are not the fault of the drycleaner, but rather of the
manufacturer. Check care labels when buying a wedding gown or other special
garment. All parts of the garment should be safely cleaned by the method
specified on the label.
Even with proper treatment, some garments will yellow with age. If these
items are cotton or can be wet cleaned (laundered), occasionally, the
yellowing can be removed. With protein fibers, i.e., silk and wool,
yellowing is typical of the material's aging process. Some yellowing in
textiles cannot be removed without harmful bleaching. It could be considered
a "patina of age"-reflecting the history of the textile.
Reference to commercial products is made for educational purposes. No
discrimination is intended, nor endorsement implied.
If you would like to discuss the subject of
wedding gowns, you can join in the discussions on the
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