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    Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term

    CollectinSteve
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    Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term Empty Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term

    Post by CollectinSteve on Tue Mar 31, 2009 1:18 pm

    A couple of years ago a question came up about what the best method of storage is... bins or hanging. Fortunately, I have a good friend who is a Conservator by trade. She doesn't specialize in conservation/restoration of cloth items, however she has done such work for the Smithsonian, a professional conservation company, and odd stuff here and there. I picked her brain for over an hour on this topic.

    The short answer is that neither are optimal and therefore both systems have their problems in terms of how well they preserve things. Each has its own practical issues as well, but those are not directly relevant to the question about which is better for preservation.

    On a personal note, how each of you stores your stuff is your own business. If you want to store it in puddles of water or tied to your chimney, it's no sweat off my nose unless I am unfortunate enough to trade with you Very Happy The purpose of this post is simply to take an honest look at the pros/cons of the two primary methods we use so that we can make informed choices. At the bottom are links to other professional sources which appear to reinforce the information my friend gave me, however everybody is encouraged to chip in with their own links or 1st hand experiences to help us better understand how theory and reality mesh Smile

    With that intro out of the way, here I go...

    We went through the pros and cons of each system, as well as many of the variables that are difficult to generalize. After that we discussed the realities of storage (both for us and for professional outfits like museums) to find out what are the best realistic methods for storage.

    The optimal storage method is "suspended storage". The method involves a rack equal to the size of the garment completely laid out flat and in depth in excess of the highpoint of the garment. The item sits on a hammock, of sorts, made out of special muslin type fabric that is intended to not have any transfer qualities to the item on top of it. Individual portions of the item may be "propped" up using special padding. These racks are stored in sealed cabinets which have carefully controlled "micro climates". Obviously this involves vast amounts of space, materials, and maintenance. Therefore, even for large professional institutions (like the Smithsonian) this method is reserved cream of the crop delicate items only. It's generally impractical for everybody else, especially us mere mortals.

    Obviously this idea is not practical for us! The point of outlining an ideal is to understand that everything that measures up short of it is by definition sub-optimal. The way most of us store garments in bins is actually below that and goes into the "harmful" category.

    First, the cons of flat storage as is commonly practiced by us, then the cons of hanging storage.

    The next form of storage from this is "flat storage". This is a method we probably all use to some extent. The most common method for us is probably flat stacking things in plastic bins or shelves.

    The main problems with bin storage are:

    1. Compression. This is the all-over effect of weight distributed over the entire garment, not just on the shoulders like a hanging item. The uniform at the bottom of a bin gets the worst of it because it is literally crushed proportional to the weight above it. Think about it... the average uniform weighs around 3-4 pounds. That means the uniform on the bottom of a stack of 8 uniforms will be under (roughly) 30 pounds per square inch pressure every single second it is there. She stated, unequivocally, that this damage is FAR worse over time than from properly hung items (I'll get into that in a second). This has everything to do with the force of gravity and physics, not opinion or personal preference.

    Compression can be mitigated by limiting the number of uniforms stacked in one pile. She recommends individual trays within bins, but of course this is extremely expensive and greatly reduces storage capacity. Short of that she recommends going with shallower bins that can be stacked. This means there aren't more than a few uniforms stacked on top of each other and yet it doesn't radically reduce the amount of things that can be stored. It does, however, boost the cost (see below) since more small bins generally means more expense than fewer large bins.

    2. Folding is a Sin. The absolute worst thing you can do to a cloth item, over time, is to fold it. This results in damage to the fabric as a whole, but especially accentuated wherever there is a fold or crease. In fact, I just received an unissued uniform last month which shows permanent discoloration along the edges where it was folded. The compression problem makes this even worse, so the fewer items you stack the better. Folding can be mitigated by putting special materials inside the fold so as to prevent the edge being crushed as much. However, this reduces the volume that can be stored because these materials take up space and for them to work best fewer things can be stacked on top of each other.

    3. Searching through bins. Moving things around inside a bin, or taking them out without proper care, means friction and unnecessary handling (soil, oils, salts from hands, etc.). This is to some extent akin to pulling things off a hanging rack, though obviously how frequently one accesses the garments is a big factor. However, one factor that is different, and a negative for flat storage, is that the items tend to be restacked without proper methodology. Meaning, you put stress and strain on parts of each uniform then, after refolding/stacking put new stresses and strains on additional areas, thus compounding the compression and folding problems noted above.

    4. Micro climates. Depending on relative humidity within the storage area, sealing up bins can range from OK to extremely damaging. Careful control of the climate around the bins is critical, as is mitigating humidity within the storage containers themselves. Crystals and other specially designed products can keep things inside a bin extremely well protected, but these have a limited life and must be replaced frequently (even more so if you open the bins). Obviously sealing moisture into the bin is a bad thing since it promotes mold/mildew and bacteria that actually eats natural fibers.

    5. Cost. It is expensive to purchase adequate numbers and types of bins. Ideally you want bins that store only a few uniforms at a time and are as wide/tall as possible so there isn't side compression. Because of cost people are likely to purchase larger bins and jam as much stuff in there as possible. This is bad because it compounds all of the problems noted above. Whether this is more or less expensive than hanging items is situationally dependent.

    6. Space usage. It is untrue that stacked uniforms take up less space than hanging ones. Or more accurately, properly stacked uniforms don't take up less space than properly hanging ones. The reason is that each uniform has a certain inherent mass, but its volume can vary depending on how its stored. The only way to decrease volume is through compression, which is a bad thing to do in terms of preservation. Having said that, bins tend to be more flexible for fitting available spaces so it might be more practical to have a heavier reliance on bins than on hanging space. My friend mentioned that all places she's ever visited or worked at have things stored in bins because of the reality that nobody ever has the amount and type of space needed to properly store everything that needs to be.

    One clear pro found in plastic bins is protection from a major water disaster, such as a burst pipe or flood. No other form of storage can match this protection. Dust and light are also things that bins better protect against in theory, but in reality proper precautions with a hanging collection can be effectively equal.


    Next up is "hanging storage". As with "flat storage" there are both good and bad points to consider. Implementation is very important as well, just like it is with "flat storage".

    The optimal hanging storage has each item hung on a significantly padded (roughly 2" of padding) hangers that are spaced so that no two items touch each other. Particularly weak, or otherwise fragile, items most likely should be stored flat because the risks of damage from hanging are greater than those of storing flat. Care must be taken to mitigate dust, light, and humidity since inherently hanging racks are susceptible to these things. Light is the biggest enemy so it should be the primary thing protected against.

    1. Stress to shoulders. The weaker the fabric the more susceptible to damage from hanging, the stronger the less. Therefore, it is probable that extremely weak fabric items (like my Czech green sniper suit) should be stored flat and not on a hanger of any type. Fortunately for us, few military garments are weak and therefore the inherent need to store them flat is less pronounced. Specifically, most of our items are pretty sturdy at the shoulders and therefore with proper hangers can be hung indefinitely without any noticeable signs of strain. Conversely, I recently took some cheaply sewn shirts (single stitched shoulders) down from years of hanging and found subtle stress on the stitching at the top of the shoulders.

    When hanging items great care should be made as to how they are hung. Wide hangers, like lady's padded dress hangers, are near optimal while metal hangers should never ever be used since they are so narrow that they practically cut into the fabric and, in effect, have the sort of damage that comes from folding/compression in flat storage. Metal hangers also have a risk of transferring stains to cloth so that's another reason to avoid them. People can make their own padded hangers using cotton batting as it is far cheaper to do this than buy the premade ones. Another trick is to have some neutral cotton fabric hung over the hanger and then the item over it. The reason is that the under fabric offers additional surface area for the garment to cling to, thus reducing the strain on the shoulder areas. Of course this does decrease how many uniforms you can have hanging on a given rack.

    2. Crowding. Each hanging item should be barely touching the items on either side of it. This requires lower density of hangers per linear inch of hanging space than can actually be fit. Since we are all short on space, we're all going to be highly prone to over hanging just like we're prone to overstuffing bins. Crowded racks mean that removing and moving (shoving aside) items to get at something causes friction that can range in degrees of damage. Things that can get snagged, for example, are more prone to tearing. Fabrics that are screen printed are more likely to show wear than those which are dyed or roller printed. Etc. Also, more delicate garments are more prone to stress when being "pulled" off the rack compared to something like a canvas item. The solution here is to take care when moving things on racks and to keep the most delicate stuff flat stored.

    3. Light and Dust. A hanging collection that is sitting exposed in the middle of an unconditioned room lit by natural light is a very, very bad idea. Covering the racks with adequate thickness fabric can largely reduce the light damage, thin fabrics less so. Dust is also something that goes where it is easiest to get to, so the more closed off your items are to sources of dust the better. New construction is desirable since old construction, such as exposed plaster walls/ceilings, produce significant dust of their own. The basic thing here is that if you have a generally sunlit and/or dusty environment then you'll have to be all the more vigilant.

    4. Humidity. Unlike bins, which can have controlled micro climates (with effort and expense only, mind you), a room with hanging racks must be carefully controlled to ensure humidity is around 50%, +/- 5%. Fortunately, that's within the range of healthy air for Humans too! Regardless, if uniforms are hung with the proper spacing the air flow around them greatly aids in keeping the cloth itself at the optimal humidity for that space. Meaning, the closer the items are packed the greater the chance that the unvented cloth will retain moisture longer than the vented portions. Because parts of the item are exposed to the air parts of the items will be at a different relative humidity than the rest, which creates an inbalance which that can be detrimental over time.

    5. Space. Racks are a big commitment for any room. They monopolize a fair amount of wall space and can't be moved around easily once installed. When a rack becomes full the only solution is to build more or to put things in bins. Conversely, when bins are full it generally isn't a problem to simply get more bins. However, eventually a collection will outgrow its space and become a burden on the facility (usually a house in our case) that requires compromises to how things are stored. The rule of collections is that if you give your collection more space and it will exceed it sooner rather than later. We are, after all, collectors and that means adding stuff is normal for us.


    OK, there's the pros and cons from the perspective of a professional who knows that optimal storage ("suspended storage") is not within our means. I described to her the average way we store uniforms both hanging and flat. Both are well within the range of sub-optimal Sad I then asked her which she would choose and she said, and I quote, "hands down the hanging method". When I asked why, she stated that the folding and compression issues of the bin method are, on balance, worse than the shoulder and rubbing problems of hanging. Considering that bin storage also has rubbing problems, though probably to a lesser extent, also offsets the negatives of hanging.

    Having said that, she suggests trying to let the garment dictate how it is stored vs. other considerations. Delicate stuff (like disposable cotton oversuits) should be treated one way, robust stuff (like field equipment) another way. Get away with what you think the item will let you get away with Very Happy

    In the end we will each do what we want to based on a variety of factors. However, hopefully my friend and the links that follow will give people good information to help balance the pros and cons so as to mitigate the cons that come with our choices. I know I've made changes to my storage methodology since speaking with her!

    A few months after our conversation when she came over to see my collection for the first time she was able to look at it without cringing Smile I asked her how it looked, overall, she thought it was fine. She pointed to one rack that had inadequate sun protection (cloth too loose weave) and suggested I fix that (which I did). Of course she commented that it would be better if I increased the space on my racks. But I already knew that Very Happy

    Steve


    http://dept.kent.edu/museum/staff/care.html
    http://www.collectioncare.org/cci/ccicco.html
    http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/publications/conserveogram/cons_toc.html
    Mercenary25
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    Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term Empty Re: Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term

    Post by Mercenary25 on Tue Mar 31, 2009 1:44 pm

    Hmm. Thanks for head up. I'm going to take all of my uniforms out of oak footlocker into my closet and hanging them properly.... Only if I have some room. Neutral


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    Flecktarn92
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    Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term Empty Re: Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term

    Post by Flecktarn92 on Wed Aug 05, 2009 8:34 pm

    space bags?
    CollectinSteve
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    Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term Empty Re: Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term

    Post by CollectinSteve on Thu Aug 06, 2009 4:35 am

    There are special plastic bags which you can stick clothing in and then attach a vacuum cleaner hose to. Turn on the vacuum and all the air is sucked out of the bag. It reduces the volume by maybe 30%, depending on what is in there. Fantastic for saving space, horrible for preserving the integrity of the cloth long term. It's a good solution for putting away seasonal clothing which you expect to wear out long before the damage from the bag has any visible effect.

    Steve
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    Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term Empty Re: Storage considerations for preserving cloth items long term

    Post by Flecktarn92 on Mon Jul 26, 2010 12:36 am

    I was searching around to see if there was any more info. I just got a space bag, after reading your reply from almost a year ago Very Happy . What sort of damage do they exactly do to the cloth?

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