When I started out collecting I could not afford conservation grade materials (nor did I realize how important they are) so I have tried to write this as a Good, Better, Best Practices so that each collector may do the best with what resources they have at hand. I, myself, am just starting the process of migrating my own collection to conservation-grade materials after years of using IKEA boxes, ziplocs, and “archival” supplies from comic book stores. I plan to buy supplies 1-2x a year, when there are sales, and convert one box of patterns at a time starting with the oldest and most fragile.
Credentials/Disclaimer: I am in my second year of training for textile conservation, which I acknowledge does not give me a claim to profess expertise in paper conservation. My training, however, has covered principles of storage for cellulosic materials, which is the basis of paper materials as well. Determining appropriate storage is largely about understanding the chemical degradation of the materials, so while I welcome corrections from trained paper conservators, I also feel confident that what I have written is generally accurate. That said, since there are so many factors in conservation that cannot be controlled or even known, I cannot be held responsible for subsequent damage to your pattern collection.
One of the easiest things you can do is to always wash your hands before using your patterns, and to handle them as little as needed.
The most important part of preserving your patterns is the environment in which they are stored. The best conservation-grade boxes money can buy will be ineffective if you are storing them in a room that is, for example, too hot and humid. The five things that cause the most damage to paper/cellulosic materials (and that you can control) are:
- Heat – combat with air conditioning and air flow.
- Humidity – combat with dehumidifier and air flow. Mold starts to grow at 65%+ relative humidity.
- Light – combat with blinds/curtains and storage bins that are not transparent.
- Ph – having different levels of acidity or alkalinity in the storage climate than what is appropriate for cellulose is very bad. Cellulosic materials do best in a slightly alkaline environment.
- Fluctuations in the above 4 intensify damage. While the effects aren’t apparent right away, you will eventually see them as fading, brittleness, mold or mildew (and funky odors), pest infestations (silverfish are especially interested in paper), and eventually disintegration.
Good – Patterns are not stored in areas with high temperature/humidity fluctuations (like attics, basements, garages, and uninsulated outbuildings). Preferably the room does not get warmer than 75 degrees F. Patterns/storage bins are not in direct sunlight, and not in completely closed bins or cabinets. Blinds or curtains are closed when the room is not in use. The air in the room isn’t stuffy or stale. Room is used and cleaned regularly (deters pest infestations), and food is not usually eaten there. The patterns are stored off the ground to make it more difficult for pests to access them. Patterns should never be stored in wood containers because wood off-gasses significant amounts of acid.
Better – Patterns are kept in a room which is air conditioned to 65 degrees F. If kept in a closet, the door is ajar to keep air flow and prevent a harmful microclimate forming in the closet. Patterns are stored in paperboard bins which absorb and transfer changes in heat and humidity slowly without creating microclimates, or in plastic bins with air holes drilled high up on the sides. Blinds or curtains are closed to prevent UV degradation when the room is not in use. Room is regularly tidied and cleaned, and food is not consumed in the space. The patterns are stored up off the ground.
Best – Patterns are kept in a room which is both air conditioned to 65 degrees F, and has a dehumidifier set to 45-55% (65% max) year-round. Patterns are stored in conservation grade paperboard bins. If kept in a closet, the door is ajar. Blinds or curtains are generally kept closed to prevent UV degradation. Food is never consumed in the room and the room is kept clean. Insect traps are used to monitor for pests. The patterns are stored up off the ground.
Risk of Leaks
Water is the ultimate enemy of your sewing patterns. If you know you are at risk of a leaky roof, have irresponsible upstairs neighbors, or live in a building with a anti-fire sprinkler system, you might store your patterns in plastic bins, but first see the Do This, Not That section below. Alternatives include putting the paperboard storage boxes in powder-coated metal file cabinets or other protective shelving. Otherwise, consider covering the paperboard boxes loosely with plastic sheeting.
The most important things to look for when considering conservation-grade storage materials, is that they are acid-free and lignin-free. Acid and lignin both contribute to the chemical degradation of cellulosic materials such as paper. Buffered materials are preferable to unbuffered. Buffered means that the material has been treated with an acid absorber and will slow degradation further (this is appropriate for use with cellulose-based materials, but not for protein based textiles, like wool, silk, fur, etc.).
Bags and Backing Boards
- Conservation-grade plastic bags – 100 pack
- Conservation-grade (acid and lignin-free) backing boards – 25 pack
Note these do not fit larger patterns like Vogue although they are slightly larger than the ones sold at comic book stores.
- Conservation-grade labeling pen
Good – Older/unstable patterns (losing pieces/fragile/yellowing) are stored upright in unsealed (avoid microclimates!) conservation-grade plastic bags. Patterns that are in good condition are stored upright as-is in conservation-grade paperboard boxes (because they have no plastic bag to act as a barrier against acidic emissions from lower grade paperboard).
Better – Newer/less rare/stable patterns are stored upright in unsealed plastic bags. Older/rarer/unstable patterns are stored in conservation-grade plastic bags with conservation-grade (acid and lignin-free) backing boards.
Best – All patterns are stored upright in conservation-grade, unsealed bags, with conservation-grade (acid and lignin-free) backing boards. If possible, the envelope, instructions, and tissue pieces are stored in separate bags (these have different levels of acidity and so one piece can cause early acidifaction in another). They are clearly labeled on the outside of the bag so if separated they can be re-matched without handling the patterns. Write directly on the outside of the plastic bag before inserting the pattern. Stick-on labels are not recommended as the adhesive may off-gas and they may eventually fall off.
I personally haven’t gotten to the point of having the money or space to fully separate each component, so for now I take the backing board and use it to at least separate the envelope from the other parts in the plastic bag.
Boxes and Bins
- Conservation-grade storage boxes
Note these may not fit larger patterns like Vogue, although they are slightly bigger than the ones sold at comic books stores. I can fit ~45 patterns comfortably.
- Conservation-grade labeling pen
Good – Patterns are stored upright, and the container is full enough so that the patterns are supported, but not so full that patterns are mashed together. This can cause set hard creases (which eventually tear), cause distortion of backing boards and patterns, and also cause microclimates. Containers are labeled on the outside to make things easy to find and prevent unnecessary handling.
Better – Brown cardboard is NOT acid or lignin free and should be avoided as much as possible, especially with unbagged patterns. Boxes from comic book dealers or plastic bins with holes drilled in the sides near the top are good low-cost solutions as long as you are bagging your patterns. Containers are labeled on the outside.
Best – Containers are made of conservation-grade paperboard. Patterns are upright and supported but not squashed together. Containers are labeled on the outside.
Do This, Not That
- Laminating – This is possibly the worst thing you can do for a pattern. If the pattern is in pieces, making a copy of it, and storing the pieces safely in a bag (see above) is the safest and easiest way to preserve it from falling apart more. For more “active” preservation, see the other Vintage Sewing Pattern Nerd Educational Units about repairing patterns.
- Incomplete Patterns – Please consider posting them in this Facebook group or visit their regular website (currently under some construction) which seeks to help you restore incomplete patterns, or you can offer up pieces/envelopes/instructions you don’t want to others.
- Framing patterns – Framing can be very destructive, because it creates a microclimate and exposes the pattern to UV degradation. There are UV-protective frames, but they can be very expensive and do not solve the problem of a microclimate. The best thing to do is make a photocopy and frame that instead.
- Plastic Bins – Plastic bins which close securely may seem like a good idea, but they tend to create microclimates, which can cause mold and other degradation. Furthermore, if the bins are clear they don’t protect from UV radiation. If plastic bins are your best option, drill holes high up on the sides to allow some air flow to help combat this. Otherwise, consider switching to paperboard bins.
When to Consult the Services of a Paper Conservator
A mold infestation is scary, but it is not the end of the world. A paper conservator may be able to help you save some of the patterns that you would have to toss otherwise.
A pest infestation may also be reason to consult a paper conservator, or other pest removal services, if they do not yet appear to have infiltrated your collection.
You can consult the AIC’s “Find a Conservator” page for more information.
References and Further Reading
Boersma, Foekje, Agnes W. Brokerhof, Saskia van den Berg and Judith Tegelaers. Unravelling Textiles: A Handbook for the Preservation of Textile Collections. London: Archetype Publications, 2007.
“Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online.” Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Revised December 2, 2020. http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Main_Page.
“Conservation Wiki.” American Institute of Conservation. Revised November 10, 2020. http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Main_Page.
DePauw, Karen. The Care and Display of Historic Clothing. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
“Glossary.” Resources. Gaylord Archival. Accessed January 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission from ALCTS Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2, pgs. 14-15. https://www.gaylord.com/resources/glossary.
Robinson, Jane, and Tuula Pardoe. An Illustrated Guide to the Care of Costume and Textile Collections. London: Museum & Galleries Commission, 2000. https://dms-cf-05.dimu.org/file/022yjUhAPrjG. (Free to download)
Products/Brand Disclaimer: I have included links to Gaylord Archival products, because that is what I have chosen to use with my own collection, and they are frequently sourced by museums and archives (Talas and University Products are two other well-established museum suppliers). This was based off my past experience with their products. I am in no way affiliated with Gaylord Archival, nor have I received any compensation from them in writing this post.