Caring for Arlington's costume and textile collection

A group of costumes on display from a previous exhibition at Arlington Court

The textile collection held at Arlington contains around 500 pieces, from elegant evening dresses to tablecloths and parasols to baby clothes. Whilst we can't have everything on display, we sometimes host mini exhibitions, giving visitors a chance to see some of the collection.

Assembling the collection

This fine stitching requires careful handling
Fine detail on a dress from the Arlington textile collection

Many of the items in the collection were bequeathed to the National Trust by Miss Chichester along with the house and other contents. Other pieces have been donated or collected over time specifically to be used for display purposes in the house or at the Carriage Museum.  After gaining a new, larger storage area, the team are now in the midst of a project to inventory, condition check and re-pack the stored collection. 

Checking the inventory

Initially each item is checked againsts its unique inventory number. Once we have this then we can find out what has already been recorded about it on our collections management system. The next step is to remove it from its box and do a condition check. This involves noting down any signs of damage and taking at least one photograph so that we can monitor if the damage is getting worse. We always use pencil rather than pen when working with textiles to reduce the risk of accidental damage. Ink stains are very difficult to remove. If the item is not already labelled then we will sew on a label with the inventory number on it.

Careful packaging

Imagine sweeping down the grand staircase in a frock like this
A blue dress from the Arlington textile collection

Then we start to re-pack. Most of our items of dress are stored in boxes as this puts less strain on delicate seams than hanging but the down side is that the fabric can become creased. To prevent this we put layers of acid free tissue paper anywhere were fabric touches more fabric and we pad out any folds with tissue paper sausages or puffs. Dresses with long skirts which contain a large amount of fabric usually have a box to themselves. Smaller items such as underwear or children’s clothes can be stored more than one to a box with a layer of tissue paper between each item. Acid free tissue deteriorates over time so we try to re-pack using new tissue paper every five to ten years. Once the re-packing is complete we label the box with the inventory number/s and a photograph of each item so it is easy to identify what is in each box without having to unpack items each time. 

Keeping it clean

We now tend to recommend that clean hands are the best way to handle historic textiles and that people should wash their hands regularly when working on objects as the items themselves can be quite dirty. If the fabric contains metallic threads, particularly popular on 18th century fabrics, then nitrile gloves should be worn to protect you from the metal. No jewellery that could catch on the fabric and cause damage should be worn so no big rings or dangly necklaces are allowed.

This project is quite time consuming and it has to fit in with the team’s other tasks so it will probably take us another year to get through the entire collection and re-pack it properly.