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How to care for your precious objects

Conservator vacuuming a tapestry chair seat using monofilament screening to protect loose threads from the suction of the special museum upholstery tool in the Long Gallery at Osterley Park, Middlesex
Conservator vacuuming a tapestry chair seat in the Long Gallery at Osterley Park, Middlesex | © National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

Learn how to care for your most precious belongings, from wedding dresses and family photos to heirloom silver and porcelain with this handy guide compiled by National Trust conservation experts.

How to care for textiles and clothes

The secret to caring for precious textiles and clothing is to minimise handling and exposure to light, dirt, damp and insect attack. Clothing should be stored in large flat acid-free boxes, with minimum folds to prevent creases, using puffs and ‘sausages’ of acid-free tissue paper.

Storing your textiles

Flat textiles should be rolled not folded. Use a plastic drainpipe to roll around, interleave with acid-free tissue paper and cover with cotton calico or plain brushed cotton such as lawn.

Carpets and rugs are vulnerable to heavy foot traffic. To minimise wear and even out exposure to light and fading, rotate them annually. Textiles in strong condition, such as upholstery, bedspreads and rugs can be vacuum cleaned on low suction, using a crevice tool covered with fine nylon netting to prevent snagging of loose threads.

How to care for paper and books

Despite appearances, modern papers made from wood pulp are often less durable than some papers made in the 19th century and before.

Storage is key to preserving paper items. Protect them from dust and light in acid-free boxes. Layer items horizontally, interleaved with acid-free tissue paper, and store boxes flat, away from heat and damp and look at ‘conservation framing’ for displaying valuable items.

A caring bookcase

Good ventilation is essential in a bookcase, especially when fixed to an outside wall, leaving a gap of 2.5 cm between the back of the shelf and the wall. Where possible store paper-based materials in the dark as they are susceptible to light damage.

Before opening dirty books, gently remove dust and grime using a soft brush.

How to care for ceramics

Ceramics are earthenware, stoneware or porcelain objects (also known as pottery and china) formed from clay into diverse shapes.

When possible, dust your larger ceramic items without handling or moving them. If it is necessary to move the ceramic object for cleaning, carry it using both hands. Support large plates under the centre, not at the rim. Do not pick up ceramics by their handles, knobs or rims as these may be weak, previously damaged or poorly repaired.

Cleaning and storing ceramics

For dusting stable, glazed surfaces without enamel, gilding or repairs, use a lint-free cotton duster. For surfaces that are unglazed or too intricate to clean with a cloth, use a dry hogs-hair brush.

Store ceramics in a strong plastic case wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and bubblewrap and display them in a secure place free of dust.

Never wash old or gilded ceramics in a dishwasher as the heat and chemicals can bleach some glaze colours, remove gold or damage the glaze surface.

A collection of photographs at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. Calke Abbey tells the story of the dramatic decline of a country house estate.
A collection of photographs at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

How to care for photographs

Try to avoid touching the front of photographs because the natural oils in your fingertips can leave permanent marks. Hold a photograph by its edges instead.

Have copies of your most precious photographs made for display and store the originals in a cool, dark place or in an acid-free box.

Safe framing of photographs

Use glazed frames to display prints rather than keeping them out loose. Avoid using ‘magnetic’ albums with sticky pages intended to hold prints in place. The adhesives are a source of pollutants that will cause damage.

To attach photographs, use photo-corners that are adhered only to the album page rather than those which are attached directly to the photographs.

How to care for furniture

Use these tips to prevent damage to furniture but seek specialist advice on methods of care best suited to each material.

Even a few drops of spilt liquid will leave light or dark stains on wood and other materials. Place waterproof mats underneath any plants or flower vases and move them elsewhere to be watered.

Cleaning your furniture

Flat surfaces in good condition need only light dusting with a clean and dry soft cotton cloth or lint-free duster with hemmed edges. A carved or raised surface needs a natural bristle brush; catch the falling dust with a vacuum cleaner. Apply wax polish to wood once a year, using a soft paste wax. Avoid using aerosol polishes, except on modern synthetic finishes; the solvent can dissolve other finishes and cause a surface ‘bloom’.

Only move one piece of furniture at a time, between two people, and always lift by the lowest solid part of the main frame. Remove marble, glass and other detachable parts and carry vertically.

Monitor the condition of your furniture regularly and deal with any problems as soon as possible.

Books on the shelves in the State Bedroom, reflecting the interests of the Bankes family including titles such as The Wonders of Modern Invention and All About Railways, at Kingston Lacy, Dorset.
Books on the shelves in the State Bedroom at Kingston Lacy, Dorset | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

How to care for silver

To prevent surface damage and excessive wear, clean silver with the correct materials, as infrequently as possible. Light cleaning with specialist silver cloths will avoid the need for abrasive cleaners.

When handling silver, use thin vinyl or cotton gloves. Our hands leave oils and moisture on the surface, which mark and promote tarnish. Remove dust lightly with a lint-free soft cotton cloth, or use a soft-bristled artist’s brush, covering the metal ferrule with tape to prevent scratching of the surface.

If you use silver objects for serving food and dining, wash the items separately using plastic bowls. Rinse in clean warm water and dry immediately to reduce the rate of tarnishing.

When storing silver, use special tarnish-reducing bags and jewellery pouches to protect silver from dust and scratching. Do not wrap silver in newspaper as this will rapidly tarnish it, nor seal in bubblewrap or plastic as these trap moisture.

Sevres Wine Cooler, showing nymphs worshipping the bust of Pan, from a service made for Louis XVI, dated 1792, in the Porcelain Lobby at Upton House, Warwickshire

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