A textile is any filament, fibre, or yarn that can be made into fabric or cloth but the word ‘textile’ also refers to the fabric or cloth itself

Textiles can be used to make a wide range of products – probably the most obvious is clothing, but others include car interiors, yacht sails, furnishings and the wings of early aircraft to name just a few.

Conservators are used to dealing with the traditional materials and have various tried and tested methods for the conservation of such materials at their disposal.

Modern materials often present more of a challenge because the way they decay is poorly understood. Research is currently underway to find the best methods for preserving what may become important cultural artefacts for future generations.

Suggested starter activities

There are a number of ways in which this topic could be introduced and it is recommended that you do at least one of the following starter activities before attempting the other work provided in this resource. Several of these starters could be combined to form the basis of a satisfying unit of work for less able students on ‘materials and their properties’.

  • Show a series of images of costumes/textiles from different time periods and ask students to discuss their reactions to the pictures. You could include 1960s ‘flower power’ style items, 70s brown flares, 80s shoulder pads, pictures of assorted current celebrities (perhaps with their faces blanked) etc. Try and include the ‘yuck’ factor and the ‘wow’ factor.
  • Provide students with a set of garments or other textiles (charity shops are good sources of these) and ask them to decide what each item is made of and where the material in question came from. For example, a blouse might be made of polyester with cotton thread and have plastic buttons. Polyester and the plastic used for the buttons are made from petrochemicals; cotton comes from a plant. Clothing labels can be helpful but include a few items without labels to stimulate discussion. Students could be asked to think about the following questions: How could you find out what the fabric is made of? How would museum conservators do so?
  • Cover two display boards with matching samples of various materials in a range of colours. You could include materials such as silk, delicate cotton, more robust cotton, velvet, PVC, polyester. Put one board somewhere where students can touch the samples and encourage them to do so. After a couple of weeks, compare the untouched samples with those that have been handled.
  • Collect samples of a variety of fabrics in different colours and cut each in half. Hang one half in a sunny window and leave the other half in the dark. In the summer months a change can be observed within a couple of weeks – for best results leave the samples for a couple of months. Note which colours have faded the most. This experiment can also be done with sugar paper. Instead of using two pieces of each colour, attach a square of thick card to the centre of each piece of sugar paper. The change of colour can be seen where the paper was left uncovered but no change occurs in the square that was protected from the light by the thick card.


Textile damage can occur in a wide variety of ways. Some of the causes of this damage are things that seem harmless at first.


The amount of water in the atmosphere can have a huge impact on textiles, particularly those of natural origin. Most fibres, particularly natural ones, already contain water but if there is a lot in the atmosphere they absorb even more.


Textiles change in the same way as other objects when the temperature rises and falls. The structure of textiles can mean that this behaviour has a more devastating effect on them than on other things.

Textiles are usually woven. The fibres are very close together. They move as the temperature changes and rub against each other. Eventually this rubbing can wear them out so that they fall to pieces. A rise in temperature can also cause the textile to dry out. It is important to control the environment of textiles in a museum. Most museums try to maintain a moderate temperature (often about 18 °C) and a relative humidity of about 55%.


Dust can do a great deal of damage to textiles. Dust is made of things like grains of sand, pollutant particles, skin cells and bits of clothing that have flaked off museum visitors. It can get in between the fibres of the textile and cause a huge amount of damage by abrasion of the surface, particularly if there is also a temperature change.

This is a bit like what happens if you rub your fingers with sandpaper – the skin flakes off and severe damage can result if you keep rubbing for too long.

Put this in context

Find out more about museum scientist Lucia, who uses her chemistry knowledge to analyse museum objects.


Light is a problem for the textile itself but it mainly damages the dyes used to decorate the textile. In order for us to see a particular colour, a dye must absorb some parts of the visible electromagnetic spectrum and reflect back others. When light is absorbed, energy is absorbed by the textile. This can cause bonds to break and so damage the structure of the material.

This occurs mainly in the dyes and can cause them to change colour. Several hundred years ago it was common practice for people to hang large tapestries on their walls to help keep their rooms warm. Many of these tapestries now look rather odd because the dyes in them have faded at different rates. It is quite common to see blue fields in old tapestries. These fields were originally green. The green dye was made by mixing blue and yellow dyes together but yellow fades faster than most other colours so blue fields were left behind as the tapestry aged.

Many people look at old tapestries and admire the lovely, muted colours. However, these colours are often the result of fading. Sometimes you can see the original, bright colours in folds or pockets or on the back of old tapestries where light could not reach the dyes.

Other causes of damage

Textiles can also be damaged by a variety of living things. Moths and silverfish enjoy eating textiles, carpet beetles munch on anything containing wool and rats, mice and other small animals both eat textiles and take pieces away to use in their nests.

Many of these animals prefer textiles which have human residues on them such as sweat and oils from the skin. Touching objects can damage them both by abrasion and because oils and secretions from the skin are often acidic.

Frequent touching can cause a huge amount of damage as can handling and moving an object – even if gloves are used.


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