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    Harpers Ferry Center

Selecting a Fabric for Exhibit Cases

My museum would like to use a colored fabric to line the interior of our exhibit cases. What type of fabric should we use? What is safe for our displayed objects?

Several factors determine a fabric’s safety for use as a lining material. One is the fiber content of the fabric. Certain fibers, such as silk, are by nature acidic and should not come in direct contact with objects that are vulnerable to acid. Other fibers may emit harmful volatiles, such as sulfur compounds. Wool fabrics and felts containing wool are an example. Wool is also a food source for some museum pests. These fabrics should be avoided.

In most instances the safest fiber choice is probably cotton or linen because these fibers are by nature chemically stable. An undyed and unsized cotton or linen fabric is best. All fabrics, regardless of fiber content, should be washed prior to use to remove any potentially harmful sizing or finishing compounds from the textile.

What types of finishes are on fabrics that I should be concerned about?

Commercially available fabrics may be treated with finishes to make them suitable for a specific end use. Flame retardant, soil/stain resistant and soil release finishes, durable-press finish, and water repellents are examples of finishes that are used on textiles. These finishes can off-gas or fade differentially, and fabrics with finishes should be avoided. Before finalizing a fabric selection, call the manufacturer to find out what, if any, finish has been used.

Our Exhibition Design calls for a dyed fabric to be used in the display cases. What issues do I need to consider?

The use of dyed fabrics for lining a case is problematic. Ideally, only undyed fabrics should be used in the enclosed environment of an exhibit case, and it should be recognized that using dyed fabrics is a compromise in terms of preservation. An alternative to using a dyed fabric is using an undyed linen. Linen comes in a variety of natural shades that range from light to dark and may provide the appearance required. Also, linen can be woven in a variety of weaves from fine to heavily textured that look well with many different types of objects.

A line of undyed naturally shaded cottons is also commercially available through Vreseis Limited, P. O Box 87, Wickenburg, AZ 85358. Colors range from beige to brown to green. Woven fabrics and jersey knits are available.

If a dyed fabric must be used, the fabric needs to be tested carefully. Colorfastness is a concern because permanent damage can occur if the dye transfers or bleeds onto an object due to contact with high relative humidity or water. To test for colorfastness, begin by washing the fabric repeatedly until no color appears in the rinse. Then test the fastness of the dye by spraying the fabric with water and weighting the fabric against a clean white blotter. If no color is transferred to the blotter, the fabric is probably safe to use. As an added precaution, the displayed object should not be placed in direct contact with the fabric. Place an inert material, such as polyester film (Mylar), spun-bonded polyethylene sheeting (Tyvek), or archival board, beneath each object.

An additional concern is that dyes may contain volatiles harmful to objects in a closed case, particularly a tightly-gasketted one. The fabric should be tested with metal coupons to determine if volatiles are being emitted. Talk to a conservator to set up a test procedure.

Lightfastness can also be an issue with some fabrics. There are no simple and quick tests for this. If lightfastness is a concern, select a fabric that is intended for use as a furnishing fabric rather than as a clothing fabric. Furnishing fabrics, however, tend to be less colorfast.

What is the best way to attach fabric to the exhibit case and cover any pedestals or mounts?

The method used to attach the fabric to the case should be carefully considered. Although sewing is usually the safest option, rust-proof staples, nails, or tacks can be employed. The use of most adhesives is questionable. Only stable, inert ones should be considered.


Written by Sherelyn Ogden. A version of this FAQ appeared in Collections Care Network, a publication of the Upper Midwest Conservation Association and is reproduced here with their kind permission. Additional information is supplied by the NPS.

Mention of a product, manufacturer, or a supplier by name does not constitute an endorsement of that product or supplier by the National Park Service. Sources named are not inclusive. It is suggested that readers seek alternative product and vendor information in order to assess the full range of available supplies and equipment.

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