Wondering what type of fabric is safest for your displayed objects? Of all the factors to consider when selecting a fabric for your display case, fiber content is the most important. Certain fibers, such as silk, are naturally acidic and should never come in direct contact with objects. Other fibers may emit harmful volatiles, such as sulfur compounds. Wool fabrics and felts are an example. Wool is also a food source for pests like clothes moths, carpet beetles, silverfish, and crickets to name just a few. Such fabrics should be avoided altogether.
Fabric of choice for museum experts.
An Unbleached Muslin is by far your safest choice and is what most museum experts’ use as their go-to fabric for exhibit cases. It’s 100% cotton and has no chemicals or bleach added. Its fibers are also chemically stable, emitting no harmful volatiles or acid. In addition to being the safest fabric choice, it’s also an affordable one! The only downside, is that it looks rather basic. However, for most things people collect, this is a great option as it works beautifully for displaying rustic and authentic historical objects.
Even as safe as it is, this fabric should be washed with a bio-degradable fabric soap prior to use to remove any potentially harmful finishing compounds from the textile. I would also suggest washing a second time, with only water. And remember, DO NOT use fabric softener when washing and drying.
Fabric of choice for valuable silver.
Tarnish Cloth is the only way to go for displaying and storing your precious silver. That is, unless you really enjoy polishing silver every other week! This super-soft fabric contains tiny shreds of real silver that are imbedded in the fabric. This anti-tarnish fabric keeps tarnish producing gases in the air from reaching your silver.
There are two downsides to tarnish cloth. For one, when compared to other fabrics, it’s really expensive. Expect to spend anywhere from $13 to $30 per yard. From a display perspective, the second downside is that tarnish cloth only works when it completely covers the silver object. For storage purposes, this is perfect. But when used to line a display case, it will only keep tarnish of the backside of your silver! Still, it’s the best option for displaying silver.
Unlike other fabrics, tarnish cloth should NEVER be washed. Doing so will remove the anti-tarnish properties, leaving you with a really expensive, and completely useless piece of cloth!
What types of fabrics and finishes should you be concerned about?
Unless stated otherwise, it’s safe to assume that every commercially available fabric has been treated with some sort of chemical finish to enhance its look, performance, or feel. Examples include anti-static finish, crease-resist finish, and hydrophobic (water repellent) finish to name a few. Such finishes can fade or produce off-gas; a gas that is given off, especially one emitted as the byproduct of a chemical process (i.e. finishing). Needless to say, such fabrics should avoided.
If a fabric’s finish is not clearly discernable, you may want to visit the manufacturer’s website, or call them directly to find out what, if any, finish has been used.
If you want to use a dyed fabric, what do you need to consider?
As a collector, you may be tempted to choose a fabric that has vivid color. As such, your eyes will naturally gravitate to dyed fabrics. Ideally, only undyed fabrics like Unbleached Muslin should be used to line a display case. If you’re not happy with the “basic” look of this fabric, an alternative to using a dyed fabric is using an undyed linen.
Linen comes in a variety of natural shades that range from light white to dark gray, and may give you the appearance that you’re looking for in terms of color and contrast. As an alternative to linen, take a look at undyed naturally shaded cottons that come in an assortment of colors ranging from beige to green. Also, from a texture perspective, both linen and cottons can be woven in a variety of weaves from fine to heavily textured.
If you’re dead set on using a dyed fabric, take precautionary steps to ensure you limit the risks of dye transfers and bleeds. If a display case lined with dyed fabric comes into contact with high relative humidity or water, the fabric’s dye could transfer to the displayed objects.
To test for colorfastness―a term that characterizes a material’s color’s resistance to fading or running―start by washing the fabric repeatedly until no color is visible in the water rinse. Once the fabric has dried, spray the fabric with water and then weight it against an inexpensive/disposable white object. If no color is transferred to the object, it’s probably safe to use.
What is the best way to attach fabric to the exhibit case?
Thread and needle is by far the safest option for attaching fabric to an exhibit case. However, if this is not possible, rust-proof staples, tacks, or nails can be used in its place. If at all possible, stay far away from adhesives. If you choose to go this route, only consider using adhesives that are chemically inert, such as silicone adhesives.
One last suggestion for choosing a safe and reliable fabric for your next display case. Visit your local fabric store―especially a locally owned (non-chain) small business―as the owner and/or their employees will be well versed in what fabrics can meet your stringent display needs.