TSG Chapter VI. Treatment of Textiles - Section C. Mechanical Cleaning

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Mechanical Cleaning[edit | edit source]

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Mechanical cleaning or surface cleaning - the removal of physically bound soiling and particulate matter by physical means and without the use of water or solvent - is an irreversible process. Textiles tend to trap dust and sediment due to their fibrous texture and porous nature (CCI 2011). Removal of soiling may be undertaken for a wide range of reasons:

  • the presence of soiling may may abrade or cut textile fibers
  • soiling is disfiguring and obscures surface design/decoration
  • the content of the soiling may attract pests by acting as food source
  • dust and sediment particles can attract destructive materials from the atmosphere including acidic or oxidizing agents that, combined with moisture, can instigate destructive chemical reactions (CCI 2011).
  • densely packed particulates may cause loss of a fabric's flexibility.  
  • soiling post-dates the use-life of the textile (i.e. "museum dirt”)

Mechanical cleaning may be the only treatment performed, depending on the goals of treatment and fragility of the textile. It is almost always carried out before aqueous or solvent cleaning to remove loosely bound soiling, limiting the risk of driving it further into the textile as fibers swell with the introduction of cleaning solutions. It can be difficult to remove all particulates from dense fabric structures, or particulates held to the textile surface by oily deposits. Mechanical cleaning may not be possible if the textile is extremely degraded or fragile.

Ethical Considerations for Cleaning[edit | edit source]

As with all interventive treatment, the benefits and risks of mechanical cleaning must be weighed carefully. Cleaning should not be undertaken if it is likely to cause damage to the object or if it may impact the historical or cultural value of an object. In many instances, soiling plays a crucial role in the value of the textile. It may be evidence of use-life, aid in dating or attributing an object. Eastop and Brooks give a detailed discussion on the value of retaining soiling in their 1996 article “To clean  or not to clean: the value of soils and creases”.

Dillon et. al. explore the role that soiling plays in visitor’s perceptions of historic house interiors, determining that it varies depending on a range of factors. Surveys suggest that visitors find higher dust levels acceptable when there is a strong narrative that links dust to the natural aging process of collections and the story of the site, and when visitors are well informed about conservation. The same research found that visitors generally trust collections care professionals to make good decisions regarding cleaning and preservation efforts. Such findings may discourage unnecessarily thorough cleaning and help prioritize collections care interventions when resources are limited (Dillon et. al. 2017).

Contact-free Cleaning Methods[edit | edit source]

Air puffer[edit | edit source]

See the Photographic Materials Group's section on Surface Cleaning with Air.

Contact Cleaning Methods[edit | edit source]

Vacuum[edit | edit source]

When vacuuming textiles it is recommended that a high-efficiency particulate air filtered (HEPA) vacuum with variable suction control should be used. “All vacuum cleaners blow out or exhaust the air they suck in. What is contained in the exhausted air is determined by the filtering capabilities of the machine. Ordinary vacuum cleaners filter only the larger particles and blow the smaller ones back into the room. In contrast, a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter can remove 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 µm in size.”[1]

It is advisable to use a soft haired brush attachment (such as goat hair). Micro attachments may be used for more precise control when vacuuming. Soft paintbrushes may be used to brush particulate off the textile towards the nozzle of the vacuum. A piece of net should be placed between the vacuum attachment and nozzle to prevent any piece of the textile that becomes detached from being sucked into the machine.

For a step-by-step description of the method for vacuuming historic textiles see Canadian Conservation Institute’s notes on Mechanical Surface Cleaning of Textiles.[1]

Brushes[edit | edit source]

Brushes need to be clean, have soft bristles and be applied to the textile in the direction of the weave. It is best to use them in conjunction with suction to avoid redeposition of dirt elsewhere on the textile. Avoid using this technique on fragmented or degraded fibers.

Sponges[edit | edit source]

1. Chemical sponge - made of vulcanized rubber or a blend of natural and synthetic rubber. It is sold for removing soot from surfaces after fires.

2. Cosmetic sponge - typically made from polyurethane.

Sticky swabs[edit | edit source]

Mechanical cleaning with tacky swabs may be ideal for targeted cleaning or to achieve partial reduction of soiling. Micro-swabs, (toothpicks with small amounts of cotton wool to form a swab, or prefabricated miniature fiber-tipped applicators available from conservation material suppliers) are rolled through undiluted thermoplastic adhesive that remains tacky at room temperature, like Lascaux 303HV. When the adhesive is dry, the swabs may be gently rolled over the surface of the object requiring cleaning. The adhesive will collect some surface soiling without leaving adhesive residue. This method is ideal for loosely bound particulate surface soiling. 

Erasers[edit | edit source]

See the Book and Paper Group's section on Eraser Materials.

Other tools[edit | edit source]

Other tools of varying shape and hardness may be useful for removing accretions and larger particles of embedded soiling. Options may include:

  • wooden skewers
  • porcupine quills
  • dental tools
  • cleaning cloths

See the Object Group's page on Hand Tools.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Anderson, Allison M., "Comparison of Dry-Cleaning Sponges Used to Remove Soot from Textiles" (2016). Open Access Master's Theses. Paper 949. https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/theses/949

Canadian Conservation Institute. 2011. CCI Notes 13/16 "Mechanical Surface Cleaning of Textiles". In: CCI Notes.1-5. Accessed June 16, 2023. [2].

Cruickshank, Pippa, Anna Harrison, and John Fields. "From Excavation to Display: The Conservation of Archaeological Textiles from an AD First-Third Century Cemetery Site in Jordan." The Conservator 26, no. 1 (2002/01101 2002): 44-56.

Cronyn, J.M. 1990. The Elements of Archaeological Conservation. Routledge, London.

Dillon, Catherine, Stavroula Golfomitsou, Flavia Ravaioli, Cymbeline Storey, Catherine Tully, Graeme McArthur and Katy Lithgow. 2017. “A bottom-up and mixed-methods approach to understanding visitors’ perceptions of dust, dirt and cleaning.” In ICOM Committee for Conservation preprints. 18th Triennial Meeting, Copenhagen. Paris: 1-10.

Eastop, Dinah and Mary Brooks. 1996. “To Clean or Not to Clean: The Value of Soils and Creases”. In ICOM Committee for Conservation preprints. 11th Triennial Meeting, Edinburgh. Paris: 687-691.

Estabrook, Elizabeth "Considerations of the Effect of Erasers on Cotton Fabric." Journal of the American Institute of Conservation 28, no. 2, Fall 1989 (1989): 79-96.

Finch, Karen, and Greta Putnam. 1977. Caring for Textiles. London: Barrie & Jenkins.

Hackett, Joanne. "Observations on Soot Removal from Textiles." In The Textile Specialty Group Postprints Vol. 8 (1998). Papers delivered at the Textile Subgroup Session of AIC's 26th Annual Meeting in Arlington, VA., 63-69: Textile Specialty Group of the AIC,1999.

Hamilton, Donny. 2011. "Textile Conservation". In: Conservation Research Laboratory of the Nautical Archaeology Program. Texas A&M University. Accessed March 30, 2013. [3].

Heald, Susan, Frankel, Nora, Keruzec, Annaïck, Doxsey-Whitfield, Megan, Kavich, Gwénaëlle, Lam, Thomas, and Little, Nicole. 2018. "A Sizable Sooty Soiled Surface: Analyzing and Evaluating Methods for Surface Cleaning a Large Painted Muslin." from AIC Wooden Artifacts Group Postprints from American Institute for Conservation's 46th Annual Meeting, Houston, Texas. Washington, DC: American Institute for Conservation.

Lloyd, Helen, Peter Brimblecombe, and K. Lithgow. "Economics of Dust.". Studies in Conservation 52, no. 2 (2007): 135-46.

Moncrieff, Anne, and Graham Weaver. "The Nature of Dirt." Chap. 1 In Cleaning. Science for Conservators, Book 2 Conservation Science Teaching Series, edited by Helen Wilks. 10-23. London: The Conservation Unit of the Museums and Galleries Commission in conjunction with Routledge, 1987.

Peacock, E. 2005. "Investigation of Conservation Methods for a Textile Recovered from the American Civil War Submarine H.L. Hunley (1864)". In: Proceedings of the 9th Wet Organic Archaeological Materials Conference. Copenhagen.497-512.

Shuster, E. "Vacuuming Textiles: A New Kind of Cost Benefit Analysis." In The Textile Specialty Group Postprints Vol. 19 (2009). Papers delivered at the Textile Subgroup Session, AIC's 37th Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, CA, 194-201. Los Angeles, CA: The Textile Specialty Group of the AIC, cd format, 2010.

Timar-Balazsy, Agnes, and Dinah Eastep. "Soiling on Historical Textiles." In Chemical Principles of Textile Conservation 157-59. Oxford: Elsevier, 1998.

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