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#AskAConservator: what to do about yellowed textiles?

CAPC is participating in #AskAConservator day! Scott from Ingersoll Cheese & Agricultural Museum asks: We have been given some Second World War naval uniforms. Several of the "whites" have gone yellow. Is there a safe manner in which we can remove the staining and discolouration?

Fiona Graham says:

Thanks so much for sending in this question, especially since the internet has a lot of solutions to this issue (e.g. washing with vinegar, putting the piece out in the sun) that are highly inappropriate for museum textiles! In a museum context, it is sometimes possible to reduce the yellowing of white textiles by washing but it is hard to say whether this can be done safely in your case without seeing the condition of the uniforms. The Canadian Conservation Institute has a free publication - CCI Note 13/7 Washing Non-coloured Textiles

However, remember that historic textiles are likely to have degraded in other ways besides discolouring and are more fragile than their modern counterparts. The process of washing a textile puts a lot of extra stress on the fibres due to the weight of the absorbed water. With uniforms (unlike tablecloths, for example) there is also the issue of numerous attachments such as buttons, epaulettes, etc. that would have to be removed prior to washing. Blocking out the uniforms so that they dry properly would also be tricky. And if these are wool uniforms rather than cotton, the drying time could be lengthy and there could be a risk of mould growth. For these reasons I would be reluctant to advise you to embark on a cleaning project without having a textile conservator look at the pieces first.

I wish I had better news! Perhaps you could display the ones that are less yellowed and keep the others for research purposes. Keep light levels low and eliminate any ultraviolet from light sources so that the pieces do not significantly discolour any further. You could also experiment with imaging to digitally remove the yellowing, allowing you and visitors to get a virtual picture of the uniforms’ original appearance.

Thanks for asking this question, Scott! If you wish to seek the services of a textile conservator, you can search for one by using the CAPC's Find A Conservator tool and entering "textile" as the specialty.