Preserving a Doily

Dear Donia,
What's the best way to preserve and display a doily made by my great-grandmother?


Q. Dear Donia,

I have a doily worked by my great-grandmother, most likely in the 1920s, in pure cotton thread. What's the best way to store a piece like this? Should it be laundered? Starched? What about displaying it—any guidelines? And they always talk about having them mounted and framed—is that advisable or no? Thank you, Franklin

A. Dear Franklin,

What a beautifully worked piece and you are very lucky to have it in such good condition.  Let's make sure we can keep it this way!
Because this is a cotton item, it is plant-based (a seed fiber in this case) and will want to be stored in an alkaline (non-acidic) environment. The best way to store this item is, ideally, flat in a box such as one of these from our sponsor Hollinger Metal Edge. The doily should be placed in the box that has been lined with acid-free, lignin-free, buffered tissue that can then be folded over it. Wadded tissue should then be put in the box on top to ensure that the doily doesn't shift. If space is an issue, the doily can be folded. To do this, the box should be lined as before and sausages of wadded tissue should be made to place in the folds of the doily. These sausages will help prevent the folds becoming weak or breaking points for the cotton threads. For a doily like this, I would make four folds—one at each of the bases of two points of the star.
Laundering can be a very delicate operation and should only be undertaken on items that are strong and truly need cleaning. In this case, I would not do it. It may be a benefit but it can also be damaging as the threads will be susceptible to damage while wet. I would never starch historic textiles. The starch itself will make the outer layer of the cotton more stiff and brittle and we are never sure as to what additives may be in that commercial starch can.
I can completely understand your desire to display this item, it is a work of art. As with storage, any matting and mounting materials should be acid-free, lignin-free, and buffered. There are many good quality museum rag mat board suppliers out there (Rising, Alpharag, and Peterboro to name three) and the board comes in a range of tones so that you can find one to set off your doily. Typically, you would mount the doily by marking out and making holes in the matboard to stitch the doily to the board with a sympathetic cotton thread. Do not use fishline or a synthetic as they can be too sharp and can damage the doily. The mounted doily should have a window mat cut for it so that the doily does not come into direct contact with the glazing. It would be best to use UV blocking glass or plexiglas for the glazing to add another layer of protection. Once framed, do not hang the doily in direct sunlight and try to avoid hanging on exterior walls where condensation may occur, leading to mold.
If you do not want to frame the doily, it can go on display on a table or piece of upholstered furniture (for that gentle drape as we talked about with the sausages when boxing). Please be sure that the doily if not in a location where hands, arms, or heads could transfer oils to it or on a table with a plant or vase with water which may also damage the doily. Like with framing, do not have the piece in direct sunlight.
I hope this helps answer your questions and ensure that your great-grandmother's doily is around for many years to come.