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  • Writer's picture Cynthia Lawrence

Preservation of Athletic Uniforms

The condition of sports collectibles and memorabilia is of utmost concern. Damages and other condition problems can affect the value of the artifacts. Some damages can be repaired by a conservation professional, but treatment costs can be expensive. Other damages are permanent, such as fading of inks and dyes. As a result, preservation of collectibles is paramount. Artifacts can be protected from damage with proper storage, display, and handling. This article looks at the care and preservation of athletic uniforms.   Insect Damage Historically, uniforms were made from natural materials such as wool or cotton. The primary condition problem with wool is its susceptibility to insect attack. Clothes moths and dermestid beetles, such as carpet beetles, can cause significant damage. Undetected, an infestation can result in very large, disfiguring losses. Textiles made from protein-based fibers such as wool and silk, are most at risk of damage from insects. Cottons and linens are much less likely to be damaged by insects than wool, but are still at risk. Synthetic fabrics, which largely replaced natural fibers by the mid-twentieth century, are not at risk. Insects are particularly attracted to textiles that are dirty or soiled. Skin oils or food stains are especially attractive to insects, so historic game-used uniforms are at high risk of attack.

Treatment of a professional wool baseball jersey from 1960. These pictures show details of insect holes on the proper left shoulder, before and after conservation.

Preventing Insect Damage

The best way to prevent damage from insects is to monitor your collections. Dermestid beetles, such as carpet beetles, or variety of clothes moths are the most likely culprits of damage. The damage occurs while the insects are in their larva or pupa stage. They are very small and difficult to see without magnification. By the time one sees flying adult moths or beetles, damage has most likely already occurred. Most often, holes are found in the fabric without ever seeing a living insect.

Do not store your textiles with moth balls. The chemicals used in moth balls have been found to be carcinogenic. In addition to health risks, the chemicals may be harmful textile fibers. Also, while they may act as a deterrent, the do not reliably halt an active infestation. The risks associated with moth ball use do not outweigh the potential benefits.

Carpet beetles
Carpet Beetles, larvae and adult stages. These measure 2mm to 4mm (0.08in to 0.16in)

Clothes moths
Clothes moths, larvae and adult stages. Adults are about ¼” in length. in length. They remain in their destructive larvae stages from one month to up to two years.

How to Inspect for Insect Infestation

  • Whether your uniforms are in storage or on display, it is best to carefully examine them at least once a year.

  • Store uniforms in clean non-buffered acid-free tissue paper.

  • When examined, the tissue and uniform should be inspected for loose fibers, insect debris including frass (insect droppings), webbing, wings, or other bits such as legs or powder of any kind.

  • Consult images online for pictures of clothes moths or carpet beetles for reference. Look at the larvae and pupae stages as well as adult examples. Also search for images of frass, webbing, or other damages. Frass can look like dust or dirt to an untrained eye.

  • Holes or lost fibers are often noticed before any insects are found.

What to do if insects are found

  • If any evidence of insects is found, the problem must be addressed immediately.

  • Freezing to kill insects is usually a safe and reliable way to kill insects when done properly.

  • Temperatures below -20 degrees Fahrenheit are recommended to ensure that eggs are killed. Most standard freezers do not reach these temperatures.

  • Other methods of killing insects are also available, such as dry cleaning or anoxic treatments.

  • Contact a textile conservator for advice on how to handle an insect infestation.


Along with insects, fading of colors is probably the most common and destructive damage seen in textile collections. Like damage caused by pests, fading can be prevented with proper display and storage. Preventive care is the best weapon against damages to uniform collections. Fading of colors occurs with exposure to light, particularly ultraviolet illumination. Once a textile has faded, it cannot be reversed. All exposure to ultraviolet radiation causes damage, and this damage adds up over time.

Some dyes are more sensitive to light than others, but one does not know how light-sensitive a color is until damage has occurred. Also, as it happens slowly over time, fading may go unnoticed until the color shift is severe. When an area of the uniform that was protected from light, such as the inside or back, is compared to the exposed areas, the change in color can sometimes be startling. Light exposure not only causes fading, but also accelerates the deterioration of the fibers over time. So, even colors that are not susceptible to fading should be protected from extended exposure to light.

Dyes used to color fabric are susceptible to fading. Signatures done in inks or markers may also have light sensitive dyes. The fading of a signature would be extremely detrimental to the value of a uniform.  

Preventing Fading

  • The best course of action is to protect it from light.

  • When a uniform is in storage, it should be kept in the dark.

  • A uniform can be displayed framed or in a case using UV-protective glass or acrylic.

  • Ultraviolet filtering films can be applied to windows or light fixtures to limit UV exposure overall.

  • Even with these protective measures in place, display of uniforms, especially those with potentially light-sensitive signatures, should be limited.

  • Textiles should be kept out of direct sunlight.

  • Window shades or curtains should remain closed whenever possible.

  • A framed object or exhibit case can be covered using a shade.

  • Museum guidelines generally state that textiles should be displayed under lighting conditions of 5-7 footcandles (50-70 lux) for a limited duration.[1] While these guidelines may not be practical for the home collector, but exposure can be controlled by using the aforementioned methods.

Creasing and Distortion

Uniforms made of any material, natural or synthetic, can be damaged by creases or other distortions. Hard creases usually occur from storing the garment folded long-term. Storage on an ill-fitting hanger, or improper display can result in overall distortions. Most often wrinkles and creases can be relaxed by a conservator, but the distortions may not be completely eliminated. Over time, hard creases can result in breaks in the fibers causing splits in the fabric.

Treatment of a professional wool baseball jersey from 1960. These pictures show the lower back of the uniform, creased and wrinkled, before and after conservation.

Preventing Creasing

  • Damages can be avoided by using proper storage and display techniques.

  • All folds and creases should be padded with non-buffered acid-free tissue in preparation for long-term storage.

  • Objects should not be stacked, so that folds are not pressed into the fabric.

  • Uniforms should be displayed on properly fitted mannequins made of acid-free materials.

  • If the seams and fabrics of the uniform are structurally sound, a custom padded hanger can be used for display or storage.

Structural Damages

Holes, tears, split seams, felting or other disruption of the fabric surface are all damages that can be found on athletic uniforms. These damages may be a result of game-use. In this case, the wear may be a sign of the uniform’s authenticity or interest; it might not be appropriate to repair the damages. Structural damages can also result from poor handling, storage, display, or insect attack. Stabilization is often recommended to prevent further damage from snagging or handling. Contact a conservator for advice about repairs.   Staining In additional to structural damages, the condition of a uniform may also be affected by soiling and staining. As with holes and tears, the stains may be a result of game-use. While it may detract from the appearance of the uniform, soiling or staining may be a part of the uniforms history; it may not be desirable or appropriate to clean. In addition, aged stains may be difficult or impossible to remove. A professional should be consulted when cleaning is considered. A uniform can be damaged permanently by well meaning, but ill-informed cleaning efforts. Nevertheless, soiling and staining can also accelerate the deterioration of the fibers. Cleaning a textile can help in its long-term preservation.  

Potential Hazards of Cleaning

  • Aggressive attempts at cleaning could result in fiber damage or even holes.

  • Localized or over-cleaning can also result in a bright spot around a stain, actually bringing more attention to the discoloration.

  • Fibers can break down in the wrong cleaning solution.

  • Dyes can bleed causing discoloration in surrounding areas. Resulting damages can sometimes be beyond repair.

When and How to Clean

  • The decision whether or not to clean a uniform should be carefully considered through consultation between the owner and a conservator.

  • Dry techniques such as vacuuming or use of dry sponges can often reduce surface soiling with minimal potential for damage.

  • If it is decided that wet or solvent cleaning is appropriate, the conservator will examine the textile to decide if and how it can be cleaned safely. The uniform will be evaluated to determine if it has the strength to withstand cleaning.

  • A conservator will complete thorough testing of the effectiveness of cleaning techniques and stain removal.

  • A conservator will test all colors for solubility prior to wet cleaning.

  • It is not recommended to clean a uniform at home.

General Storage Guidelines

A good rule to follow is to store collections where you live. Often people stash their collectibles in attics, basements, or other out-of-the-way storage areas. Keeping collections in living areas will limit exposure to drastic changes in temperature and humidity, which can accelerate deterioration of fabrics.  Also, one is much more likely to monitor collections that are stored in convenient locations; objects kept in attic and basements tend to be forgotten.

Acid-free boxes
Acid-Free Boxes

Unbuffered Acid-Free Tissue Paper
Unbuffered Acid-Free Tissue Paper

How to Store Collections

  • Collections should be kept in boxes to protect them from dust and other pollutants and light exposure.

  • Only acid-free materials should be used, including acid-free cardboard and tissue paper. Contact with acidic materials can cause yellowing and staining to textiles, and also accelerates the deterioration of the fibers.

  • Acid-free tissue comes in both buffered and unbuffered varieties. It is recommended to use unbuffered acid-free tissue. The calcium carbonate in the buffered materials have a high pH, which is detrimental to wool and other protein-based materials.

Conservation vs. Restoration

The goal of a conservator is to help prevent additional damage and also to improve the overall appearance of the textile. A conservator will not remove or disrupt original material in order to repair damages. The goal is not to conceal that the fact that the uniform was ever damaged, but to improve its condition both structurally and in appearance.

The goal of a restoration is to return an artifact back to its original condition as much as possible. This often involves carrying out flawless repairs, so that a hole or tear appears as though it never happened. In contrast to a conservation repair, a restorer commonly uses materials that are identical to the piece itself. For example, a hole in a uniform can be patched using material that has been cut from the same garment, possibly from a hem or other discrete location. Or a patch material can be cut from a similar uniform and repurposed.

How does one know when to consult a conservator or a restorer? For more information about the profession of conservation, how to choose a conservator, and other frequently asked questions, consult the American Institute for Conservation and Historic Works.[2]   When to Call a Conservator One should not hesitate to consult a conservation professional regarding the care of collectibles. As mentioned, if there is any evidence of insect damage or activity, a conservator should be consulted immediately. Prompt response is essential to prevent further damage. Advice from a conservator should be sought regarding the display or long-term storage of uniforms. Poor storage or display can result in irreversible damages such as fading of colors. A conservator should be consulted whenever cleaning is considered. Factors such as whether or not cleaning is appropriate, and if so, what methods, if any, are safe will be discussed. Cleaning by an untrained person can result in permanent damages.

Athletic uniforms can hold both sentimental and monetary value. When one decides to add textiles as part of his or her collections, proper care, storage, and display can ensure these artifacts are preserved and protected long-term.

[1] Thomson, Garry. The Museum Environment. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann in Association with the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 2003. Print.


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