Monday, April 27, 2015

Caring for the SON Nursing Uniforms: A Lesson in Textile Preservation

By Student Blogger: Crystal Rodgers

While working as a student assistant for the Historical Collections & Archives, I have had the privilege of working with a diverse array of materials. In addition to the more traditional paper-based records and photographs, I have also been tasked with the arrangement and description of medical and dental artifacts, including surgical implements, pharmaceuticals, and even human and animal skulls. Now, I am excited to add preparing nursing uniforms for long-term preservation to this eclectic list. The following blog post details my experience creating and implementing a processing plan for storing these beautiful garments, one of my favorite projects thus far!  

In the summer of 2014, HC&A acquired the School of Nursing Archive Collection, donated graciously by the SON Archive Committee who lovingly cared for this collection for many years. Consisting of publications, photographs, artifacts, and textiles, the collection documents the rich history of nursing education at OHSU. Uniforms include beautiful wool capes, circa 1930s; blue cotton dresses replete with starched apron, bib, collar, and shirt cuffs, circa 1940s; green and white striped dresses, circa 1960s-70s; and an assortment of white nursing caps.  

Some of the donated uniforms prior to packing 

Although archivists are prepared to care for records, manuscripts, photographs, and physical artifacts, textiles are a bit unique to the field and require special care to ensure their long-term survival. In order to develop an appropriate processing plan for over 52.41 cubic feet of cloth-based material, I first had to conduct research on how to properly handle these items. I had many questions that needed answering! First, should we hang them or store the uniforms flat? What types of storage materials would we need? If storing flat, what types of boxes work best, and how many would we need? Luckily, quite a few cultural heritage institutions provide publicly accessible copies of their textile care guidelines, including the Texas Historical Commission, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the National Park Service.[1] As a visual learner, The Minnesota Historical Society’s YouTube instructional videos on housing costumes were also incredibly helpful![2]

Based on my research, storing the garments flat was the best option, as hanging puts stress on the shoulders, resulting in stretching and potentially seam tears over time. This is especially a risk for the heavy wool capes. Light exposure is also damaging, so boxes also provide a barrier that prevents fading of the fabric. I selected 2 different sized acid free textile boxes from the archival supply company, Hollinger Metal Edge: the 34Lx22Wx8H for the shorter garments and accessories and 60Lx8Wx5H for the longer garments. To help save space, as these boxes are incredibly large, several garments are stacked in each box, uniforms related to specific individuals kept together to maintain provenance. Each garment is separated by a sheet of acid free tissue as well as a layer of polyethylene foam to support and keep stacked garments level. I also discovered that the foam helps to prevent sliding of the uniforms when transported to a new location, an added benefit!

Giant polyethylene foam roll! 

One of the wool capes, in the process of folding 

Based on my research, over time textiles can actually break at the folds. As a result, it is best to avoid folding garments as much as possible, particularly anything that is already brittle or stiff, such as the heavily starched aprons. However, folding was sometimes necessary for dress and coat sleeves as well as the wider bottoms of dresses and capes. To prevent sharp folds, balls of wadded up acid free tissue paper was used to support these areas. Tissue was also used to help maintain the shape of certain garments, such as the shoulders and sleeves of the nurse cadet uniform jackets.

Roll of archival tissue paper used for layering and buffering garments 

Nurse Cadet Corps uniform jacket, after supporting sleeves and shoulders with tissue

One of the 60Lx8Wx6H textile boxes all packed and ready for storage! 

Other unexpected preservation concerns include the prior usage of safety pins to hold buttons not sewed on. Safety pins rust over time, many of them already exhibiting signs of deterioration, which will eventually stain the garment. These buttons were removed and placed in small artifact boxes, a hand drawn diagram created to ensure easy repinning for display in future exhibits. Additionally, some of the starched garments were starting to actually adhere to each other, such as the front and back of pockets and the front and backs of aprons. A layer of tissue was also used to buffer these areas to prevent further sticking.

The textile boxes all packed and stacked in one of our storage spaces 

I am happy to say the garments are all now safely stored in their new homes! It was a wonderful learning experience, equipping me with a new, unique set of skills to apply to future professional endeavors. On a personal level, I also count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to view these uniforms, connecting me more intimately to the past and sparking a desire to know more about the lives of the women who wore them.

[1] “Curatorial Care of Textile Objects,” NPS Museum Handbook, Part I, (National Park Service, 2002), 1-46,
 “Basic Guidelines for the Preservation of Historic Artifacts”, (Texas Historic Commission), 1-15,
[2] “Storage of Heirloom Textiles Podcast, Episode 3: Storage of Costumes in Boxes”, YouTube video, 12:19, posted by the Minnesota Historical Society, December 7, 2009,

1 comment:

Elson Cade said...
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