Preserving military uniforms (Part I)

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Military uniforms are designed for war.  They’re tough and can take a lot of abuse, but they’re not indestructible.  Maybe you have a uniform that's been handed down to you that you want to keep in good shape.  There are things you can do at at home to preserve that uniform.

First things first

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Set yourself up in a well-lit space with a flat surface and enough room to work on the uniform. 

Leave drinks, food and pens out of the space to avoid accidents.  Don’t smoke in the space to avoid dropped ashes and burnt holes in the fabric. 

handle with care

Ideally, wear white cotton gloves when handling the uniform.  The gloves prevent the transfer of body oil, salt, hand lotion or dirt to the fabric.  But, if you don’t have gloves, use a clean cloth or paper towel to handle the uniform instead of your bare hands.  This is really important when handling metal because the acid from your skin can tarnish the metal. 

clean it

Avoid dry cleaning the uniform as the chemicals used in the dry-cleaning process cause wear and tear on fabric. 

Surface clean the uniform.  Cover the soft brush attachment of your vacuum cleaner with a nylon stocking, held in place with an elastic band, and vacuum the uniform lightly, inside and out, on a low setting.  The vacuuming removes dust and dirt that can damage the fabric (the sharp surfaces of silica in dust and dirt can cut and abrade fibres). 

Protect fabric from metal

Metal can rust and stain fabric.  Also, wool contains sulphur that actually attacks metal.  To protect the fabric of the uniform, cut a piece of Mylar plastic and place it behind metal buttons or other bits to act as a barrier.  Mylar plastic is available in art and craft stores or through archival suppliers like Carr McLean.

Store it

Ideally, store the uniform flat in a storage box that fits the uniform without folding it.  The storage box could be made of plastic or, better yet, acid-free paper.  Lightly stuff the coat shoulders with acid-free tissue paper to help them hold their shape and place tissue between any bends to prevent creasing.  Preservation products, such as acid-free tissue paper and boxes, can be purchased from archival suppliers like Carr McLean.

You can hang the uniform but, be warned, wire hangers just aren’t the way to go.  We’ve all seen the dents that wire hangers leave on shirt shoulders.  They can also stain fabric if exposed to moisture and cause seams to start to separate.  A cloth-coated, padded hanger will prevent this.  Make sure that the cloth covering on the hanger is colourless so that no dye can seep into the uniform.  You can buy cloth-coated, padded hangers in stores or make them at home. 

Place a protective covering over the hung uniform to reduce damage to the fabric from dust and other dirt.  You can use a breathable cotton storage bag or just an old white cotton sheet.  Use one bag or sheet per uniform because the dye from the fabric from one uniform can seep into the other if exposed to moisture. 

Check it

Once stored in a safe location, check the uniform once a year to keep an eye out for any damage that may have occurred.  Repair any damage promptly.

If you follow these steps, the uniform will have a longer life!