Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Tissue Issue

In keeping with the theme of costume care, here’s a little briefing on tissue paper. Anyone who has read anything about proper costume storage knows that acid-free tissue is key. Whatever your choice of container, your costume collection will be happiest if each garment is wrapped in and/or fluffed out with acid-free tissue. So let’s dissect the tissue issue.

Acid-free tissue is an ideal packing material for costume collections. It can protect the fabrics by lining boxes, separating garments of different materials, and padding areas that are prone to folds or wrinkles that can weaken fibers. Also, if there is a sheet of tissue under a garment, you can get it out by lifting the tissue, minimizing handling and potential harm. 

Issue #1: Can you get acid-free tissue in the gift-wrap aisle of your local dollar store, or do you need to go to a museum or archive supplier? I’m afraid I don’t really know the answer to this one. Tissue paper is made by so many providers for so many different reasons that for all I know, archival suppliers pump up the price when the stuff you find at your local box store would be just fine. But do you want to take that risk? If the paper turns out to be acidic, it will yellow and become brittle, it may cause acid burns, brown spots, and staining on your costumes, and worst of all, the acidic environment will make your costume more brittle, so that the next time you go to take it out, it will be far more likely to rip, drop a bead, or pop a thread.

This is a detail of a corset that was stored in its original box for over a hundred years. Late 19th-century corsets were  rolled in long, skinny acidic boxes, and you can see where the bottom of the corset stuck out when the piece was rolled because the exposed portion has rust colored acid burns.  

Ph pens are cheap, and well worth the
Issue #2: Once you get some tissue, how do you know if it's acid-free? There are a few options to deal with the unknown here. First, you can order only from reputable archival suppliers like Gaylord Brothers (, Hollinger Metal Edge (,  or Light Impressions ( Such companies rely on their reputation for professional archival products, so you are unlikely to get bad acid-free tissue from them. The other option, which may be a cheaper route, is to get a Ph indicating pen (like the one shown here from Gaylord Brothers). It looks like a Sharpie, but its ink will turn yellow on acidic paper, and best of all, it costs less than $10 and you can use it to evaluate all kinds of packaging materials. If you have the Ph pen, you can try getting paper from different sources and evaluate as you go. Anything that makes the ink turn yellow should be relegated to gift bags, not costume storage.

Now think back to your high school chemistry class or read a refresher on Wikipedia and consider what the opposite of acidic is. If something isn’t acidic, it’s either neutral or alkaline, right?  Costume collectors know that acids are bad, but does that mean neutral or alkaline is good? This one I do have the answer to, but it’s complicated. You have to think about what your costume is made of in order to make this decision.  If you don’t have the time to keep reading, just go with Ph neutral acid-free tissue and avoid “buffered” tissue which is slightly alkaline. If you want the full dose of wisdom I have to bestow, read on…

Costumes can have a LOT of components beyond fabric, like beads, metal, fur, and feathers. The main question I suggest you consider is this: is it plant, animal, synthetic, or mineral? Plant materials might benefit from the alkalinity offered by buffered tissue, but animal products will actually do better in a slightly acidic environment. Minerals and synthetics can go either way.  If you’ve never thought about an outfit this way, here are some of the most common materials for cloth, buttons, and decorations:

According to the classes I've taken, buffered tissue should only be used for items that are all “plant,” and I don’t have many things that fit that category. In fact, much of the time I am at a loss when I try to identify the material, especially with my dresses from the 1920s-1940s which are often synthetic. So as a rule, I just always use acid-free tissue, not buffered tissue. It’s rare that a garment is only made of one thing, and it can be impossible to create an ideal environment for every element. I have a hard enough time getting motivated to put everything away properly, so adding an extra step of separating the costumes by material would just be counterproductive. If you're not as lazy as I am, get both acid-free and buffered tissue and keep your "plant" and "animal" pieces separated.

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