How can I preserve and display a tablecloth?
September 3, 2007 6:49 AM   Subscribe

For at least 25 years, my grandmother had a table cloth which every person who visited her house signed, and their signature was embroidered onto the cloth. Now my family is looking for a way to preserve and display it. Any cool ideas?

The table cloth is kind of thin now, from years of washing. It's covered with, I'd estimate, at least 100 signatures, backstiched into the cloth. My grandparents are still living, but going to have to move into a retirement community, and I'm not sure grandma's capable of sewing anymore, so the tablecloth won't be added to in the future.

The main goals here are a.) to preserve it, and b.) to make it displayable. It's approx 102 inches long, (her table was long, rectangular, and sat 8-10) though the sides that hang down the table were sewed on, and there are no signatures on it, so those could be removed. The signature area is no larger than the top of her table.

Someone came up with the idea of cutting the cloth into squares and somehow pasting it into the pages of a scrapbook type thing, but the names were signed randomly, and I don't think we could cut it without cutting through names.

There was also the idea of somehow forming it into some sort of a throw or quilt, but we're not sure how to do this best (the cloth is too thin now to just throw some batting in and a backing cloth and sew it together). Also, there are holes in the cloth where there have been cigarette burns. My grandma would embroider around the edge of the hole (often in the same color thread that whoever dropped their cigarette had their name embroidered in!), so they're stable, and smaller than a dime, but still, any batting or whatever might come through.

Didn't know if the hive mind could come up with any additional ideas for displaying this? Any companies out there who might handle this sort of thing?
posted by FortyT-wo to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to talk to my friend Camille - she's a textile conservator.
posted by FlyByDay at 6:55 AM on September 3, 2007

You might think about running this by a quilt conservator. I'm pretty sure they could dream something up. Sounds like a wonderful project.
posted by pammo at 6:58 AM on September 3, 2007

I'm not even close to knowledgeable about such things, but I just want to say, that is such a great heirloom. I would have never thought of such a thing. Your grandmother did a great thing.

I know it's a big item to display, but I would not cut it up. Once you figure out the preservation part, maybe there is a wall you can dedicate to it. If not in the main living area, then a hallway, stairwell, or guest room. You'd probably have to display is sideways unless you have high ceilings.

Another option might be to make a wood framework 3-panel room divider, and tack the cloth to it. This would allow you to wrap it around both sides, so it would take up less space than showing it on a wall, and you can have flexibility on where you place it.

You've got a quite a challenge to display it in a way that preserves it, and fits in with the rest of your home. I'm sure it will be worth it.
posted by The Deej at 7:14 AM on September 3, 2007

Put it under glass in the one place it should be: the dining room table. Simply get a glass tabletop cut to fit the dimensions and put it on your own dining room table.
posted by Gungho at 7:59 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Fold it in half and have it framed in a double sided block frame that is visible from both sides, one with legs on it. You can then stand it on a table or whatever, rotate it or put it somewhere where people can walk around.
posted by fire&wings at 8:00 AM on September 3, 2007

What a great heirloom. Please don't cut it up or paste it into a scrap book! I would display it as if it was a quilt, by carefully hand sewing sewing a muslin tube to the back of it and running a dowel, wooden slat or plastic tub through it, then securing it to the wall. I do like the idea of having it made into a quilt, which would provide support to the fabric; however, I would take the time to find and hire a person who can skillfull handquilting for you as opposed to machine quilting or tying. I think it would be neat to use other family household textiles for the backing. You could piece together dishtowels, cloth napkins or pieces of curtains to make the backing.

The problem with having a textile like this on display in a household is that it is going to begin to begin deteriorating rather quickly from exposure to light (both sunlight and indoor lighting), humidity, human touch, vibrations, etc. Perhaps consider displaying it for short periods of time, such as one month out of the year and the rest of the time keep it stored in acid free tissue in an archival box. When you do have it on display, you'll want to hang it in a place that isn't exposed to windows or bright lights. You should also avoid throwing this table cloth in the washing machine. The embroidery floss might not be colorfast and could bleed onto the rest of the fabric. Also, most laundry detergents today contain optical brighteners, which will leave a residue on your textile. Also, the mechanical action of the washing machine is harmful to old textiles.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:11 AM on September 3, 2007

I LOVE Gungho's idea, but with a couple of tweaks -- first, put the glass on little 1/8" risers every couple of feet to prevent it from rubbing on the embroidery. Also, I'd see if I could find UV-resistant glass to prevent fading.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:16 AM on September 3, 2007

Best answer: In addition to whatever you do to the actual table cloth, it might be nice to photograph it, either as a whole, or in sections and then digitally make a smaller frame-able print or a book which could be given to family members who wanted one. If you wanted to get real ambitious the book could include photos of all the people who signed.
posted by coevals at 8:51 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great suggestions so far, thanks guys! A couple of bits of info I didn't give... The grandparents are probably still going to have the table cloth as long as they live, but they're moving into a rather small apartment-type setting now. So there isn't room to put it on a table anymore, and in the immediate future, it couldn't, as a whole, occupy a wall.

When they pass away, it would probably go to one of their children, but I do love the idea of photographing it and making a book of it, so that everyone can have a copy. One of the things that makes the tablecloth so precious is that a fair amount of the people who've signed it have passed away. She would have it out at every gathering, so we'd often sit and reminisce about the people on the cloth after dinner.

I'll be passing all these great suggestions on to my mother.
posted by FortyT-wo at 9:32 AM on September 3, 2007

DON'T cut it up! You can hang it for a while a la plucky sparrow but it will accumulate dust and eventually deteriorate in the light. Ideally you would line it (reversibly) onto an acid free muslin or similar and frame it behind UV resistant glass or perspex. Although at 102" long this will cost a lot: a few thousand dollars.
posted by londongeezer at 11:06 AM on September 3, 2007

nthing the "don't cut it up" sentiment.

Slightly off topic, but I used to do a lot of work at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and they have, encased in perspex, a large slab of what looks like plaster, signed by every major physicist who passed through the University from around 1900 onwards. One can spend a good hour scanning it for the usual suspects (Dirac, Schroedinger, Einstein, but I none of us could find Feynman), and carving it up into chunks would be...unthinkable.
posted by gene_machine at 2:23 PM on September 3, 2007

"I" couldn't, and neither could any of "us"...
posted by gene_machine at 2:24 PM on September 3, 2007

I'd hang it in a display case. Instead of one great big piece of glass face the front with 3-4 doors with glass panels. This would reduce the cost and make it easier to handle. The display case could be just thick enough to hang the table cloth or you could make it a few inches deep and add a few glass shelves if there are any other small heirlooms that could be displayed.

Use regular glass if you can't afford art quality anti-glare/uv glass. Regular iron window glass blocks much of the uv and it'll protect the cloth from environmental degradation from touching and air pollutants. There are lots of films that could be applied to the glass that'll block even more UV. Ideally it should be hung in a dim conditioned space, a hallway away from windows might be a good choice. Many apartments bigger than a bachelor have at least a small hallway. A thin frame won't take up much of that space.
posted by Mitheral at 3:05 PM on September 3, 2007

Having it beautifully framed and on the wall is the nicest option, though definitely very expensive and requiring a special space. If you decide you want to do books for your family members and need tips, suggestions, or help with them, I own a small edition bookbinding business and have done things similar to that before. I have plenty of advice!

On a side note, my Grandfather is getting ready to have a large rug that his mother hand-hooked, framed for the wall. She cut up old wool army blankets into tiny strips and hand-dyed them in like 20 different colors, and hooked a gorgeous floral design. Heirlooms like that, and your tablecloth, will continually amaze generation after generation of your family. Good luck!
posted by SixteenTons at 3:36 PM on September 3, 2007

You can make thin/worn fabric into a quilt if you use a lining of muslin under the embroidery like so:

Muslin lining
quilt batting

That will keep the batting from showing, and also help support the frail tablecloth. Don't use it on a bed though!
posted by happyturtle at 4:03 PM on September 3, 2007

What a gorgeous idea!

You could also mount it in one of those old hollywood / japanese-style portable clothes screens, which will display it, keep it fairly safe and not take up too much room.
posted by Lucie at 4:58 PM on September 3, 2007

very cool idea.

i agree that it should be placed under glass on another table or else framed and hung over the couch.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:21 AM on September 4, 2007

I just had a brainstorm! Player Piano Roll!!!!! Have a wooden case made of the desired width, and say about 2 feet high. Install two rollers with handles, prepare the tablecloth on muslin as described above, attach to rollers and place under glass. Then the entire cloth can be rolled back and forth to see only a small section, but you have access to the entire cloth. Genius!
posted by Gungho at 7:04 AM on September 4, 2007

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