Fabrics For Displaying and Protecting Collectibles

Various kinds of cloth can be used to easily high-light your collectibles and -if you use the right stuff- provide a safe and acid-free environment for your most valuable collectibles. I know this is a strange subject for wood-worker to write about,but it turns out that fabric stores have a lot to offer, and are not altogether scary places. Setting your proud collectible item down on an elegant cloth background -or nestling it into a nice fabric pocket- is an easy way to both protect the item from shock -think padding- and an even easier way to make the transition from an ordinary drawer or shelf, into a custom display. To paraphrase -fabric is good padding, and it turns out that it is as important to finishing fine woodwork as paint and varnish -and- -I’m beginning to learn- sometimes easier to use then the stuff that comes out of a cans and goes on with a brush.

So I’ve been buying the fabric I use on certain of my work at Wall-Mart but one day recently I wandered into a real fabric store. Met a very knowledgeable women there and got myself an education. Much of what follows came from this kind lady. (And I do hope that stores like Home Depot and Wall-Mart do not run all the little independent stores out of business. There is little enough wisdom in this world with out having to trying to find it from some overworked underpaid 19 year old trying to answer questions in the plumbing aisle.)

You will need a good sized fabric store to find these fabrics, but it will be worth the effort of finding such a place,-both in terms of selection and the expertise of the people who work there. Just a couple of suggestions–in any fabric that you’re going to get at any fabric store, 100% cotton is the way to go. You can get different colors, and wash them with a bio-degradable fabric soap, (most on the market will qualify) and NO fabric softener. The key is the highest % cotton and least amount other things.

HEADLINER FABRIC: The very stuff used to cover the “ceilings” of cars. It has various finished surfaces -some with a flock-like surface and some with a fuzzy weave. The back is sort of a thin foam rubber. Depending on the store, it comes in a number of subtle -unobtrusive- colors.

Good news:

The stuff is easy to use -the edges finish with nothing more then careful work with scissors. (This means there is no need to hem the edges -(“hem” means to fold the raggedy edges over, iron them, and sew it all together -a right pain in the butt.)

Bad news:

It isn’t cheap, but if a single layer does the same job as layers of foam, padding, and fabric, it might save you both bother and money in the long term. Be careful though with things prone to tarnish or discolor -the foam is synthetic and liable to out-gas all manner of nasty chemicals and gases.

UNBLEACHED MUSLIM: This is your safest choice and is what museum experts use as a default. It has no chemicals or bleach added.

Good news:

Cheap and safe. So cheap, in fact, that you could easily buy about a mile of the stuff and just drape the heck out’ta your collection.

Bad news:

Looks like what it is -not that it looks cheap, but it is anything but luxurious. For certain collections -say rustic or authentic historic items, it might be just the ticket.


I don’t pretend to understand why, but apparently the stuff is bleached and then dyed back to it’s original off-white color with tea. Tea has about a million ingredients, but one of the most common is tannin, and tannin is one of the things that tarnish silver.

CRUSHED PANNE VELVET (and how is this word pronounced???):

This is my favorite material for both lining drawers and French-lining specific collectible items. You can find it both as a weave and knit fabric. If you aren’t sure what I mean by this, ask someone to show you a bit of each. The knit stuff is easier to use -it seems to me to be more liquid or willing to drape- and is often cheaper then the woven fabric. If it strikes you as a bit garish, it is likely you are looking at too bright a color. Look again at the fabric that is a nice dark color. Maroon rather then purple, burgundy rather then red for example. Remember that your collection will be covering up some of the fabric, and buy more then you think you will need. Buy about twice as much as you think you need and you will not have to go back to the store to finish your project. This is because the draping, or going up and down into the various recesses and pockets uses a LOT of fabric.

Good news:

Beautiful -elegant -shimmering fabric.

Bad news:

Usually synthetic and therefore there is no assurance that it will not effect the surface of your collectibles. Let me quote directly from one of my technical consultants: “And velvet, well, my opinion is still bad, bad, bad. Velvet and silver is a 500% Don’t Do It.–you will have hundreds of etchings over the surface that look as if tiny worms had burrowed just beneath the surface–and they’re not fixable. Saw it firsthand once, and it was amazing.”

ULTRA SUEDE: Beautiful stuff -and EXPENSIVE. (If you want leather and $’s are a real problem, -buy a chamois cloth at the auto-parts store. It’ll be cheaper -but you get the color you get.) Ultra-suede tends to be a little stiff -like leather after all. An alternative is cheap suede which is more limp. It doesn’t feel quite as nice to the fingers as ultra suede, but it looks just about the same.

Good news:

These fabrics are so perfect as to be all but essential for certain collectibles. I built a case for a chap that wanted to display his great-great-great-etc-grandpa’s shooting-iron and I put it on some suede. Came out beautifully and perfectly appropriate. While on the subject of “appropriate,” certain old and rustic items might benefit from a fabric background as rustic as burlap, or even -grass cloth !

Bad news:

Once again, we have the problem of synthetic materials.


The last word for silver things. This is the way to go -unless you enjoy polishing silver. This soft elegant fabric actually has tiny bits of silver imbedded in the fabric. The idea being is that this will protect the silver -the little bits act as a sacrificial lamb. The fabric store I went to had this in stock, but if you can’t find it in your neighborhood, you can find it at Gaylord International (1800-448-6160). This is a good company with an excellent web site for advice and products for protecting books and papers, -an altogether worthy thing to do.

Good news:

Beautiful fabric and the only way to go for valuable silver.

Bad news:

EXPENSIVE -depending on how much you get -plan to spend as much as $20 / yard. But remember, it has actual silver in it. Additionally, it only works when it covers the object completely. If you use tarnish cloth to line a display of some sort, it will to a wonderful job of keeping the backside of your silver nice and shiny, but the part that actually shows will still tarnish.


You won’t find this stuff in a fabric store, but I need to talk about it anyway. Wood -and many other materials “out-gas.” This means they constantly emit small amounts of various gasses. Some of these gases are harmful to various materials. This turns out to be complicated issue as to what material out-gases what gas and what gas harms what fine collectibles. You put young wine in oak, for example, and good things happen. Put silver in on oak -without tarnish cloth- and bad things happen. Oak chips and pork in a smoker -good thing. Oak splinter in your finger -bad thing.

Know what a new plastic shower curtain smells like? What you are smelling is plasticizer. A liquid form of plastic that keeps other plastic -for want of any other word- plastic. It evaporates -which is not big deal, but then it condenses on other things. Leaves a gummy residue. It’s a complicated issue and I don’t have a lot of advice as to what collectable needs to be protected from what material. But what I can tell you is that if your collection is sufficiently valuable and you are not confident about your storage, you owe it to your self to look into installing a membrane seal. Marvelseal is a lamination of three different plastics and is absolutely gas-proof. You buy it in rolls and you can then either staple it down and seal the staples with special tape, or use a hot iron and stick it to whatever. It’s not an aggressive tack, you can simply peal it off later. University Products / Archival Suppliers sells it. If you have Mylar close at hand -or find it easy to get -it is about the same stuff, but not quite as good.


This is the stuff that is used in quilts. It is a big old sheet of something like a soft cotton ball. It is useful for a number of reasons. First, it adds a nice touch of luxury when it is under the fabric and pads / cushions the item(s) you mount. Second, and perhaps more important, it is very forgiving. If your measurements or the cuts you made in your backing are a little ragged, a layer of padding will nicely hide them. And here again, cotton is better then polyester. Turns out that they make it out of cotton or polyester but the cotton stuff lasts longer.


If you are not worried about the archival issues -and lets be honest here -just how valuable and delicate is your collectable- consider your item when selecting fabric and use a little imagination. Is it porcelain doll that Great-Gramma had as a girl? Calico or satin might be appropriate. But if it’s a set of old wood-working tools, canvas or burlap might be appropriate. Children’s stuffed animals -perhaps simple cotton printed in bright colors that kids would like. An authentic Chinese tea set? -raw silk, or something with the look of tapestry -I think it might be called “brocade.” Take a picture of your collection and ask the people at the fabric store. This brings us back to the ideal of a good fabric store with employees that know their stuff and enjoy helping customers.

TECHNIQUES: There are two basic and opposite directions to go with fabric. You can either sort of drape it all over and let it flow and such, or you can iron and smooth and cut and stitch and glue. Think of the former as a flowing Roman toga and the later as an impeccably tailored Seville Row suit. Both have their place, but I have to say that if you want advice on fussy cutting and stitching you have come to the wrong place. (Everything I do have to say about sewing can be said in two words -FUSE-TAPE -a great invention! -works with an iron! -no needles or thread!) I can, however, offer one technique that comes down on the carefully tailored side of things.This technique is to make….

Fabric covered cardboard panels / inserts -the neat tailored look This technique looks harder then it really is. Takes a little time and care though. You simply cut cardboard inserts, wrap fabric over them, and stick them in the drawer or display case. Here are some tips:

~~Corrugated cardboard is easy, but makes for bad edges and bent corners. Press-board (mat-board)is better.

~~If you have more money then skill, go to a framing store and have them cut mat-board for your needs. They will be able to cut it to close tolerances and precise 90 degree angles.

~~Use stretchy fabrics -knits for example- and polyester batting. The combination of stretch and padding allow you to hide a number of sins & mistakes and it still comes out beautifully.

~~Good-old masking tape does an admirable job of sticking the edges of the fabric to the back ot your cardboard or pressboard liners. White glue takes too long to dry but contact cement also works more or less instantly, as does spray adhesive.

~~Near as I can tell, much of sewing involves sewing things together and then turning them inside-out. This hides the hem. Try to think inside-out / backwards to hide the bits you want hid.

Loose flowing method -the Roman toga look:

This technique is also easier then it looks. You simply start with a lot of fabric and sort of drape/ swirl / flow it around your collectibles. Here are some guidelines:

~~The hardest part is attaching the fabric to the case. Get yourself some spray adhesive and Velcro dots / strips.

~~If you decide you need some actual shape and substance to support your items under the flowing swirling fabric, don’t get hung-up making little wooden blocks and shapes. Buy a small piece of builders foam at the home-improvement store -or have them give you a broken piece- and cut it with a bread knife. A little white glue and you are in b’ness.

© 2004 Bill Harvey