Old shoes. A yellowed dress. Black-and-white photographs in gilt frames. Maybe even your own wedding dress or your child’s christening gown. Heirlooms take many shapes, but they all carry priceless sentimental value. Often, our first instinct is to store these items away so they won’t be damaged or lost, but when this happens, the memories associated with these items can become lost instead. Therefore, there are several ways you can bring your heirlooms out of their boxes and make yesterday’s history part of today’s memories.
1. Photograph it: Perhaps you don’t want to display your great-grandmother’s wedding dress out where it can get damaged, but you can take pictures of it to share with your relatives at the next family reunion. You can use your own point-and-shoot camera, or you can consult a professional photographer to see how to best capture your heirlooms on film. If you decide to do it yourself, it’s worth looking at pictures of clothing online and reading up on how to get the best-looking results. Whatever you decide to do, make sure your photos are sharp and clear with any special detailing on the fabric clearly visible. You can frame these pictures, put them in albums, post them on a blog… whatever you choose to do to make these memories more accessible to the people you love.
2. Scan it: Scanning old documents and photographs is often one of the best ways to preserve these types of heirlooms. If you make high-quality copies of things like marriage certificates, diplomas, etc. you can display the copies and distribute them to other family members. This helps preserve the original and decreases the chance that the information it contains will be lost if the original is lost, damaged, or destroyed.
3. Display it: Displaying documents and photos is fairly simple; make sure they are mounted on archival materials (such as acid-free paper) and don’t let them touch the glass of the picture frame; they may stick and become damaged. You can decoupage copies of your documents onto wood, put them in scrapbooks, or do any number of creative things to showcase these pieces of your family history. Displaying textiles and other non-flat items can be a little trickier, however. Clothing items such as your child’s christening gown and other baby things are a little easier because of their size; they can be tacked in frames, arranged in shadowboxes, or hung in nurseries on cotton-padded hangers. Hanging antique clothing is not recommended, since it can put a great deal of stress on the shoulders and bodice, causing irreparable damage. Another (safer) option for displaying heirloom clothing is to put it on a dress form; accurately sized, 100% soft cotton forms are best. Always display textiles in low light in a stable environment (not a hot attic or damp basement) for best garment preservation.
4. Transform it: Now, this sounds harsh and/or sacrilegious somehow, but transforming your family heirlooms in some way can actually be a lasting way of sharing and preserving them. Options here include refinishing and repainting an old cedar chest, turning wedding dresses into pillows and christening dresses, electroplating shoes and sports memorabilia, and cutting swatches of heirloom clothing to place in shadow boxes with other mementos. Presenting your daughter with part of your wedding dress on her wedding day would be a special gift indeed.
5. Talk about it: Knowing the stories behind your heirlooms can be just as important as having the heirloom itself. Ask relatives about the heirloom’s significance; even if you know the story behind it, a relative might be able to provide additional stories and insight. Write down the significance of the items you treasure and store the writings with the objects they describe. An heirloom without a story is valuable, but an heirloom with a story is truly priceless.
Unfortunately, “out of sight” means “out of mind” too often for many family heirlooms. Bringing your heirlooms out of dusty boxes and sharing them and their stories can ensure that they will remain a part of your family history for years to come.
Rebecca Jensen is a blogger and freelance writer who loves writing about sewing, baby fashion, faith, and preserving memories. She currently writes for the handmade christening gown supplier christeninggowns.com.