Oxidation and Textiles

Oxidation and Textiles

Most of us are familiar with the term “Oxidation”.

Generally, we equate oxidation with iron and the rust it develops when exposed to air and moisture. But why does this happen?

Furthermore, what other types of materials succumb to oxidation?

In this blog post, we’re going to take a closer look at the oxidation process  and it’s lesser known role in the decay of garments and textiles.


Plainly stated, oxidation is the loss of an atom or compound’s electrons.

…What the heck does that mean?

Well, an atom is composed of neutronsprotons and electrons:

  • Neutrons have no charge (+/-).
  • Protons have a positive charge (+).

NucleusTogether, neutrons and protons form a positively charged nucleus.

Removing any number of protons from a nucleus changes the element entirely, while removing or adding neutrons from a nucleus has no effect whatsoever.

On the outside of the nucleus are negatively charged electrons ().

  • Remove one of these guys from an atom and it will become positively charged.
  • Add one of these guys and it will become negatively charged.

Atom w/ Electrons

That’s a weird concept to grasp, but know that the addition of an electron results in a negative charge.

It sounds counterintuitive that adding results in a loss, but that’s the way it goes!

So getting back to where we started, the removal of an atom’s electrons results in oxidation.

Protons and electrons cancel each other out – when the same number of each is present than an atom is neutral. When one of these numbers change though, it has drastic effects.

Metals like Iron and Magnesium are more prone to giving away their electrons. Because of this, they’re more likely to succumb to oxidation! This is important because oxidation changes the structure of an element entirely.

Garment Degradation

We’ve already covered the effects of rust and iron here. The rest of this post is going to cover a less examined phenomenon of oxidation – the decay of garments and textiles.

When you think of clothing you don’t normally think of rust. Most of us realize that clothing will decay over time, but we usually attribute it to wear and tear, sunlight and mildew.

WWII Aviator CapThese elements certainly play a role in garment degradation. From an everyday point of view – and for more modern clothing – these are the chief concerns when it comes to retaining a garment’s integrity.

Another factor that comes into play with older textiles is oxidation. Tapestries, carpets, quilts, clothing, flags and more are often subject to this caustic process due to the metallic content of the dyes that were commonplace in textile production during the time period.


For antiques and heirlooms, this a major problem!

Oxidation of TextilesDamaged Linen Collar

Let’s take the chemistry we learned a few paragraphs ago and apply it to…say…a 19th century garment.

If a textile manufacturer in the 19th century wanted to apply a dye to a garment and do it accurately, they used what’s called a mordant. A mordant is a substance that’s added to a dye and chemically combined with it. It allows a dye to affix itself to a fabric.

Mordants are a vital part to the dying process and they’re still used today! Unfortunately though, many older mordants contained easily oxidized metals, such as iron. These substances oxidize over time and set into effect a process of breakdown in the textiles, reducing the durability of the cloth and changing its color and chemistry.

Old ClothesWhile the use of iron mordants in the 19th century seemed like a fine idea at the time, their latent effects are being seen today. The use of easily oxidized metals in mordants is a thing of the past, but that doesn’t help today’s individual collectors and museums retain the historical articles that still contain them!

If you own an old quilt, tapestry or garment that’s been passed down in your family, the use of iron mordants in the object’s dyes is something you’ll want to look into before it’s too late. Realistically, they’ve already begun to oxidize – and this is a difficult process to stop.

Suit of ArmorSolutions

The most surefire way to stop the process of oxidation is by placing something in a climate controlled room, box or wall fixture. This, of course, is much easier said than done!

“Climate controlled” is about as expensive as it sounds. With the exception of serious collectors and endowment-blessed museums, this isn’t a realistic option.

Intercept Technology – the propriety tech used in all of PreservAll’s storage bags – provides museums and collectors alike with an effective means of textile and antique protection at a significantly lower cost!


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