No More Wire Hangers!

April 28, 2020

By Kathleen Daly

A cutting mat, shears, and a roll of stockinette are some of the tools OHS Museum Cataloger Kathleen Daly is using to battle the COVID-19 stay-at-home order. With a recent supply shipment, she’s catching up on some much-needed padded hanger making to hold some of the items in OHS’s costume collection — over 2,500 of which are hanging!

If you are like me, a collections professional without access to collections or the collections database, trying to complete many work-related tasks from home is a little difficult. For many of us, however, a stay-at-home order is the perfect opportunity to catch up on some much-neglected tasks. You know, those low priority projects that although important, always seem to get pushed to the bottom of our list. So, don’t despair. There’s a silver lining to avoiding COVID-19 while at home. Yes, that would be catching up on some much-needed padded hanger making!

The Oregon Historical Society (OHS) houses a large costume collection, over 2,500 pieces of which are hanging. The majority of the hangers used are unpadded and composed of unfinished wood, yellow and degrading plastic, or even worse, wire. (Insert terrifying Mommy Dearest meme here.) Unfortunately, purchasing archival hangers from trusted suppliers is not very cost effective, not to mention there is no control over the materials used to manufacture them. A recent search found premade padded hangers ranging in price from $15 to $100 for one hanger. Yes, I said ONE! Experience has proven that many of those “conservation hangers” are under-padded and ill-shaped for garments. Our recent supply shipment — including a new glue gun and glue sticks — will yield hangers for less than $2 a piece, and they’re better suited for protecting our collections.

Two sizes of padded hangers used for storing hanging costumes in the OHS Museum collections.
Two sizes of padded hangers used for storing hanging costumes in the OHS Museum collections are shown here. The top hanger is complete with stockinette cover, and the bottom hanger shows batting wrapped in opposite directions to prevent slipping or twisting.
A partially wrapped hanger used for storing historic costumes.
According to the Oregon Heritage Commission’s Heritage Bulletin #20, 100% cotton or polyester batting should be used to wrap plastic or wood hangers. Each side of the hanger is wrapped in a different direction to protect the garment from twisting or shifting.

If you haven’t visited the Oregon Heritage Commission’s website, I strongly suggest you check out their Technical Resources page. There you’ll find a number of leaflets published with the heritage community in mind. (Maybe you’ll find other projects to tackle while away from the museum.) Heritage Bulletin #20 is OHS’s official guide to hanger making (full disclosure, I may have written it). You might find other techniques online, but there is a methodology to the processes outlined in the bulletin. Simply using pipe insulators or a single, long piece of batting, examples I often see, are not going to cut it. Page three of the bulletin explains that the batting must be wrapped around the hanger in opposite directions. This oppositional force keeps the garment from slipping or twisting, something these other methods do not account for.

When choosing where to buy supplies, I encourage you to do some legwork for local suppliers, and while I don’t like to promote one business over any other, I will share our experiences with various retailers. Whichever supplier you decide to use, make sure you can confirm material composition and its quality — especially when using online retailers.

Supplies used to make padded hangers.
A box of cotton stockinette, a roll of batting, and two sizes of hangers are the main supplies used to make affordable, inert padded hangers that are better suited for protecting collections

Hangers

Normally, we purchase ours from IKEA. Their child’s sized, Hänga and adult sized, Bumerang are the perfect sizes, shape, and strength needed for historic garments. (Note that the Bumerang has a crossbar that is easily removed prior to assembling a padded hanger.) You are probably thinking, “Woah, Kathleen. Those are made out of wood!” Luckily, IKEA uses beech, a wood with very low acidity, and the hangers are lacquered. These two features, the aforementioned benefits of strength and size, and their budget friendly price have made these our product of choice.

Recently, we had some shipping issues with IKEA, so I turned to a local retail supply store, Grand + Benedicts (G+B). Due to cost, we went with their plastic hangers made of polystyrene, an inert material. They only offered one style of children’s hanger, which turned out to be 2.5” shorter than what we normally use, but we decided to move forward (IKEA’s child size hangers are 12.5” long, while G+B’s are 10”). Although the larger size (12.5”) has been ideal for nineteenth century garments, this shorter version will definitely not go to waste!

When determining the appropriate size for a hanger, consider its position in the garment. A hanger should not be wider than the shoulders of the garment. For this reason, the child size hangers are much more appropriate for nineteenth century garments than the size that most of us have hanging in our closets. The same can be said for many of the early twentieth century pieces, including uniforms from World War II (male and female!). People were just smaller, let’s face it.

Needle Punched Batting

Needle punched batting is available at most local fabric stores. There are three criteria of great importance when sourcing batting. First, that the batting be made of 100% cotton or polyester, or a blend of the two. Second, that the product is needle punched. This is the most important characteristic and can be the most difficult to confirm. Needle punched indicates that no chemicals, adhesives, or resins were used when manufacturing the material. This ensures that the product is 100% cotton or polyester, meaning there will be no off-gassing. So, if you see the words “thermal bonded,” turn and run. Another red flag is if the batting isn’t scrim free. Scrim is usually composed of a thermal bonded polyester.

Needle punched batting used for padding hangers.
Needle punched batting is available from most fabric stores and is used to wrap hangers for padding. It’s important to adequately pad hangers for storing historic garments — but be sure not to over-pad them!

Do keep in mind that loft, the thickness of the material, can differ greatly. We have purchased batting that’s allowed us to follow the instructions without deviation. Other times, we have nearly doubled the length of the cut pieces to achieve the necessary thickness. Use your judgement, and remember it can be just as destructive to overstuff as to under stuff.

Stockinette used for covering padded hangers.
Cotton or polyester stockinette is used to cover padding on hangers. Its texture helps provide a surface that will keep historic garments in place when stored.

Stockinette

There are other versions of padded hangers that use cotton muslin for the outer covering, but, as previously mentioned, there is a reason for using stockinette. The knit structure provides the right amount of tooth, or texture, to help keep a garment in place. Going back to the direction the batting is wrapped, the tooth further assists in mitigating slippage and twisting. Stockinette tubing is a medical product, so get creative. We’ve had pretty good luck purchasing this material from Amazon. Again, just be sure to do your due diligence. Like the batting, there are two questions to ask: is the stockinette 100% cotton or polyester? The answer should be yes. And, does it contain elastin or any other elastic material? The answer should be no.

Thread

We use only white or natural-tone 100% cotton or polyester thread. I prefer white cotton thread, as it is the most versatile for use in textile and costume collections. Gutermann brand is an excellent choice.   

As of our most recent shipment, most suppliers are still sending out orders. A few concessions were made, but I am definitely looking forward to hunkering down on a project that is normally given a lesser priority. So, if you can, order some supplies, have them delivered to your home, put them in isolation for a few days for decontamination, then get cracking!

Finishing stockinette seams on a padded hanger with 100% white cotton thread.
OHS uses white or unbleached cotton thread to whip stitch stockinette seams on our padded hangers. We like to fold under an edge of the stockinette to create a cleaner seam.

Kathleen Daly’s Other Posts

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