How Light Destroys Textiles

Textiles, like everything else on this planet, are in a state of decay.  We can do things to slow down the process, and damage can sometimes be repaired.  Many things besides light exposure cause textiles to deteriorate: acids, dirt, bacteria, insects, fabric dyes and mordents are some of the usual suspects.  Light damage is often the easiest type to control.

Most people have observed color fading caused by light exposure (although dyes themselves can be unstable).  By a similar process, light damages fabric.  Since we can’t see the sub-atomic-sized light particles (photons), it’s easy to forget that light is a composed of physical objects.  These waves of photons move at nearly 700 million miles per hour.  To say that light “hits” or “strikes” an object seems a comical understatement.  Light exposure can tear fabric apart at the molecular level.

This is the way the way light damage works:

The cotton fabrics used to make (for instance) a quilt, are woven from thread.  Thread is spun from fine individual plant fibers.  (You probably know what a cotton boll looks like.  If not, pull apart a cotton ball to see the tiny fibers.)  Each fiber is a complex strand of molecules, like an elaborate string of beads.  And the molecules are made of atoms.  Photons are smaller than atoms; roughly the size of an atom’s electron.

When light particles (photons) bombard a textile, they crash into the molecule chains and start to rearrange things.  With enough exposure, photons can cause the whole house of cards to collapse: molecular links are broken and the chain of fiber – thread – fabric starts to disintegrate.  The fabric weakens, splits and generally falls apart.

If you’ve ever been to a quilt or textile exhibit at a major institution, you were probably aware of the dark rooms and the low wattage spot lighting. This is because photons are produced not only by the sun, but by all of our conventional light sources.  You can help to protect all your valuable textiles by keeping them away from as much light as possible.


Contact Sarah   by phone: 415-221-6126   by email: sarah415info(at)






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