Conservation DistList Archives [Date] [Subject] [Author] [SEARCH]

Subject: Cotton gloves

Cotton gloves

From: Richard Fuller <frichard>
Date: Thursday, August 1, 2002
Regarding recent comments on cotton gloves; I'm somewhat surprised
to see a familiar symbol of preventive conservation, the cotton
glove, being associated with potential harm to artifacts. Beyond the
issue of 'modified' gloves with some type of  rubber-like 'gripping
agents' that should, naturally, be looked at with some degree of
caution, as Scott Williams has confirmed in a recent message, I'm a
little puzzled to hear about cotton gloves wicking moisture and
salts from skin to artifact surfaces.

Cotton is known for its absorbency rather than 'wicking' abilities.
They are not the same thing, as I understand it. I've heard this
capillary movement of moisture attributed to some synthetic fabrics
that 'wick' moisture away from the body rather than absorb it. The
structure of the fiber seems to determine its capillary properties.
After decades of use in conservation do cotton gloves all of a
sudden start to 'wick' rather than absorb? Do both occur at the same
time? Were we not paying attention or has the material changed?

I'm certainly not an expert on textile fiber behaviour but a number
of possible explanations come to mind: One, cotton fabric used in
gloves is different--perhaps a new standard surface treatment during
processing or manufacture that limits absorbency but promotes
'wicking' (maybe an initial washing solves the problem). Two, the
gloves are not made from pure cotton but a synthetic fabric or
cotton /synthetic blend that has different properties.Three, at a
certain rate of perspiration the cotton becomes saturated
(evaporation can't keep up) and begins to deposit moisture and skin
oils rather than absorb them (presumably gloves would be changed
before reaching this point). Four, over time even regularly washed
gloves start to lose absorbency (normally, I would expect the
reverse to be true but perhaps skin oils are retained in the fibers
to a point where they interfere with absorbency). Five, there may be
numerous variables associated with washing cotton gloves, such as
wash temperature, detergents, fabric softeners or bleaches used,
that could leave reactive residues, in addition to affecting overall

Finally, not all cotton gloves are the same. I've used many
varieties over the years and there can be huge differences in
quality. The dreadful, cheapo single-ply fabric type that shrink to
comic proportions after the first wash would certainly present a
very poor barrier to perspiration, its absorbent abilities being
very limited. The heavier or thicker the fabric, the greater the
potential for absorbency and, in my experience, the longer they
last. Even something as simple as proper fit may be a contributing
factor (who hasn't  pulled on a shrunken glove as if in defiance of
the laws of physics). I don't think we should jettison cotton gloves
in favour of non-porous types until we clearly understand what is
occurring. After all, conservators have been telling people to use
cotton gloves for many years and if there is a problem with using
them we should simply find out what it is and how to solve it. As
David Harvey pointed out, research into the matter of glove use in
conservation would be very useful.

Richard Fuller,
Doon Heritage Crossroads

                  Conservation DistList Instance 16:11
                  Distributed: Friday, August 2, 2002
                       Message Id: cdl-16-11-007
Received on Thursday, 1 August, 2002

[Search all CoOL documents]