I'm going to tell you how I pack & ship quilts and/or textile work to far-away places, but first I have to tell you a story:
In the 1970's it must have been a lot cheaper to ship overseas, because huge Swedish boxes used to arrive at our home in California loaded with embroidered textiles, dishes (!), lead crystal (!!), children's books, nyponsoppa, trolls made from river rocks, wooden-soled clogs, Dala horses and any other impossibly heavy object that you wouldn't dream of shipping to a family member now, 40 years later. Okay, maybe if you have a magic checkbook you would do this.
The boxes of my childhood weren't designed in Silicon Valley, they weren't filled with styrofoam peanuts or air bags, they weren't barcoded, they weren't shipped Prime. They were wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string (seriously). Indestructible and filled with mystery, they held the key to my mother and her past and to a family that loved and remembered us, despite living so far away. But the most sensual part? The part I still remember? These things smelled like Sweden -- all paper pulp, wind-whipped laundry and oiled wood. Heaven. Even still.
These Swedes were expert packers and in all the years of sending and receiving boxes, only one coffee cup ever arrived broken (and we happily glued the handle back on). Opening a box from Sweden was steeped in the ritual of tangible and magical. When I hear about the strange phenomenon of contemporary self-videoed "unboxing," the epitome of consumption, it makes me sad. Our unboxing wasn't consumption, it was absolute nourishment.
In my 20's, I traveled to Sweden alone and brought small handmade coin purses for my cousins -- two young women I didn't grow up with and barely knew. The sisters both unwrapped and immediately held the packaging to their noses, closing their eyes, like they'd done this a hundred times before. They looked at each other and whispered, "Smells like America."
So here's how to pack your quilt (maybe like a Swede):
I recently spent several hours preparing five textile pieces for travel. Two were delivered to the Anchorage Museum for the final round of jurying for their biennial show, All Alaska Juried XXXV (a 9 minute drive for me), two were dropped off for a local show at the blue.hollomon gallery (also a short drive) and the fifth was shipped to the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, New York for the show "Quilts=Art=Quilts, 2014," and this place is just really far from where I am in Alaska.
I'm not an art shipping expert, but I love art. I've had work shipped to my home and been thrilled with the care involved; alternatively, I've been dismayed by terrible packaging, and left wondering how the work arrived intact at all. One thing I am an expert on is packing wedding gowns (but, do NOT ask me to make you a wedding gown, do not do this), so I came to this latest task with this history in mind. And the key is a safe cushion of air. And time. And a beautiful presentation.
Save packaging materials despite your husband's complaints ("Why, yes, we do need an exploding closet full of bubble wrap and polyethylene foam"), allow more time than you think you'll require to do the job and gather all supplies in advance -- shipping tape, tape dispenser, blade, scissors, measuring tape, tissue paper, bubble wrap, lint roller, plastic, etc. Put good music on. Go pee. Wash your hands.
These are wall hangings we're talking about here, so plan on rolling them (do not roll a wedding gown ... did I mention I'm not making one for you?). I sourced 8" x 8" x 36" boxes that open on the long side. One piece measures 72" wide so I telescoped two 40-inch boxes together. (I'm hand delivering this big one, luckily because I would have had to use a magic checkbook to ship it, and if I create something this large again, I'd consider folding and rolling it, then making arrangements with the gallery/museum for an appropriate hanging apparatus. Well, I'd consider it, but in the end probably pay the shipping bill and no-way fold a textile piece or trust someone else's hangar. And then I'd make smaller work in the future. And this would make me feel disappointed. So then I'd manifest a magic checkbook).
I read a post a while back from artist Kathleen Loomis, in which she described collecting foam pool noodles to roll her textile work onto for shipping and I thought this was awesome advice. But here's the not-awesome part: try finding a pool noodle in Alaska in September. So I built custom-sized "noodles" from sheets of polyethylene foam, covered them with felt sleeves and this worked perfectly. Begin by spreading a single layer of acid free tissue and bubblewrap on the surface of the work, then loosely roll the textile onto the noodle from the top edge, wrong side out.* Wrap in another layer of bubble wrap, but don't use tape...someone will have to rip it off and may be tempted to use scissors. Keep it loose, keep it tidy, keep the cats out of the studio because you have already cleaned all that hair off with the lint roller in advance. If you failed to do this, go back and do it now.
Next use a plastic bag to cover the roll and secure loosely at both ends. I've pieced white kitchen garbage bags together, but it's better to use clear.* The plastic creates more air around the work and also saves it when it slips off the conveyor belt and onto the tarmac in an Alaskan snow storm. Note here that this is for shipping and/or short term storage only. Do not store textiles in plastic. Do not store a wedding gown in plastic. Do not store your cheese in plastic. Plastic is bad, very bad for things that need to breathe, plus it will off-gas or trap moisture and facilitate mold. Quick, go run into the kitchen and put that cheese in some cheese paper while you're thinking about it. Wash your hands.
Do not roll the artwork with the mounting mechanism or bars in the sleeve(s). Keep them separate in the box, but labeled. If you are shipping to an exhibit, along with many other artists, the gallery will be handling as many slats and bars as there are wall quilts, if not more. Label these with your name and the name of the piece, indicating if it is a top slat or bottom. Your artwork's label should have the same information. If you have a piece that could potentially be hung upside down by accident, indicate which way is up. It happens.
This should include addresses and contact information to and from, pre-printed return labels (see next section), an inventory of everything in the box that you wish returned (including the packaging), plus hanging instructions. I inserted these in plastic sleeves and lay them on top, just below the cardboard insert.
Last step (or in my case, it was the first step to this whole process) -- obtain a UPS account (or FedEx, or whatever). Learn how the website works, and when you run into problems help-chat with Peggy O. and when Peggy O. doesn't understand your question about generating a pre-paid label with bar code to send to the gallery in advance, spend an hour on the phone with customer service while your children feed themselves dinner and periodically come show how they've grated 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese on their pasta all by themselves, luckily your 5-year-old daughter will give you many hugs because you are nearly in tears with frustration; you will attempt to print a pre-paid label with the advice you've received but soon realize the system won't let you insure the art for more than $1000, so connect to tech support, who will finally explain that you can't do it this way (despite customer service's assurance that you can), but they will tell you what to do and how to fix this issue (sort of) and then you will phone the gallery, explain, and those good folks will be happy to use your UPS account to insure and ship back to you after the show. With all of your original packaging material. Because you've labeled it.*
And luckily, you've followed my best advice and allowed A LOT OF TIME for this whole process, especially if it's the first time. But it will get better, you will become faster and more efficient, your closets will bulge with pool noodles in anticipation. You'll know which work fits best in which box.
And for any of you seasoned quilt/art shippers out there, if you see something I'm missing or doing wrong -- let me know and I'll make note of your advice right here by adding to the links at the end of this post. I would also, at this time, like to request a lead on a magic checkbook.
Further resources for shipping and storing quilts:
Kathleen Loomis: quilt storage, more quilt storage, preparing for shipping
Quilter's Home Magazine: a seemingly definitive list of do's and don'ts
Machine Quilting Unlimited: an even MORE definitive list
*Amendments & Further Advice from others:
1.) Kathleen Loomis pointed out in a comment that rolling your artwork with the right side in will likely create a marred surface that is "all wrinkled and nasty." (Eew). So, with this advice in mind, roll your quilt with the right side out. But do consider surface treatment, materials, construction, and duration the piece will be stored -- then make a judgement call. The first piece I packed last week featured fragile elements on the surface like bone that I didn't want bashed around, especially when the piece is lifted out of the box and handled, so I know why I chose to roll it loosely inward with lots of cushion everywhere. It also wasn't going to sit in that state for very long.
2.) Joyce Potter (Swede) has these three things to add: 1.) A horror story about plastic wrap somehow melting onto a quilt during transit (Whoa ... just, whoa), so wrap in muslin before putting the plastic over top. Sheesh. 2.) NEVER wrap in opaque trash bags lest some well-meaning soul think s/he's being helpful by "taking out the trash" at the gallery or final destination, and 3.) a good point about shipping labels and sticky fingers ... a box labeled "textiles" or "second-hand fabric" is far less interesting than "quilt" or "artwork."
Do you have further advice based on your own trial, error and experience? I'm happy to continue adding amendments for everyone's benefit.
For more posts on how I do some things in my studio and art practice, check out the How To Category on the side bar of this blog.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.