Historical Cleaning Practices Workshop

March 22, 2017

For the past week, Gennifer and I have been involved with students in the Art Conservation lab, learning about textile conservation cleaning techniques. We ended the week by investigating the ways in which 19th and early 20th-century textiles would have been cleaned and cared for during their lifetime of use. We hosted a hands-on workshop for the students and three visiting conservators (Caterina Florio, Sonia Kata, and Krysia Spirydowicz) to try out different methods of cleaning and finishing, such as washing with historical lye soap, bluing, starching and finishing, and various stain removal methods.

The workshop focused on some of the challenges that housekeepers would have faced given the volume of linens and clothing to be washed in a household, often with limited access to water, and limited space in which to work. When using the lye soap, we compared the difference in its performance when it was used in distilled water and when it was used in hard water. We could definitely see the challenges of using hard water, as it was difficult to produce bubbles and a soap scum quickly formed on the surface, reducing its cleaning power.

We had fun experimenting with Prussian blue dye as a bluing agent, and marveled at how well a rinse in a dilute solution of the dye helped to brighten the white shirts we washed. We experimented with a few different stiffening agents on cotton and silk lace, including dilute gum Arabic solution and starch-filled water left over from boiling rice and potatoes. The biggest challenge we faced was starching the cuffs and collar of a cotton shirt. We made up a starch mixture adapted from a 19th-century recipe, which contained wheat starch, blue (a little bit of Prussian blue dye), as well as wax and gum Arabic for added gloss. We rubbed the mixture into the collar and cuffs, rolled it up in a towel to partially dry, and then attempted to press them with heated cast iron irons. It was very difficult to get the irons hot enough to press and dry the starch, while avoiding leaving marks on the fabric (we did not want to have to consult the receipt on how “To Restore Scorched Linen” from Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes of 1872, particularly since it involves the use of “hen’s dung”!). It became clear to us that even the most detailed instructions in the 19th-century manuals could not bridge the historical gap of knowledge and skills involved in these tasks, which until relatively recently had been passed down for generations. 

Finally, we tried some age-old stain removal tactics, using lemon juice and salt to try to get out fruit stains and oxalic acid and rhubarb to remove iron stains. We put our conservation chemistry knowledge to use in order to deduce why some of these methods would or would not have worked, and why they may be damaging to fabrics in the long-term, making them inappropriate as textile conservation stain removal techniques. Overall, the afternoon left us with a great appreciation for the work and skills that were involved in caring for clothes, and a better understanding of the materiality of the historical textiles we treat as conservators.

Image Credits

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