Wednesday, 15 March 2023

How was old handmade lace kept so clean?


I was asked recently how lace was kept so clean and pristine in the past, I didn’t have an answer but thought it was an interesting question so I’ve done a little bit of research. Until the early nineteenth century most lace was handmade using linen thread which comes from the long outside fibres of the flax plant. When separated from the plant, linen threads are smooth, but they can become damaged during spinning, lacemaking or storage, leading to breakage in these weak areas. Linen threads absorb water during washing, which can cause ruptures at the damaged areas so old lace would have had to be handled carefully. Soaking lace can release soluble dirt caught between lace fibres but often some type of soap is also required. The best type of soap is saponin which can be obtained from the soapwort plant (Saponaria) by steeping its roots in water to make a soapy liquid. Its advantages are that it only forms a slight lather (which has to be rinsed away after washing), it cleans well without having to agitate the lace, and it doesn’t form a scum with hard water. Once the lace had been washed and rinsed it would have been laid on a flat surface, without wringing it out or squeezing it, and gently teased back into shape before being left to dry. I must emphasise that this is how lace would have been washed in the past. If you are considering cleaning old lace today please bear in mind the wise words of lace expert, Pat Earnshaw, who notes that ‘cleaning old lace is likely to change it, probably in an irreversible way’ – you have been warned!

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