Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Caring For Vintage Laces

The response to the lace posts has been wonderful, with lots of lovely feedback and questions, mostly by email.

One of the questions I have been asked a lot over the years in my dealing with vintage and antique clothes, costuming, laces, etc., is: how do you wash them? And of course that question came up in response to these posts, which resulted in lots of back-and-forth comments, banter, and advice.
For those of you who have been following the CQI emails, much of this is going to simply be a rehash of those. But for those of you who missed it, or who read them and want the info for later (and like so many of us just know you won't be able to find it again in the mess of other posts), or aren't a member of the CQI group, here it is.

I'm really careful about the soap I use, and I recommend a pure soap. In NZ it goes under the brand name Sunlight, it is a bar soap that has been produced here, unchanged, since the mid 1880s, and used to be used for everything from laundry to dishes to bathing.
Use a fine grater to grate a few spoonfuls into a bowl, pour boiling water over it to dissolve it, then pour that into your sink full of lukewarm water. Soak the laces for a few hours, gently swishing around every so often. Using soap requires very thorough rinsing to get all the residue off, so this method is best for use with a spray head attachment. If you don't have one in your sink (I don't), but have one of those hand held spray heads in your shower, then do the laces in a big bucket in your bath tub (or shower stall - my shower happens to be above the bath tub), then when you are ready to rinse them, pour them out into the tub (or onto the shower floor) and use the spray head to rinse them, letting the water drain freely.
 If you don't have a spray head, or find this method too difficult, or can't get pure soap, or have water restrictions (an issue we often have with recurring droughts), then instead of soap, use around 1/4 cup of baking soda fully dissolved in a sink full of lukewarm water. Soak for anywhere from a few hours to overnight, gently swishing the laces around every so often. Drain the water (leaving the laces in the sink), put the plug back in, and fill the sink with cold water and gently rinse. Baking soda rinses out very easily, and even on the odd chance there is a tiny little residue left, once the lace is dry it will turn to powder and simply fall off as dust in the handling. Baking soda residue will do no damage.
 Where I usually use the pure soap method with vintage clothing, fabrics and ribbons, I mostly use the baking soda method with laces, as the baking soda also gets rid of the musty smell, it uses less water, is a lot less work, and some laces are just too delicate or fragile to handle the rinsing with the spray head

Some excellent information provided by Tahlia (one of the lovely CQI ladies), is:
"cellulosic fibers (e.g. cotton, linen) really enjoy a base environment and are harmed by acids, and baking soda is a base chemical (opposite of acidic), and so for all of the cotton and linen laces (which will probably be most of them!) any residual baking soda should not present a problem, especially if the laces are used in contact with cellulosic fibers later (e.g. cotton lace on cotton fabric).
Protein fibers (e.g. silk, wool), on the other hand, prefer a mildly acidic environment and can get damaged by residual base chemicals. So if I had a lace that I knew was silk, and I'd used your baking soda wash method to clean it, then I'd tuck it into a dilute vinegar rinse to neutralize any remaining baking soda residue and leave the silk with a slightly acidic environment from any remaining vinegar residue instead."

Thank you for that Tahlia. That also explains why a vinegar rinse after washing your hair makes it so shiny.

For particularly stubborn "natural" stains (like rust, wine, blood, and fruit stains - won't work on grease, pen, marker, etc.), try dabbing medical grade hydrogen peroxide on to the stain with a cotton bud, then lay the piece out in the sun on the grass. Yes, that does work, it is not an old wives tale. Make sure to rinse the piece thoroughly afterwards.

One of the things I get a lot of feedback on though is: "...but soap/baking soda doesn't get it really clean looking - this or that enzyme soaker/laundry detergent/bleaching product gets it so much cleaner looking".
Yes, they do. Enzyme soakers and laundry detergents do produce spectacular results.
As far as appearance goes, the results for those are generally much better than pure soap or baking soda. However, for me appearance isn't the primary issue. Most of those products contain optical whiteners (which bind with the fabric or stain to produce a "whitening" effect) and/or various bleaching agents, all of which (like old fashioned chlorine bleach) will damage the fibres at a microscopic level, weakening them and causing fabric rot to set in, or leave a residue that will slowly eat away at the fibres. Many of them recommend wearing gloves when using - so what is it doing to your lovely natural fibre fabric/lace? (Synthetic fibres are a lot more robust and can withstand a lot of chemical "abuse" without being affected).
The end result is a spectacularly clean-looking item with a substantially reduced lifespan. It is why modern natural fibre clothing doesn't last all that long, but stuff from 100 or even 200 years ago is still around - they just didn't have all the chemical products we use. Sadly (from my point of view), for most people these days, appearance is what matters and preservation is put on the back burner. Or worse, people aren't even aware of these things, and as a result, many well-meaning posts recommend the use of these. I have even seen a post specifically on caring for vintage lace recommend using chlorine beach! Yikes!
I would rather have a clean but somewhat age-stained piece of lace that is going to last another 100 years, than a spotless, white one that disintegrates in the next decade. And personally, I think it adds to the charm of the lace.

For those of us that use these beautiful vintage laces in our Crazy Quilts, in a hundred years time when someone sees your beautiful quilt, what are they going to say? "Beautiful quilt, gorgeous stitching, pity about the lace" or...  "this exquisite quilt is 100 years old, and the lace on it is 100 years older than that. A fantastic example of the re-using of old lace that was a prevalent practice, which has helped preserved the lace. It belongs in a museum/exhibition". OK, fanciful maybe, but you get the idea.

That being said, there are some specialty products designed specifically for using on vintage and antique linens. The one I seem to be hearing a lot about is one called "Restoration". From what I can see, it appears to be very good. However like so many of these types of things, it is either difficult or impossible to get outside of the U.S., so I can't vouch for it personally. But Liz (another CQI friend) swears by it, and I know she is pretty savvy when it come to this kind of thing, so I would be willing to trust her opinion.

Ultimately though, the method you choose to use will come down to your personal needs and priorities. Time, family demands, effort required, physical limitations, finances (specialty products are often expensive), what you have access to, appearance vs. preservation, and what you want to do with them or use them for.
Obviously my priorities lean toward preservation, and the methods offered here have that in mind. However your priorities may be different, but that doesn't make them any less valid. If uber-clean lace is more important to you than the lace outliving you, that's fine. Do what is best for you, and if that means laundry detergent and a lingerie bag in the washing machine - because your arm is in a cast, or you have 3 screaming kids you're dealing with, or you only get a couple of hours a week to devote to crafts and don't want to spend it all on washing lace - then so be it. Do it with no trepidation and no regrets. Above all, enjoy your laces. after all, that's why you got them.


  1. You have a very interesting blog with helpful info. I tried to follow but it kept saying to try later. Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. I'm going back to read some more on your blog. Happy New Year!

  2. Wow you sure have lots of beautiful lace.
    I found you from the CQJ2014 and noticed you only live a few miles away. I live at Taradale. You sure sound an interesting person with lots of great ideals. Happy New Year Joy.....

    1. Hi Joy. Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm glad you found the lace posts interesting and useful. Do you CQ at all yourself? If so, are you doing the CQJP2014 challenge? I don't know any other CQers in NZ, so finding one just down the road (a few miles) would be quite a laugh - it's a small world after all! Hope your New started off great :)

    2. Dana, thanks so much for answering my question and letting your related link, appreciated.