Early Modern Laundry & Stain Removal

A Verie Good Way to Take Out Spottes

Detail of a laundress on the Beach, The Decameron (BNF Arsenal 5070), 1432

Modern Experimentation with Sixteenth-Century Textile Stain Cleaning Recipes

Presented at the May 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies; Western Michigan University: Dress and Textiles III: Working with Textiles

Textile Care and Cleaning in the 16th Century

Textile cleaning in the 16th century was labor intensive and involved soaking, scrubbing, beating with sticks, paddles, bats or boards, and then hanging or laying out to dry.   Most of the textiles cleaned this way tended to be of linen or hemp, as silk and wool fabrics do not fare very well with such treatments.

Spot washing for stain removal was important either to remove the stains before washing or for keeping clothes tidy looking between washings.  There are also many fabrics or clothing that simply cannot withstand the rigors of a full washing as described above.

Garments and textiles were highly valued items and it was worth the time and effort to maintain your textiles by cleaning, airing out, and refreshing colors.  There are several dyers manuals that along with recipes for various fabric dyes, also gives instructions for stain removal techniques.  For more information about these manuals and recipes, there is an excellent article in Medieval Clothing & Textiles 2.

Detail from Splendor Solis (British Library Harley 3469, fol. 32v), 1582

Documents Reviewed and Used for these Experiments

The recipes I examined were from five 16th century sources.  Most appear to be English translations of Dutch and German documents.  Since many of these recipes bear very striking resemblance to each other, I believe most share the same source documents.

Materials & Methodology

In 2014, I tested a few of these 16th century recipes to see how they worked overall and to compare against modern detergents and stain removal products.  My experiments were done on a modern white linen fabric and I attempted to choose stains that I thought might plague the early modern laundress.

For this set of experiments, the same material was used for all samples and each square of fabric was labeled and stained with the same stains in the same amounts.Team Filth

  1. Olive Oil
  2. Red Wine
  3. Mustard Sauce (created from a early modern recipe)
  4. Green Sauce (created from a medieval recipe)
  5. Blood
  6. Mud
  7. Beeswax
  8. Iron Gall Ink (mixture of oak gall extract & copperas or ferrous sulfate)

The fabric treatments started with a pre-soak in water only (with one exception: the wax only sample was not soaked in water) and washing/rinsed in cold water.  No other soaps are used except for the treatment referenced.

The washing method I used on all samples is similar to the illustrations of washing in which the cloth is soaked and then beaten with a stick or washing bat and hung in the sun to dry.  The only difference with the samples was the treatments applied to the cloth.

All - Before
Samples before washing

The following are the samples tested (click the link for the details and before/after photos):

The Results

No technique I tested completely removed all of the 8 stains tested.  Some were better at removing specific stains.

I rated the results as follows:

  • Gone – no noticeable trace of stain remaining
  • Mostly gone – the stain has mostly been removed but there is a slight discoloration.
  • OK – the stain has been lightened somewhat but there is still a noticeable discoloration.
  • Not Good – no change or the stain is still very noticeable.

The rating was done simply by visually examining the cloth, no testing or microscopic analysis of the textiles was done to see how much of the stain had been removed.

Following the links above for the tests will give you more details on recipe/method tested, before/after photos, and my analysis of the results.

If an “overall” winner was given to this set of tests it would go to the lye solution.  However, the lye solution would probably be only best on white fabrics because it does have bleaching properties so it might not be a good solution on colored linens (and I would not use on wool or silk fabrics).  If using on other fabrics, definitely to a test on a sample of the cloth first.

For “most surprising results”, I would have to hand that to both the lemon juice and the wax removal recipe.  The lemon juice was the only method tested that almost completely removed the ink stain (including the modern treatments tested).  The wax removal experiment that surprised me was using tallow and iron to remove the wax – the addition of the tallow did seem to remove much more of the wax than just the iron alone.

Note: if you are planning try any of these methods yourself, I recommend doing a test in a non-noticeable area first to make sure that the treatment won’t bleach or damage the fabric.  Also, some of these ingredients are toxic and/or caustic.  Ingredients and cleaning solutions should be kept securely and away from children and pets.  Please use proper handling and protective gear with dangerous substances (like lye).

Link to Sources/Bibliography

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close