I recently acquired a big box of antique and vintage lace …. beautiful stuff, but in appalling condition:
It was a real mixed bag – broderie anglaise and lace trim from old clothes, some beautiful pieces of valenciennes lace, and some wonderful crochet and knotted pieces, and an awful lot of tape lace of varying vintage.
So I thought I’d take the opportunity to post a brief tutorial on how best to take care of old lace, and how to bring it back to useable condition.
The first thing, then, was to sort through it all. Some terrible crimes against old lace had been committed – it was in plastic bags, it had been folded and PINNED, it had been wrapped around strips of old cardboard and it smelled disgusting.
Why are these crimes?
Plastic bags stop the textile from breathing – it sweats into its bag, and there’s a danger of mould setting in which will destroy the fabric. When textiles are folded, the threads weaken along the fold lines, and you get fraying and wear in the threads. If they are pinned – well, you make a hole in the fabric, weakening it, and if the pin rusts it can damage the farbic. Old pieces of cardboard may not be acid free, and the acid will eat into the fabric and eventually destroy it.
These are all old pieces of lace – I’d estimate most of them to be Late Victorian and Edwardian in age, and a fair amount are more recent than that. If you have lace that is older than this, then consult an expert before doing *anything* at all to them – it’s not worth risking damaging it by attempting to clean it yourself.
The important thing to remember is that textile production techniques did not, until fairly recently, utilise the bleaches and dyes that gives us those sparkling, pristine whites we have come to expect. So you need to examine your smelly old lace carefully and decide if it really is dirty before you embark on a cleaning process. Washing, particularly, damages fabrics – every time a textile is subjected to water, it is weakened, and with old fabrics, that weakening can be fatal.
None of the lace in this pile, despite the varying colours, needs washing:
If the lace is a uniform colour – even if it is off-white – and has no obvious stains or marks, then it probably does not need washing.
Yep, even if it stinks.
The smell probably comes from being stuck in a box for so long, and a good airing will sort it out. This in itself presents a problem – sunlight is another big cause of damage to fabrics, so try to avoid airing it in direct sunlight. A quick airing outside on a dull day, or on a rack indoors in a well-ventilated room should do the trick – likewise, keep your old lace away from direct heat, as that too can damage the weave.
Do not use sprays or scented drawer liners to remove the smell – the oils and acids in these sprays can attack the textile and damage them.
If the lace is very dusty, then rather than washing, it can be vacuumed. Obviously, do not apply your vacuum cleaner directly to the lace – that would be silly ;). Instead, stretch a piece of muslin (can be recycled from baby muslins, or if you have some on hand in stash) over an old picture frame, lay the picture frame with the attached muslin over the lace, and vacuum through that. With the dust and dirt removed, the lace can be aired and stored without any further cleaning.
However, in some cases, washing is necessary as a last resort:
The piece on the right is badly discoloured and stained, and this will have to be washed.
Do not ever NEVER put old lace in the washing machine. Even if it’s inside an old pillowcase, all that beating action could destroy it.
Dissolve pure soap – no fragrance, no enzymes, no additives and definitely NO bleach (I use dri-pak soap flakes) – in boiling water, and then dilute to tepid with cold water, following manufacturer’s instructions for proportions. Wash each item separately, too – you may end up with several small containers of washing, but it’s better than risking getting them tangled and then tearing them when the fabric is wet and vulnerable. Do not add laundry bleach – this can weaken the fibres and cause the fabric to tear.
Immerse your piece of lace in the water, and leave to soak – do not agitate the water, stir, scrub or in any way molest the fabric – just leave it to soak for as long as it needs, but for no more than 24 hours.
When it comes out, rinse thoroughly (but gently) in cold water, gently strip away any excess water – do not wring – and allow to dry flat. On a towel in an airing cupboard is a good spot – it’s away from direct heat but will still promote a rapid dry.
This is the same piece as above, washed and dried – it’s not bright white, but the stains are gone.
Once all the lace is clean and dust-free, it’s ready to be stored.
Don’t iron it! Direct heat is bad for the fibres and can weaken the lace.
Instead, take some acid free paper – I use tissue paper – and use that to store the lace. If you have long pieces of lace trim, then make a fat sausage out of the acid-free tissue paper and roll the trim onto it. Avoid folding the lace – the fibres will weaken and potentially tear along the fold lines. Instead, lay the piece of lace onto a piece of acid-free tissue paper, and fold the paper around the lace, and then fold the lace gently in on itself, if necessary, to fit it into a drawer.
Where possible, store the lace flat, wrapped in its protective tissue paper, in a drawer away from direct light and heat – that’ll ensure it lives for as long as possible.
Of course, keeping a stack of old lace in a drawer isn’t the greatest solution …. surely it should be used?
I couldn’t agree more!
Just be selective in your projects, and remember that whatever you attach it to can then *never* go into the washing machine!