The Honiton Lace Shop

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Cleaning & Restoration



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Doing it yourself ! BEWARE

Below is a brief section about caring for valued lace, with specific indicators of a troubled condition, and how to wet clean. This is offered as guidance only should you wish to try cleaning your own lace. Beware, not all lace is the same or reacts in the same way to cleaning. This really is a subject for expert treatment and we will hold no responsibility should you damage your lace following these guidelines.

Many thanks to Jeri Ames for the basis of the following cleaning advice

Wet Cleaning Old Lace - Practical advice from Jeri Ames, USA


Warning:  If your lace is antique and of considerable sentimental or monetary value, please take it to a professional lace conservator for cleaning.

It is always advisable to practice-wash a similar lace, before you wash the lace you are particularly eager to clean.  In this way, you will perfect your technique and have a better idea of what to expect.


All advice below should be read in advance of washing lace, so you will be prepared with appropriate equipment, supplies -- and time.


Rings, bracelets, watch, pendant:  Remove, so that nothing will tear the lace when you are working on it.  Wear a non-fuzzy garment with simple sleeves, preferably no buttons at the wrist.

Hand lotion:  Wash it off.

Bleach:  Never use!   There are several bleach formulations that have been used through the centuries.  The chemicals still in old bleached threads can react to a new formulation with disastrous results.  One is, lace can turn an ugly yellow that is permanent.  Another, the lace can disintegrate, into a handful of almost nothing.

Soap:  We warn **against** commonly-available soaps containing lanolin, perfumes, phosphates, colorants, brighteners.  Orvus in the USA, from Procter & Gamble, is the soap used by museum conservators for handwashing textiles.  It is a near neutral synthetic detergent that contains water, sodium lauryl sulfate, lauryl alcohol, and sodium sulfate.  It is not sold in supermarkets.  It is sold in some quilt shops, some museum shops, and in animal tack shops -- where you buy medicines and grains for farm animals.  It is used to handwash fine fabrics, clean rugs and upholstery, and wash animals (like those very clean white sheep you see at fairs).  It works to your advantage, because it neutralizes any acids embedded in threads.  It is acids that turn threads brown.  Not a good thing.  In simple terms, the process of transferring acid from wood products to cotton and linen is called "off-gasing" and the result is "acid-burn".  It comes from storage in a wooden piece of storage furniture or a wood-pulp environment (cardboard box, or wrapped in paper made from wood pulp - many white tissue papers are made from wood pulp), or a smoky/polluted environment.  A textile suffering from acid-burn can have absorbed so much acid that it will fall apart - to dust.  If you have white linen/lace put away, and it is brown around the edges, that is from acid-burn.

Water:  Rain water is no longer pure.  Nor is any ground water.  All water has minerals or chemicals in it.  So, if you use tap water, it is a very good thing to use distilled water for at least the last two rinses.  Mineral or chemical damage from what is left behind in threads when they dry, can be minimized by using distilled water.

Using a Needle:  If you need to use a needle to baste or mend lace before washing, never pierce old threads with the needle.  It will weaken the lace thread to the point of breaking, or actually break it.  Stitch only in spaces between threads.  Very carefully.


For very large lace items that are strong and in good condition, that have been washed before, and are not likely to shrink:  Place lace cloth on top of non-synthetic clean summer-weight bed sheet, and baste galloping large stitches down the middle, and spaced at 20" intervals, never piercing lace threads with your needle.  Baste around the edge of the lace, in safe spaces. Leave a border of sheet material beyond the lace.   Use a very strong pastel thread (never a dark thread that might run), that you can see later to cut away from the under side of the sheet.  You can wash large items in a bath tub.  Put a twin bed sheet in the bottom of the tub as a liner.  Fold your large item into the tub this way:  \/\/\ .  This allows you to reach between the layers and make sure soap/water gets in there.  Don't fold down the middle, and then into quarters.  You can't "manage" layers that way.  A large natural sponge can be used to press soapy water into the lace.  The twin sheet can be gripped and moved up and down without putting any pull or pressure on the lace that is basted to the other sheet.  **Use enough water to cover, not a full tub.**   

Drying:  This should be done on a calm, windless day.  Having a second set of hands available is advised.  If you are securing a tablecloth that has been basted to a sheet to a drying line, you need someone to hold the heavy bundle draping down below your two hands until the weight is equally distributed.  Of course, as much water as possible should have been patted out of the large item - into clean absorbent towels.  Pin the sheet, not the lace, to the line.  **It is important to use logic.**  Some items are just too heavy or fragile to line dry.  They need to dry flat, and that requires a clean area lined with plastic, with no animals or birds around.  If outdoors, weight the sheet edges with clean bricks, so the item will not be picked up by a breeze.  Bring inside as soon as the item is dry.  Ultraviolet light is not good for textiles.  It has the same effect as sun has on your skin.  The damage is not seen immediately, but it occurs each time lace is exposed to it.  Your Grandmother may have dried lace outside to sun bleach it.  She did not have the benefit of scientific knowledge we have today.  She knew to wear a sunbonnet or carry a parasol to protect her complexion!!  She did not know that sun would damage her laces.


Below are washing tips for delicate lace items, which require cautious care. When lace conservators wash very delicate old laces, most especially small ones that could escape down the drain, they baste them between two pieces of non-abrasive sheer material - like pre-washed (to shrink and remove sizing/starch) net that has soft edges when cut.  Nothing stiff or scratchy that could catch on lace details.  Net is a good choice, because you can see through it to what is happening and react quickly if something is going wrong. 

Prepare Lace for Washing: 

1) Trace the shape on a piece of tissue paper, so you will have something to refer back to at the drying stage.  Or - cut out a shaped template from acetate or semi-clear waxed paper, if you think it will help in guiding lace back to normal shape.  Damp-proof material for this template will vary from country-to-country.  Test to make sure it will stand up to water.  You can tape template to the drying surface and finger press damp lace into position with finger tips.  See Re-shape and Dry, below.

2) Remove any snaps, hooks and eyes, other metals, ribbons, etc. from the item.  Mark where they were with *pastel* threads.  In experienced hands, something like a lace blouse would be taken apart, the pieces washed flat, then reassembled.  If you do this (not recommended for the inexperienced) make very good drawings, and a set of patterns to reference.  Do not slice through old threads with a needle; sew between the threads. 

3) A stong lace does not need a support fabric for washing.  Let's consider the fragile pieces, though.  Make a sandwich of net/lace filling/net.  For large pieces, use *pastel* thread to baste long stitches, north to south and east to west thru the center of the lace sandwich -- *never piercing any of the lace threads*.  Any more stitching may create a problem if the old lace shrinks, so just those two lines of basting, if needed, please.  Small pieces do not need the extra basting, but all pieces need to be held between the nets with with long stitches thru the layers of net around the outside of the item.  Leave an edge of at least 2" of the net beyond the lace treasure.  Can be more - a reusable piece of net that when folded will sandwich some of your largest pieces or will hold several smaller pieces, would be fine.

Container:  A large white-enameled basin with no rust spots coming through the enamel is nice to use.  You can find these in resale shops, boot sales, or your Grandmother's attic.  Clean well, rinse, and wipe out with white vinegar to remove residue from strong cleaning chemicals.  A white basin means you can see what kind of dirt is coming out of your lace, and judge how often rinse water needs to be changed. 

Wash:  When you have a fragile item, you **float it in a basin with just enough room temperature water and Orvus soap to cover**.  No more!  The stresses of water weight and gravity must be avoided.  You will move the piece by holding onto the net edges, never putting any pull on the old lace.  If item is too large for basin, fold:  \/\ .  Let the piece sit in soapy water 15 minutes.  You can use a large natural sponge to gently press soapy water into stains.  *Do not scrub stains.*  If you do, the underlying threads (below the stain) may just roll away and leave a hole.  Place your palm flat on the middle of the lace, with fingers extended, and hold lace against the bottom of the basin.  Slowly tip the basin and pour off dirty water. 

Soak:  Lace can be soaked.  No moving around.  As the fibers swell, they will release dirt and oil and old tea/coffee.  Very filthy strong and intact old linen lace can be soaked for a week, changing water daily, but you need experience before you try this yourself.  Find an old scrap of lace-trimmed fabric, and practice.  (Some ugly ecru laces come out of a soak as cream-colored.)  Cotton can be tricky.  Should be very strong in water, but sometimes old cotton is not (probably because of acid-burn or UV exposure) - the cloth centers of handkerchiefs are weaker than lace.  Practice on stronger items first to develop good judgment. 

Rinse, Rinse, Rinse:  Each time, hold the lace against the bottom of the basin and slowly tip the basin and pour off dirty water.  Add clean - pouring the new water on the in-side of the basin, never directly on the lace.  All water should be room temperature.  If the item was heavily starched, you will see cloudy white specks in the water.  Starch was originally cooked into linens, and a lot remains.  Old starch was an additive that caused many linens to turn evenly beige.  The starch oxidizes.  Soaking out the excess can be a good thing.  You'll never get it all out; enough will remain to give the piece some body.  Very tiny organisms feed on lumps of old potato starch.  In these cases, they also feed on the textile.  If you see small round holes in linens, this is what may have caused them.

Wet clean lace often looks grey or beige.  Don't let this fool you.  It will dry a lot lighter and any remaining stains dry lighter, too.   When you are all finished with the rinsing (use distilled water for minimum of two final rinses and let the item sit in each of these rinses at least 15 minutes), pour off the last rinse water, and roll the fragile piece out of the basin onto an absorbent towel.  Pat out the water, gently remove the basting stitches (you'll appreciate why they should be a pastel color), and lay the lace on a very clean piece of glass or formica-like counter from which all detergent residue has been banished with a vinegar wash. 

Re-shape and Dry:  Gently shape the lace, and finger press.  The warmth of fingertips works miracles.  Leave to dry.  Lace dries quickly.  Make sure your cats and dogs are secured in another room!  If you decide to press lace, ask someone who has successfully done it to teach you how.  Several things can go very wrong: Scorching, tearing, flattening out textural details.


Warning:  If you wish to clean a fragile or damaged piece that means a lot to you, take it to a professional conservator for a consult.  Washing torn lace will make it worse; it needs to be stabilized.  For example, many nets that lace has been appliqued to will completely fall apart, leaving you with the bits and pieces of lace motifs.  The way nets were chemically processed in factories are behind this problem.  Advice:  Do not wash old appliqued lace -- if -- the net is damaged.

More Warnings: If you wish to clean a fragile or damaged piece that means a lot to you, take it to a professional conservator. Washing torn lace may make it worse; it needs to be stabilized. For example, some nets that lace has been appliqued to will completely fall apart, leaving you with the bits and pieces of lace motifs. The way nets were processed in factories are behind this problem.
Silk lace -
do not even attempt to clean as it will as often as not fall apart in the wash
or other muslin applique laces - often the muslin will shrink and so pucker up the lace item so avoid washing but seek advice.
Coloured lace -
the dyes can run so test carefully before attempting to wash

And of course, if this all sounds like a huge amount of hard work, massive risk and very problematic, well that is because it is!



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