Cleaning Procedures

I found these instructions in this pdf - - and while these instructions are obviously seriously conservationist, basically meant for museum curators to learn how to look after high quality textile heirlooms, the principals and techniques they discuss are useful to have in mind when you attempt to clean any old textile. Please be warned, washing old textiles is rarely a good idea. The point made early on that stains etc can be seen as part of the heirloom value of the textiles is a valid one. While I clearly am recommending that you avoid cleaning anything made of old textiles, if you must, it is worth reading this article first and following the general advice if not every principal.

Cleaning Procedures for Old Textiles

It may be best to leave stains alone. Sometimes discoloration is permanent, and if it has been present a long time, the stain has probably already weakened the fibers.

Trying to remove the stain may be worse than just leaving it—you may create a hole. This is especially true of stains formed from oxidized iron such as rust and blood stains. Keep in mind that a permanent stain may appear even darker than before if the item is wet-cleaned and this cleaning whitens the background. If the stain is stiff or otherwise appears as though some original soil is there, then it is best to remove the soil, through vacuuming and possible wet-cleaning, as the soil may attract insects.

You may wish to consider the stain a part of the heritage associated with that textile heirloom. For museums, a blood stain on a flag carried in battle has a special significance. Your stain’s appearance may not really be an eyesore but a piece of history interwoven in a much loved and used item.

The guiding principle to cleaning an heirloom textile is to start with the least damaging or gentlest of cleaning procedures and work your way up only if necessary! In most cases, the simplest procedure is sufficient for achieving an acceptable appearance. Usually wet-cleaning or dry-cleaning are unnecessary for textile heirlooms. Often, airing alone or airing and vacuuming are the only safe treatments for very fragile items like silks.

First: Airing.

Airing should be done indoors to avoid potential light damage from the sun. Never leave the item in direct sunlight. Support the heirloom on a flat, horizontal surface, rather than allowing it to hang. Neither should the textile item be shaken or beaten, as undue stress can damage the fabric by breaking yarns and pulling lose any weakened stitches.

Second: Vacuuming.

Dust and dirt are abrasive, damage fibers, stain fabric surfaces, and may attract insects. Loose surface dirt may be removed most easily by using a soft upholstery-brush attachment with a hand vacuum. Low-powered suction is desirable; strong suction might break loose any weakened yarns. Therefore, whenever vacuuming, always protect the fabric by first placing over the textile surface a rectangular piece of flexible window screening of polypropylene or fiberglass, never metal. Screening can be purchased at your local hardware store. Prewash screening and to prevent snagging, cover the sharp, raw edges of the screening with bias tape that is machine-stitched in place. Remember to vacuum both the front and reverse sides of your textile, as well as in sleeves and facing corners. Vacuuming should follow the grain line of the fabric. Avoid applying suction where painted-on gold or pigment forms the design and might be lifted away by suction; never attempt to clean these items.

Third: Wet-cleaning.

Never launder a textile heirloom; instead, “wet-clean” it. Wet-cleaning implies several things: soaking, not agitation; water only, not water with detergent; a long soak time of 30 minutes to one hour; and not one soak but many soaks—three to five or more, until water appears clear and is no onger discolored by dirt. Water is the most universal solvent, and by itself is effective in removing most dirts, except oily ones. A lukewarm temperature of 90°F is appropriate. Never launder a textile heirloom in a washing machine, even on a gentle cycle. Spot-cleaning is not recommended as it may leave watermarks.

The purpose of wet-cleaning is to remove any soil left after airing and vacuuming. Three things must be determined before the wet-cleaning is even attempted: colorfastness of dyes, fiber content, and location of the dirt.


To test for the colorfastness of dyes, use an eyedropper to apply several drops of water to a colored area in an inconspicuous location such as an inside hem or seam allowance. Let the fabric soak a inute or two, then blot with a white tissue to see if any color is removed. Remember to check each color in the article. If any color bleeds or comes off onto the tissue, wet-cleaning should not be done.


Although wet-cleaning is potentially very damaging if not properly done, it can provide a clean, healthy textile. Cottons and linens usually benefit from wet-cleaning. Old silks seldom can be wet-cleaned because of the dyes and metallic salts added to weighted silks. Rayons, introduced in 1910, are greatly weakened and distorted when wet, so extra care and support should be given. Woolens may be wet-cleaned, but only at room temperatures and with no agitation, in order to prevent felting and shrinking.


Slight agitation (an up-and-down palm motion of the hand) above the most soiled areas is sometimes needed to assist the water in soil removal. More severe concentrations or oily dirts may need the addition of detergent to water. Since most dirt is acidic, often a mildly alkaline detergent may encourage its removal. Follow precautions in the later section about detergent soaking.

Preparations for Wet-Cleaning

• Determine appropriateness of wet-cleaning by identif ying colorfastness, fiber, and dirt, as described previously.

• Repair any seriously damaged areas before cleaning.

• Use a large, flat area for cleaning, such as in a clean sink or bathtub or a specially made temporary basin constructed from 2 x 4-inch boards and lined with plastic sheeting. Plan ahead for draining, too, since several rinses will be required.

• Use a support of fiberglass screening to lift the article out of the water each time. Textiles absorb a great deal of water and become quite heav y when wet: A 1-pound cotton item will weigh nearly 4 pounds when wet. By using a support screen to lift out a wet textile before draining, soiled water will not filter down through fabric and resoil it.

• Temporarily remove fragile decorations or those made of metal, which might rust, and replace them carefully when you are finished cleaning.

• Sandwich a very fragile textile item between two layers of screening and baste the screens together loosely, at least 1 inch from the outer edges of the heirloom. This method will prevent the item from floating around and receiving unnecessary abrasion.

• Clean the item in soft water, if possible. Distilled water may be purchased and is preferable for at least the last rinse. Beware of collected rainwater; although soft, it may contain a great deal of dust from air pollution or roofs. Tap water is often hard water, containing some dissolved minerals, but it is preferable over discolored, soft rainwater.

The Wet-Cleaning Soak

• Support the textile item with fiberglass screening when lowering it into and lifting it from the water.

• Avoid agitation; never scrub. A gentle up-and-down motion with the palm of your open hand above the textile surface in the most soiled areas will help move soil gently through fibers of the heirloom.

• Soak item a minimum of three to five soaks of 30 minutes to an hour each. If the water becomes discolored during soaking, replace and repeat the soaks until the water remains clear.

The Detergent Soak

Remember, this step is usually not necessary. Most traces of dirt will be removed with several clear-water soaks. The decision to use a detergent soak should be made only after a series of three or more water-soak cycles have been completed and some traces of dirt still remain on the garment.

Soaps and detergents are two different types of cleaning compounds. Do not use soaps with hard water, as soaps form a scum or “ bathtub ring” when they combine with minerals in hard water. This scum will coat textile fibers.

• Use a mild, non-ionic, neutral detergent such as Orvus WA Paste (often available at horse tack shops) or a very mild dishwashing liquid. Do not select heav y-duty detergents designed for family wash; they are much too harsh for textile heirlooms. A fragrance-free detergent is preferred as highly perfumed or colored detergents may leave traces of odor or color behind.

• Choose another cleaning product if the one you selected leaves the water cloudy when it desolves. Mild detergents clean very well in either hard or soft water and will not form scum. A clear solution means no scum will resoil fabric surfaces.

• Use a concentration of .2 (0.002) percent detergent to water; that is, use the amount recommended by the manufacturer for low levels of soil. Generally 2 tablespoons of liquid detergent to 4 gallons of water equals a 0.2 percent solution.

• Soak in detergent for at least 30 minutes. The soak may be repeated several times if the water continues to be discolored due to soil removal.

• Use a gentle up-and-down movement with the palm of the hand over the soiled areas; never use vigorous agitation.

• Use cool or low-warm water temperature no higher than 90°F. Cleaning products dissolve most thoroughly in hot water, however, so you may use a small amount of hot water to dissolve the detergent completely, then cool the soak to the correct warm temperature before the textile heirloom is immersed.

• Rinse thoroughly to remove all traces of detergent from fabric. This means at least five rinse-soak cycles of 20 to 30 minutes each.

• For the final rinse, use distilled water.


• Hasten drying by selecting a dry day for your project and by using a fan to circulate air in the room. Never let the air blow directly on the object, however.

• Use clean, dry towels as blotting surfaces to remove excess water, replacing as necessary.

• Select a drying space large enough to lay the textile out flat.

• Remove wet towels and air-dry on a flat Formica surface or on dry towels in a well-ventilated room.

• Gently ine up warp and filling yarns; shape the heirloom back to its original form while it is still wet, if necessary.

• Stuff the gathered portions of the object with nylon tulle before drying if necessary.

• Avoid tumbling in a clothes dryer or even using a hair dryer to dry the textile.

• Avoid ironing a textile heirloom. An iron’s intense heat, pressure, and weight can damage fragile fibers.

Fourth: Dry-cleaning.

Because commercial dry-cleaning involves a lot of tumbling in a large machine, it is the least recommended procedure for cleaning delicate fabrics. The process places a great deal of strain on fabrics. Avoid sending weak and fragile heirlooms to be dry-cleaned; wet-cleaning is much safer for textile heirlooms. Dry-cleaning removes natural oils and waxes that keep fiber flexible, so when used on very old or brittle fabric, dry-cleaning solvents tend to dry out the fibers even more than they were.

Dry-cleaning solvents may leave very small crystal deposits on a garment, only visible under a microscope, but abrasive nonetheless.

Dry-cleaning is usually best for removing oil-borne stains such as waxes, tars, cooking oils, and fats. It is also good for fabrics which might shrink a great deal in water, or for fabrics with dyes that run or bleed. Under any one of these three circumstances, you may opt to dry-clean.If, after recognizing both the disadvantages and advantages of dry-cleaning, you decide that this is the best way to clean a textile heirloom, locate a cooperative and knowledgeable dry-cleaner. Ask him to clean the item in the “first run” of that batch of solvent. Most dry-cleaning solvents will be used several times before being changed or filtered for reuse. Dirty solvents may, in fact, put more soil into your heirloom than was there originally. You may wish to request that your item not be pressed after dry-cleaning. The steam and heat from this procedure is harmful.