How to Clean Antique Lace (and Other Delicate Fibers)
I was recently gifted with a very large bag of antique lace. There are pieces of intricate tatting, lace hems, metallic lace made with the tiniest gauge of copper wire, ecru pieces, and also crochet and knit lace. I was having a lot of fun going through the bag, and I discovered that many of the pieces really needed to be cleaned before they began to deteriorate.
Bleach is hazardous to lace because the harsh chemicals eat away at the fibers while they whiten them. It contains hydrochloric acid, which reacts with the molecular structure of a stain and destroys it. But bleach doesn’t discriminate between the stain and the fiber. When it oxidizes, it eats away at both. For many antique fabrics and fibers, this chemical reaction means that they will turn a deep yellow color, which is often times irreversible.
A lemon juice and salt mixture is another commonly used stain-fighter. Usually someone who recommends lemon juice and salt tells you to rub the juice and salt into the stain, and then set it out in the sun to brighten. Yes, it will work nicely on rust stains for some colorfast fabrics that you don’t care too much about. With an antique fiber, the lemon juice acid and the salt will keep eating away at the garment if it is not all completely washed away. Plus, vigorously rubbing lace in any way, especially when it is wet, will tear its tiny connecting threads.
Sunlight can be a good whitening agent, but think of what sunlight does to fabrics left outside for a long time. Exposure to ultra-violet rays breaks down chemical compounds, and even though it looks like the stains, smells and yellowing is the only thing breaking down, the fibers are slowly falling apart as well. Baking antique lace in the sun until it turns white is not the best idea for something that you are planning on saving or passing down.
Detergent and dish soap are two other common cleaners, but both of them can strip dye colors and weaken fibers. The softeners and fragrances that stay behind can be oily and deteriorate delicate laces.
The best solution for cleaning antique lace and other fragile fibers such as vintage quilts, antique or vintage clothing, and tablecloths or other home goods, is Orvus Quilt Soap. Quilters and professional lace restorationists swear by it.
Essentially, Orvus works by make water “more wet”. It allows water to connect with the fibers so that the oils and dirt lift and separate. It does not work as quickly as most other cleaners, and often times you will have to soak an item for several hours, and rinse and repeat until it is clean.
These were the lace pieces that I chose to soak. I did end up switching one of them out after taking this photo, because I realized I had a pair of lace cuffs that matched the large collar piece on the bottom of this image. I saved one of them and set it aside so that I would have a good “before and after” for comparison.
All that you need to clean small pieces of lace is a large glass or enamel coated bowl, hot water (around 115 degrees) and your lace.
When lace gets wet, it is extremely sensitive to weight. Pulling it up out of the water could result in tearing. If your lace is particularly delicate, then you should baste it between two layers of white mesh. When you baste the lace, be sure to use a white or ivory colored thread, to ensure that the thread does not bleed any dye in the hot water. Be careful not to put your needle thru any of the lace threads and break them. If you are washing a very large item, such as a tablecloth, then I would recommend that you read this article, which outlines basting the tablecloth to a large cotton sheet before soaking it. For small and strong pieces though, you should be okay to clean them without basting them.
Fill the large bowl with one teaspoon of well-mixed Orvus paste and at least a gallon of the hot water. Gently lower your lace into the bowl, being careful to not agitate the water.
Allow the lace to soak for at least 45 minutes. Once the time is up, place the bowl in the sink. Turn on the faucet, and using warm water, let it slowly run into the bowl and spill over the edges until the water around the lace is clear. This step may take a very long time. I sometimes hurry this up by holding my hand against the lace (softly) and pouring most of the water out of the bowl before letting it fill up again and again. The color of the water usually reminds me of a strong cup of tea.
Once the water is clear, lay the lace out on a clean white towel and let it air dry. Carefully block the shape of the lace on the towel, so that it assumes its previous shape. Make sure that no corners are folded under or stretched out.
This is what my lace looked like after soaking it two times. After it soaks, it will look a bit grey and dingy, but it dries to become whiter than it appears on the white towel. I soaked it two additional times after taking the above photo. The photo below, on the towel, is the color of my lace after soaking it a fourth time.
Once the lace was dry, it was considerably whiter. The collar on the top left has quite a bit of acid burn on it. It was probably never cleaned after being removed from the neck of a garment, so the body oils have continued to eat away at and discolor the fibers for many years. I will either soak it some more, or dye it a different color all together.
Here is a comparison of the two lace cuffs to show you how dirty they were before soaking.
I’d say that’s quite an improvement!