Wet Cleaning, A Summary

Last week was a loooong week. We had extra hours in the lab and they certainly were full! Last week was mostly our wet cleaning practical. To get us all started we were given various plain white textiles (coloured textiles are a whole ‘nother ballgame). My piece was a lace collar, looked early 20th century to me, that was a combination of machine and needle lace.

There were a few rust-coloured stains at the neck that I tested for washfastness before cleaning. Additionally, because of the fragility of the textile, I sandwiched it in net to keep it stable during cleaning. The actual cleaning itself was quite time consuming. I used two wash baths, the second at half-strength, and five rinses. The anionic detergent we used has the tradename Orvus and is particularly suited to cellulose-based textiles which all of our objects were. During the washbaths and the rinses I sponged the textile with both natural and artificial sponges.

It did come out with a noticeably lighter colour, general overall soiling had obviously been cleaned away. I also blocked it out while wet, basing the general size off of a tracing I had made in mylar previous to cleaning. So in addition to cleaning, my object also reaped the benefits of a humidification treatment. The edges were straightened out and some of the creases removed. It was much improved.

When I reflect back on the whole experience I feel that some of the handling procedures were a bit overkill in the case of my object. If I had to do it again I would definitely keep the netting as that was hugely advantageous to manipulating the piece. I would however use only the artificial sponge which has a slightly higher "suction" than the natural sponge. In this case the object was hardy enough to easily withstand this. The removal of the natural sponge step would have cut down some of my working time. It’s important to consider that you really don’t know how a textile is going to react to a full immersion bath until you actually do the treatment. My textile looked quite fragile and it was easy to imagine it weakening when wet. The actual experience was quite different. I found the textile to maintain quite a bit of strength, even brittleness, while wet.

All the students had quite different objects and this was a really interesting learning experience. Working in close quarters allowed for us all to benefit from each others’ experiences. Others’ objects I would definitely not apply the previous paragraph to, as they were quite fragile and even more so when wet. As well, the large objects had their own unique needs that required that we all pitch in to help. Even the drying process had different needs for different objects.

My instructor had truly remarkable stamina. She worked the hardest and the longest helping everyone essentially all at once. I can’t imagine how tired she must have been at the end of the day. I know I was exhausted after one session and she worked straight through two! Her dedication and unflagging energy is definitely something to aspire to!

It was a really interesting and exhausting day and I hope to repeat it soon with something completely different!


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