Traditional Remedies & Recipes for Care & Management of
CLEANSING - WATERPROOFING - STAIN REMOVAL - RESTORING
COLOUR - RE-HEMMING TO EXTEND WEAR
- IRONING - CARE OF FURS - STORAGE OF CLOTHING
did medieval women wash their clothes? Did they wash them? Where?
And with what? It's hard to imagine washing some of those grand
silk velvet court clothing down at the stream. And if one lived
in the city, what then?
We know that in medieval London,
townswomen washed at a common wash-house. It was a woman's domain,
where news and gossip was exchanged while washing clothing. In
medieval Spain, any bridge leaving town was required to be wide
enough for two women and their water jugs. Since men were not
expected to be at places where woman washed, only other women
were permitted to act at witnesses in disputes if they happened
at the river or stream.
Fortunately, there is some information
of clothing care which has been preserved for posterity. The best
known examples of domestic instruction come from a treatise known
as the Goodman of Paris which was written in 1393 by an
elderly Parisian for his 15 year old bride. It is primarily concerned
with good behaviour and on the running of a household. Here and
there in other manuscripts, a snippet of information appears.
It is generally accepted that outer clothes were not washed after
every wear, in the same manner that you would not wash an overcoat
or wool jacket after every wear. Heavy outer clothing was shaken
after wear to remove dust, sometimes with a light beating with
a brush or whisk of dry twigs.
General clothing at home could be rinsed carefully by hand in
a tub of heated water. Underclothes were rinsed more frequently
and hung to dry over a pole. Woolen
clothes with a long nap could be reshorn when they were very dirty
or worn to expose a fresh new surface. The cost of shearing was
averaging 1s a cloth at the time of Bogo de Clare. It was a skilled
procedure which was deemed to be fairly expensive.
saponaria officinalis (at right) was a herb used for cleaning
cloth and clothing. Also known as bruisewort, dog cloves, fuller's
herb and latherwort, soapwort grew originally in northern Europe
until its introduction to England by Franciscan and Dominican
monks. By the end of the 16th century the use of soapwort had
become widespread in England for laundering, fulling and washing
dishes. Many museums still use soapwort to this day for its ability
to gently cleanse delicate fabrics. The use of the herb marjoram
origanum vulgare (also known as organum or oregany) lent
its scent in washing waters.
According to a British historian,
washing at the wash-house was rinsed, twisted and beaten where
the tongues are quite as active as washerwoman's beetles.
We know from English warderobe records of the 14th century, that
wax was bought specifically for the purpose of waxing garments
for weatherproofing. Exactly which garments were treated this
way is not mentioned but it can be assumed that they were outer
garments for winter or wet weather, most likely cloaks. This was
not an option to peasants who would have used the wax for more
important things, and would have relied on felted wool for protection
from the elements.
There are many interesting medieval recipes for the use of stain
removal on clothing. Fuller's Earth was recommended if soaked
in lye for other kinds of stain removal. It must be applied to
the stain, allowed to let dry and then rubbed. Ashes
soaked in lye and put onto the stain was also believed to be good.
For dresses of silk, silk damask, satin, camlet 'or other material',
soak and wash the stain in verjuice (from Middle French vertjus
"green juice" - an acidic juice made by pressing unripe
grapes) and it will be cleaned. An image of verjuice being made
from the 14th century French manuscript, Tacuinum Sanitatis, is
shown at left.
Recipes for the removal of grease
and oil were somewhat more complex. One recipe is such:
To remove grease or oil stains, take
urine and heat until warm. Soak the stain for two days. Without
twisting the fabric, squeeze the afflicted area, then rinse. As
an alternative for stubborn greasy or oily stains, soak in urine
with ox gall beaten into it, for two days and squeeze without
twisting before rinsing.
Chicken feathers were also recommended
as a cleaning aid. Firstly they must be soaked in very hot water
then wet again in cold water. The stain may then be rubbed with
the feathers and it will be clean. Exactly how successful the
feathers method was is unclear.
colour to faded garments
Remedies to restore the fading were also available. This advice
is offered: On a pale blue garment, a damp sponge dipped in clear,
clean lye should be squeezed out and then wiped over the offending
area, or to restore fading on clothes of other colours, use very
clean lye with ashes on the spot. It must be left to dry, then
rubbed. The colours shall then be restored. If a dress is of silk,
silk damask, satin, camlet 'or other material' soak and wash the
stain in verjuice which has been stored without salt and its colour
will be restored.
Re-hemming to extend wear
know that the parts of a women's gown which wear most are the
cuffs and the hem. Our medieval woman counterparts faced the same
issues as us today, and it comes as no real surprise to see that
their solutions were the same. It was not uncommon for a woman
to cut the very hem of her gown off when it was too ragged and
re-sew it a little shorter or to replace it with a strip of new
Shown at right is a picture from the Romance of Alexander showing
a woman catching butterflies who appears to have rehemmed her
dress. At first I thought that this may be purely decorative,
but in Toni Mount's book, Everyday Life in Medieval London,
we read that in 1320, the household wardrobe accounts of Edward
II's wife Queen Isabella herself had garments re-hemmed to prolong
the wear of them and save the cost of new gowns. This could hardly
have been an unusual thing to do, or it would have been much made
Many people consider the iron to be a modern invention but versions
of tools used to flatten and de-crumple clothes have been around
for centuries. Vikings from Scandinavia had early irons made of
glass and roughly mushroom-shaped by about the tenth century.
These were also called linen smoothers. The smoother was warmed
in steam before it was rubbed across the clothing.
to historians of domestic household appliances, it was during
the 1300s that the tool we recognise as an iron first appeared
in Europe. It was comprised of a flat piece of iron with a metal
handle attached. The flatiron was held over or in a fire until
it was heated, when it was picked up by the handle with a padded
holder. A thin cloth was placed between the iron and the garment
in order not to dirty the clothing whilst the ironing process
took place. The iron above is described as having a salamander-shaped
handle and dates to the 15th century.
In the fifteenth century, an improvement
to the flatiron was introduced in the form of a box which could
hold coals to retain radiant heat for longer than the old method
of placing the flat iron in the fire. The hot box, also known
as the slug or box iron, was constructed from a hollow metal box
with a handle. Heating elements such as coals or hot metal inserts
were placed inside. Both the flatiron and hot box were used for
several hundred years.
A remedy to revive furs or fur skins which have become hard through
wetness was given as: the fur must be removed from the garment
and sprinkled with wine. It should then be 'sprayed by mouth as
a tailor sprays water on the part of a dress he wishes to hem'.
Flour must be put on the wetted parts. It must then dry for a
day or so, before rubbing well and it will return to its original
Wardrobes as we know them today do not seem to be depicted with
great regularity in medieval art and it is thought that general
storage of linen and clothes was in large wooden chests. Pictured
right is a detail from the 1470 painting, The Birth Of Mary
showing a large, wooden chest for the storage of linen.
15th century German manuscript, at left, shows a garment hanging
on an early version of a coathanger, but this was for the sewing
of the garment, and not for storage. My own thoughts are that
many of the garments were heavy wools, often lined with furs,
and storage on a coathanger may have produced extra strain of
the shoulder seams. Chests of drawers do not seems to have been
Airing of dresses was encouraged
to avoid moths and their larvae. This was a practice which must
be done on a sunny day in the summer and dry months for if the
dresses are put away in a chest after airing on a cloudy day,
the cold air will be folded into the dress and encourage vermin.
Roses of Provins were also considered the best for putting in
dresses. The Goodman of Paris says that these must be dried
in mid-August and sifted in a seive so that all the worms fall
out and then the petals may be scattered on the dresses.
household washing and storing of cloth and clothing involved the
use of herbs either to make the linen sweet-smelling or to discourage
harmful insects. In the late 15th century, a mixture of powdered
anise and orris iris florentina was used to perfume household
linen in storage. Medieval linens were also scented with lavender
lavendula vera by being stored with it or rinsed in lavender
Rue ruta graveolens also known
as the Herb o' grace o' Sundays was used in linens to keep away
bugs and noxious odors. The image at right from the Tacuinum
Sanitatis shows two men collecting rue.
Wormwood artemesia absynthum was
the most common element cited in recipes to protect medieval clothing
from damage whilst in storage. It was often placed among woolen
cloths to prevent and destroy moths. A mixture of wormwood, southernwood,
the leaves of a cedar tree and valerian mixed together and put
wherever clothes were stored was thought to help repel moths and