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Medieval Clothing Care
Traditional Remedies & Recipes for Care & Management of Clothing


How 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 also appears.

Cleansing of clothes
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.

Soapwort, 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. When the leaves are crushed, they make a fine lather like a liquid soap which works well and is extremely gentle on delicate fabrics.

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 for peasants who would have used the wax for more important things, and would have relied on felted wool for protection from the elements.

Happily, felted wool is remarkably weatherproof.

Stain removal
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 right..

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.

Restoring 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
We 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 unknown 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 fabric.

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 of.

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.

According 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.

Care of furs
Fur was extensively used throughout the medieval period both as trimming for clothing and as linings. Cleaning furs without damaging them, especially the hems which came in contact with floors and mud, was necessary.

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 state.

Storage of clothing
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.

A 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 used. Chests themselves, though, are shown in many artworks.

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.

Many 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 water.

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 other vermin.

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