urge you to entrust valuable textiles to experienced conservators
for cleaning. If you indeed wish to undertake this yourself,
however, please read the following suggestions. Be sure to look
elsewhere for advice if you would like a "second opinion" concerning
1. Always test any problematic colors with a damp white cloth
before you even consider wet cleaning. Reds and oranges cause the
most frequent problems, but blacks, greens, purples and others also
need to be tested. (Dry cleaners should also be asked to test colors
before they use harsh chemicals.) If the piece has frayed areas,
they should be secured with stitching before washing is
2. No old textile should be put in a washing machine.
Use a flat tray or tub, to minimize folds in the piece.
3. A plain COLD WATER bath should be first. A fragile textile can
be placed between layers of fiberglass screening for support. The
item can then be lowered into the water to soak, and the water easily
changed as dirt comes out of the piece. This bath should be watched
closely, but the process may need to continue for several hours if
the piece is very dirty. Occasionally soiling may not be loosened until
well into a second day of soaking. 100-year-old encrusted dirt and
well-set stains can be tough! With many pieces, such a cold water
soaking is all that is required, or indeed prudent since plain cold water is safer for all
old fabrics than cleaning agents or chemicals that may release
potential migrant dyes. Limiting a wash to a cold water soaking also
leaves desirable lanolin in wool items. Professional rug
cleaners of course do not have the luxury of time to spend with such
a slow but safe procedure, and so must use more severe methods,
sometimes adding agents at the end to substitute for the lanolin
they have removed.
4. If any color runs occur during cold water soaking, remove
the item immediately and put it for a few minutes into a clean, cold
water bath that has had acid added. Household vinegar will do.
Agitate it well, then begin rinsing. Change rinse baths over and
over again, as long as any faint sign of migrating color appears.
Rinsing should NOT STOP as long as ANY color appears in the rinse
water. If ten or twenty rinses or more are necessary, so be it; no
loosened dye color should remain that can migrate into surrounding
areas of the textile. (You may be aware that in tribal areas
of the Middle East, rugs, kilims and bags were often washed in a
river, where the flowing stream provided an ongoing and very
thorough rinse.) The textile should then be patted as dry as
possible with clean towels and laid flat in the sun to dry quickly.
A hair dryer may even be useful for small textiles. DO NOT put
antique or fragile textiles into a spin dryer!
Keep in mind that migrating dyes which have been allowed to run into
surrounding areas and dry there become permanent features.
5. ONLY if there has been NO sign of any dye runs during lengthy
cold water soaking should further wet cleaning be attempted. Early
textiles and rugs which may include yarns dyed with early synthetic
colors (especially pieces produced in the 1870-1930 period) should
be placed in a cold water bath that includes some acid (vinegar is
OK) along with a neutral detergent. ONLY NEUTRAL DETERGENTS SHOULD
BE USED. Never use TIDE, IVORY, WOOLITE, SHAMPOO, or any kind of
SOAP, as the danger of loosening early, inadequately set acid dyes
increases greatly. The only appropriate wet cleaning agents are
neutral detergents such as ORVUS or liquid JOY. An old textile
should be left in the detergent bath for only a short period--perhaps
five or ten minutes. Moving the solution around in the bath is
helpful, and sturdy textiles may benefit from slight
agitation. Do NOT use warm or hot water at any time! Then rinse very
thoroughly, putting the piece through several clean cold water
baths. Pat the item as dry as possible with clean towels and
lay flat in the sun to air dry. Water may be squeezed out of most
textiles, but they should never be wrung! Do not put fragile items
into a spin dryer!
Some conservators object to even ORVIS and JOY, because it is so
difficult to remove any cleaning substance completely from a
textile. Fibers not rinsed properly can be left with a thin, dull
film on their surfaces. One must realize that with even the safest
wet-cleaning solutions, one should expect to spend a great
deal of time rinsing.