How do you clean Honiton lace?

An example of Honiton lace

An example of Honiton lace - Credit: Allhallows Museum

Allhallows Museum holds the most comprehensive collection of Honiton lace in the world. Honiton lace is always described as delicate, exquisite, intricate, and beautiful. Lace making was a cottage industry and a square centimetre of Honiton lace took up to five hours to produce. For centuries it was made to be worn by wealthy people including Queen Victoria who made it fashionable. 

However, after reading the instructions for cleaning lace that have been published in the past, we think it’s probably a miracle that any examples of lace have survived at all. 

In 1752 a new invention of liquid soap with no nauseous smell was advertised for washing lace and fine linen at a shilling a bottle. In the 1750s the ‘Servant’s Directory’, always included directions for the most judicious method of washing lace. 

A century later in Jane Austen’s book ‘Cranford’ she described how a cat swallowed both the buttermilk and the lace that was soaking in it. The lace was regurgitated, soaked, and spread on a lavender bush in the sun to dry. 

In 1801 a shoemaker invented and advertised a patent vegetable essence which he sold for a shilling a bottle. He claimed it cleaned mahogany, linen, lace and leather. 

Other suggestions for cleaning lace over the years include using dry magnesia or soaking in a mixture of water, salt and flour. It could be stiffened by soaking in milk or sugar and tinted by soaking in tea or coffee. 

In 1892 people were advised to soak their lace in borax or ammonia, or both. Twenty years later the instructions were to ‘shred white soap into boiling water in a saucepan (with a saucer in the bottom to prevent scorching the lace) and whipped with a stick until the soap is dissolved and the lather is frothy then immerse the lace and boil for fifteen minutes. Add bluing water and prepare some thin rice water or a solution of gum arabic to restore the original stiffness of the lace.’ 

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Obviously, our lace keepers today would never consider using any of those methods to keep the lace in our museum collection clean. 

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