Ah, the lovely dresses one wears when you are enamored of 16th century Florentine attire. Today, like in the 16th century, laundry is an important component of garment wear and care.
This weekend I went to a fabulous event in my red brocade gown which has a jeweled bodice and a train. The event was outdoors and it rained. My train and the entirety of the hem were encrusted in mud. Today it was time to free my gown from this mess.
As I get started, I like to think about what my staff would mutter to themselves if I had lived in the 16th century. There goes Donna Fiore again, bringing home a dress 6 inches in mud. I’m sure there would be head shaking and sighing involved. They would then get to the task of making the dress wearable again as quickly as possible.
In Florence, women of the court were expected to attend outdoor events and even to hunt with the Court. As these were moments for exhibition, one wouldn’t just throw on any dress, it had to be superb. These dresses of exceptional fabrics ranging from silks, to elaborate brocades required some care and knowledge for how to keep them clean and lovely without damaging the fibers.
Linens such as camicia, calzone, towels, and other underclothes were washed with some frequency. First they were soaked, then laundered with soap (lye soap or soapwort) and water, finally left in the sun to help bleach out anything that survived. Other fabrics such as hangings, curtains, and other household fabrics might only be washed twice a year during the Gran Lissia, or great laundry. This process was exhaustive and often required hiring of additional staff and many delays as sunny days were required for drying it all.
A brocade such as the one in the gown I wore this weekend, would need to be spot cleaned and the dirt brushed off and would not have been subjected to water at all. It simply would have been too much trouble and unnecessary for the task. So here is how I do it which despite happening in my modern apartment is a pretty good example of how it probably went.
First , I grab my trusted 100% horsehair brush and assess the mess. The hem has to dry completely before you start cleaning it.
This dress has been to Pennsic, so while this is a mess — I’ve seen worse. I won’t need to resort to secondary measures and just use my horsehair brush to brush and beat out the dirt. The brush does most of the job but occasionally I encounter a stubborn caked in section. Like this one:
I used the back of the brush to strike the dirt apart and then brushed most of it away. There was still some dirt clinging to the silk so I used a clean section of the same silk to work it loose, then brushed it away.
I could go further and get all the residue on the edge cleaned off but don’t tend to bother. The hem hits the floor, that is its purpose.
So I work around the inside hem, then turn the dress right side out and do the same process on this side.
Then it is done. I give the whole dress a good brush and shake. I may hang it outside to freshen it up a bit but soon enough it is back in the guardaroba, ready for another outing.
Do you have any questions or comments about laundry in the 16th century. I’d love to chat about it.
Ajmar Wollheim, Marta and Flora Dennis. At Home in Renaissance Italy. London: V&A Productions 2006. p155-6.
Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlocked. Leeds: W.S. Maney and Son LTD, 1988. p223-225.
Sim, Alison. The Tudor Housewife. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1996. p53-58.