Monday, June 20, 2011

Inspiration Mondays: Professional Non-cleaning

Imagine rummaging through your dirty laundry basket and finding something that someone didn't want to wash in order to preserve the historical value of it.

Can't really do it, huh?

I follow the blog at the Royal BC Museum, and recently one of the conservators, Colleen Wilson, wrote a post entitled: Dirty Laundry, all about the decisions she has to make as a conservator of linens and the like at Helmcken House, a historical house which once belonged to Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, a surgeon for the Hudson's Bay Company, who later negotiated the entry of British Columbia as a province of Canada.

Imagine coming to work and trying to decide whether or not to wash a pillowcase. Would the stains be from the doctor's hair oil? What would the starch on a doily tell us about laundering practices back then? What does the dust on a curtain tell us about the attitudes toward smoking indoors of the 1850s?

It's enough to drive a clean freak stark raving mad.

But would they be clean? Wilson writes:
The traces of dye and perfume, not to mention “fabric conditioners” and “optical brighteners” can change colour or interact with older materials unexpectedly, as well as presenting a 21st century version of “clean”.
It's for these reasons that the conservators at the Royal BC Museum have vast knowledge of the effects of water, pH and minerals on antique fabrics. They are not cleaners: they are meticulous scientists, trying to help us to understand the past.

Interesting then, to consider most people's attitudes towards having knitted garments in this day and age. I think that, in this sterile age, one of the reason many people won't wear handknits is the fact that they take care to launder. You can't just throw them in a washing machine with some detergent and set it to warm and walk away. Even a cotton lace shawl requires blocking afterwards to retain its shape. And it's not that you can't wash these items. You just have to know how, and to take the time to do it right.

I am glad to know, however, that there are people like conservators. I kinda wish I knew one. I'd be so interested in the things they know about textiles... and I know I'd probably be one of those annoying people calling them up all the time. "So, how would I wash..."

I'm still going to be laundry, though. I don't think anything of mine is of enough value to preserve in its original "unclean" state. But I sorta feel like the fact that I wear my handknits makes me somewhat of a conservator myself... preserving the ways of the past, and using my knowledge of those fibres to clean them in an appropriate way.

Hand me some rubber gloves, people. I'm makin' history here.


  1. I have zero patience w/ laundry. I wear polyester pants w/ a permanent crease in order to avoid and iron. I don't even know what the word "blocking" is but I can tell it sounds like a struggle.

    newest follower!

  2. You go you conservator you! Yet another thought provoking post.
    I do so love reading your blog.

  3. @todd carr: Awesome to see you here! Thanks for the follow!

    @YarnKettle: Aww shucks. It's great to know someone appreciates my ramblings!