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Dirty Laundry in Aalto University

Can chanterelle mushrooms take the stains out of silk? Might elderberries dye yarn blue? Will scented rose petals make an artisan’s linens smell like those of a great lord? On the 11th and 12th of April 2019 the Refashioning the Renaissance team and two advisory board members explored these and other questions by recreating early modern recipes for cleaning and dyeing clothing and textiles.

Looking to the Danish and Italian contexts, we selected recipes that appear repeatedly in cheap and easy-to-obtain texts and pamphlets from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These texts were intended for use at home; they feature terse instructions and call for ingredients that were relatively easy for people to obtain, some of which may have even been growing in domestic gardens and pots. Some scholars have also suggested that many of the uncomplicated recipes found in printed and manuscript texts simply recorded folk practices that had long been carried out as part of everyday life.

Title page from Mangehaande artige Kunster at berede godt Blæk, Copenhagen 1578, the Danish text from which we took several recipes.]

Title page and image from Opera nvova intitolata dificio de ricette… (Venetia: Giovanantonio et fratelli da Sabbio, 1529). This is one of the texts we used in the workshop and is also one of the earliest printed recipe ‘pamphlets’.

Over two days, we followed instructions for removing stains, dyeing yarn and making scented sachets for linen chests to see if these popular recipes actually worked. On the first day, we had a brief introductory session, and then got to work in the dye kitchen at Aalto University.

Introducing the workshop and recipes.

Our first set of recipes were for stain removers, and Anne-Kristine and I spent some time the evening before staining the fabrics – many of which we had dyed during our visit to the Making and Knowing lab in New York in March. We used red and white wine, oak-gall ink and olive oil to stain the fabrics.

Michele and Anne-Kristine staining different fabrics the night before the workshop.

For the experiment, we split into three groups: Me and Sophie, Anne-Kristine and Tessa, and Paula and Flora. Luckily Piia was on hand to take lots of great photos and videos for us. Sophie and I prepared a very simple recipe designed to take stains out of white wool or linen using lemon juice. We found that if we had fresh stains and blotted them before applying the lemon juice, our results with white wool were pretty good. On the set stains, though, the recipe was not so successful. We also noticed that the lemon juice really discoloured our linen dyed with cochineal, turning it hot pink.

Sophie with the cochineal fabric discoloured by lemon juice.

Michele and Sophie applying lemon juice to the stained fabrics.

The results of the lemon juice stain remover.

Anne-Kristine and Tessa recreated a recipe from a Danish text, using the juice of mushrooms to remove stains from silk. They decided to cook the mushrooms in a little bit of water, strain it and applied this to the stained fabrics. It didn’t work so well and actually discoloured the white silk. This might not be one to try at home!

Anne-Kristine and Tessa juicing mushrooms.

The results of the mushroom-juice stain remover, where you can see how it yellowed the white fabrics.

Finally, Paula and Flora recreated a recipe from an Italian book intended to remove stains from red silk using boiled cream of tartar. This was probably the recipe which was the least clear, and there were lots of discussions about whether to use the water or solid portion left after boiling. In the end, Paula and Flora decided to try both. Neither was particularly successful!

Freshly stained fabrics.

Preparing to strain the tartar powder.

Paula and Flora trying to remove stains from red fabrics.

In the afternoon, we moved onto recipes for simple dyes. Anne-Kristine and I worked together, Paula and Tessa were a team and Sophie and Flora each worked on their own.

Anne-Kristine and I worked with a recipe from a Danish text, using bilberries to dye wool, silk and linen. A few days before the workshop I set the berries to soak in water (according to the recipe), and we just had to boil them a little, gave the mixture a strain and then added some alum and our fabrics.

Extracting the colour from bilberries, and fabrics added to the juice.

The results of our bilberry ‘blue’ dye.

The recipe was supposed to turn the fabrics blue, but they came out more of a deep purple-red. We were really happy and surprised about the results.

Sophie worked on alternative version of the same recipe, using dried elderberries, verdigris and alum. I had soaked the dried berries in vinegar for a few days before the workshop, and they smelled quite strong!

Sophie working with smelly, dried elderberries, which had been soaking in vinegar for several days.

Two versions of the elderberry dye recipe.

Measures of verdigris (on the left) and alum (on the right) for Sophie’s two versions of the recipe. Verdigris is the lovely turquoise coloured patina that forms through the oxidation of copper or brass. Think of the colour of the Statue of Liberty!

Her fabrics came out two slightly different shades of green, though the recipe was for achieving the colour blue…

Batch one of the elderberry-dyed fabrics.

Batch two of the elderberry-dyed fabrics.

Flora worked on an Italian recipe for making a russet colour. She used orange and pomegranate rinds that I had soaked in water a few days before the workshop. With the addition of alum and ash(!) she was supposed to end up with nicely coloured russet wool, silk and linen; however, the fabrics ended up a sort of creamy yellow.

‘Russet’-coloured fabrics?!

Paula and Tessa made a recipe from an Italian book, which also appears in many other books of secrets from this period. Their experiment was the most labour intensive, as they had to smash up oak-gall and grind gum arabic.

Tessa and Paula working hard, grinding and smashing.

The recipe was supposed to result in a lustrous black; however, the team ended up with a muddy brown.

The dye is looking very mud-like.

Fabric that is ‘good, black and lustrous’?

Part of the problem—which we found for all of our dye recipes—was that the pots were much too large for the small amounts of textiles we were dyeing. This made the fabrics stick to the bottom and prevented us from swirling in the bath to get even coverage. Even though our stain removal and dye recipes were not so successful, we had many wonderful and useful discussions throughout the day.

One the second day of the workshop, we recreated a recipe for making scented sachets for putting in linen chests. This was a very long recipe with two different options: one expensive, the other more economic. We chose the cheaper option, which required rose petals, rose water, musk [we used synthetic], lily oil and orris root. We shared the different tasks and had lots of discussion about the decisions we were making and why. It was a different atmosphere to the very busy first day in the dye kitchen, and we literally got to stop and smell the roses during this experiment.

Smelling the perfume to see if the odour is like that of a great lord, which we decided is an open question.

As our perfume cooked, we each sewed up linen bags. Once the mixture had cooled, we put it on the rose petals and added them, still damp, to our bags. The results were very fragrant and our office still smells of the mixture three months later!

Rose petals damp with the perfume, ready to be put inside the hand-sewn linen bag.

After we finished making up our bags, we gathered together to admire all we had produced during the workshop.

Wrap-up discussion.

We discussed how recreating the recipes helped us understand some of the practices that working people in early modern Italy and Denmark might have carried out at home to care for, clean or refashion their garments. Making these recipes also demanded close reading and that we considered carefully the kinds of knowledge and experience they assume the reader already possessed. It also gave us insight into the kinds of knowledge and experiences that regular people had, a topic that is hard to trace in this period given the low-levels of literacy, especially among women, who were unable to record their thoughts, feelings and actions. In sum, by recreating early modern recipes, we tested if they actually worked, and gained a broader perspective of and new questions about processes of and knowledge about cleaning and caring for clothing in this period.

In the tailor’s workshop: an exhibition

Refashioning the Renaissance project is based in Aalto University, housing the schools for science and technology, business, and art, design and architecture. This multidisciplinary environment enables our project to engage with different areas of research and find new perspectives for our research, but it also means that most of the people in Aalto are not familiar with historical research.

Exhibition at the Väre FE lobby.

We came up with the idea of an exhibition, as a way to showcase our project to our colleagues and Aalto students, who necessarily do not know about our time period or about the research we do in the project, and also to kick off the experimental hands-on phase of our project. As reconstructions and hands-on experiments are important research methods for us, we wanted ‘making’ to be in the heart of the exhibition. Sixteenth-century tailors and their craft seemed like a natural choice, especially since it opened up a dialogue with contemporary fashion studies taught in Aalto.

The “Tailor’s workshop” exhibition on 7 January–8 February in Väre FE lobby recreated a sixteenth-century tailor’s workshop, modelled after early modern images, such as a fresco of drapers in Castello di Issogne, Italy. Different tools and materials used by early modern tailors were laid on the two tables, and finished garments are hanging on a rack. Many of the early modern tailor’s tools are same as the ones still used today—like scissors, thread, needles, and thimbles—whereas others are specific to the time period and not used anymore, like pinking tools that were used to cut fashionable slashes in fabric.

Recreating this workshop helped us to communicate a vital material aspect of our research; how does it feel to us these tools, such a sew with a bronze or iron needle instead of industrially made high carbon steel needle. It also helped us to discuss how historical and modern techniques differ and correlate. For example, laser cutting fabric can be seen as a modern take of the renaissance technique of slashing fabric.

As a ‘stage’ for our project, the exhibition allowed us to talk about our project and activities, and disseminate information about 16th-century fashion, clothing and tailoring practices. As part of the exhibition, we also organised a lunch talk event, where we invited people to talk about early modern fashion and tailoring practices with our researchers. Some came to visit Aalto specifically to take part of this event, and it was wonderful to see how many people were interested in our project, and how these centuries-old tools and techniques combined with modern research methods resonated with them.

Sophie Pitman and Michele Robinson presenting the exhibition.

Piia Lempiäinen demonstrating how a 16th century doublet was attached to breeches.

CFP: Fakes, Fabrication and Imitation in Early Modern Dress

15 July 2019

Né buone, né finte o false: Fakes, Fabrication and Imitation in Early Modern Dress

Renaissance Society of America Annual Conference
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
2–4 April 2020
Panel submission deadline: 15 August


Traditionally, historians of dress have argued that those at the lower end of the social hierarchy did not independently engage in fashion, but rather sought to imitate the clothing and style of the elite.

And there was indeed the appropriation of fabrics, garments, trims and accessories normally ascribed to the wealthy by the lower social orders, hence part of the need for sumptuary laws. But people were not just looking up for fashion inspiration; they also looked across social groups, cities, regions and even to distant continents where they found new fibres, textiles, colours, production methods and styles of garments. Goods from afar were imported into different European cities for local consumption, but there were also attempts to replicate or imitate foreign materials, fabrics and finishes. These attempts often resulted in new and novel products, which spurred revisions to sumptuary laws and the need to stipulate that some items, regardless of whether they were ‘good or feigned or fake’, were intended to be off limits to all but a few.

This panel seeks studies of the use and function of fakes, fabrications and imitation in dress and fashion in the early modern world (c. 1500-1700). Papers that consider non-elite dress practices are especially encouraged, as are those by late-stage PhD students and early career researchers. Submissions may consider some of the following questions:

  • What role did imitation and/or appropriation play in terms of how, where, when and by whom trends were circulated throughout and beyond neighbourhoods, cities, rural areas, regions and continents in the early modern world?
  • What were the social, cultural, financial and/or political motivations behind mimicking the dress of others, whether from different social groups, cities or regions?
  • How did the desire to reproduce the look and feel of imported textiles/dyes/materials or to replicate the results of foreign production practices shape local dress and fashion?
  • What new and novel products, techniques or dress concepts emerged through attempts to imitate or make substitutions for more costly or difficult to obtain goods?
  • How did sumptuary laws, guild regulations and other types of rules and legislation encourage or deter fakes and imitations in relation to the production of textiles, garments and accessories?
  • What were the social perceptions of ‘fakes’ (i.e. precious metals, gems, luxury textiles, colorants) and how did these perceptions inform their use in clothing and accessories?
  • How can replicas and reconstructions of early modern textiles, dyes, garments, trims and other components of dress support academic research?

If you wish to apply, please send the following items to Michele Robinson (michele.robinson@aalto.fi) by 9 August 2019:

  • Paper title (15-word maximum)
  • Abstract (150-word maximum)
  • Curriculum vitae (.pdf or .doc upload, no longer than 5 pages)
  • Phd completion date (past or expected)
  • Full name, current affiliation, and email address