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Dirty Laundry in Early Modern Italy & Denmark

Date: 11–12 April 2019
Location: Aalto University
Organised by: Michele Robinson
Invited participants: Tessa Storey, Flora Dennis


In the early modern period, clothing was an important investment across social levels. Items were purchased new or second hand to mark important events within the life cycle; garments were passed down between generations; bequeathed to friends, family and the Church at death; loaned, pawned and sold in times of need. Pieces were mended, recycled and refashioned into new and different garments; even at the end of its life, a garment could be sold to the rag dealer. Clothing was expected and intended to last, which required further investment into its care, cleaning and re-use.

Additionally, cleanliness was coming to fore as a quality of the upright Christian citizen. Clothing played an important role in personal hygiene, with linen shirts worn to absorb sweat, oil and smells from the body, and prevent their contact with costlier outer-garments. Linens were to be washed regularly and often; skirts, doublets, cloaks and capes less so.

The maintenance of clothing and textiles was therefore important to presenting one’s self or family members well, but was also a way of preserving or increasing the value of textiles and garments. The purpose of the Dirty Laundry workshop, 11 and 12 April 2019, was to explore some of the techniques and practices that early modern Italians and Danes may have employed to remove stains from, refresh colour of and perfume their clothing. In particular, the workshop utilised recipes from popular sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books and pamphlets, which were intended for domestic use, written in simple terms and called for easily accessible and inexpensive ingredients. We wanted to see if these recipes actually worked, how difficult they were to follow and, perhaps most importantly, the new questions they raised about clothing and textiles within the early modern home.

The main aims and questions of the workshop were:

  • Test recipes related to textiles from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printed books and pamphlets. Do they work?
  • Learn how to read and understand early modern recipes. What do they ask us to do? What do they assume we already know?
  • Broaden our understanding of how people cared for their clothes in the domestic context and generate new questions and perspectives on dress and fashion through experimentation, discussion and collaboration.


Read Michele Robinson’s blog post about the workshop

Listen to the Refashioning Podcast episode of the workshop: