Documentation from Artifacts of a Life

September 30, 2015 at 9:09 pm | Posted in spot removal | Leave a comment

This is part of the documentation I used at the Artifacts of a Life event. Hopefully I will get a chance to add pictures of the cloth the stain removers were used on.

Spot Removal Techniques from the Allerley Matkel

Published in 1532, the Allerley Matkel was the first printed book of spot removal techniques. It was reprinted and translated several times, including as part of the English translation of the French Alexis’ Book of Secrets. One of the first “kuntsbuchlein”, treatises written in German for the ordinary person, the book appears to be aimed at housewives or other non-professional workers.

The book contains thirty recipes. Eleven pertain to spot or stain removal, six discuss dyeing or refreshing color in cloth, seven to dyeing horn, bone, or wood, with a handful of other recipes such as how to make fake pearls or soften bone.

For this project I have recreated four of the spot removal techniques using the English translation by Sidney Edelstein.

Because I was interested in general spot removal techniques, and I hope this will be part of a larger project on sixteenth century spot removal, I chose to test each of the recipes on several different types of stains, even if the recipe was specifically for grease, wine, or another particular spot type. I chose stain types for being typical of the era, as well as being those frequently mentioned in stain removal recipes. The five types of stains are: olive oil, wax, red wine, grease, and dirt. My first attempts used chicken grease, but the stains were barely visible, so I switched to bacon grease. I went back and re-worked the original test piece with bacon grease so that the projects would be consistent. The olive oil also remains barely visible even without washing. I am unsure if linen simply does not take stains as easily as cotton does, as I have several mundane clothing items that have been permanently stained with olive oil. The pieces of wool that I possessed barely took any of the stains. When I dripped the amount of staining materials that I had used on the linen onto the thick wool, they disappeared without a trace. I had to make a concerted effort to purposefully saturate the wool. I am unsure whether this is related to the thickness of the wool, a modern manufacturing feature, or some other factor.

Recipe 1

To prepare a water for removing spots from white cloth

Take four ounces alum feces, two bucklin water, let evaporate one fourth the volume; take thereupon white soap and cut it into small pieces, take also one ounce alum, put all into the water and let stand for two days; then use on white cloth as before. (as before refers to a previous recipe: “For use take a new piece of [woolen in the previous recipe] cloth, moisten it with the water and rub the spot or stain with it. When the piece of cloth becomes dry, moisten it again with the water and rub until the spot has disappeared; thereupon take warm water and wash the place where the stain has been.)

As I did not need a great deal of liquid, I chose to halve the recipe.

Sidney Edelstein notes that the exact chemical nature of alum fecis is not known but quotes other period sources indicating that “alumen faecis is the faex of wine that is tartar.” Going forward with this definition, I used two ounces of cream of tartar.

A “bucklin” is an unknown measure, but as the English Alexis’s Book of Secrets translates this as “half a pint”, I chose to use the same measurement. In halving my recipe, I therefore used half a cup of water.

After mixing the water and cream of tartar I heated the mixture to just under a simmer, as I wished to expedite the evaporation without boiling it. When it had been reduced to a quarter of a cup I added white soap (see appendix for details on the soap) which I had cut into pieces roughly the size of a diced onion. I added the half ounce of alum and let it sit. The recipe called for two days, but my time constraints meant that it actually sat for three days before I was able to use it. During this time the soap pieces, which I had worried were too large, almost completely disintegrated. The cream of tartar precipitated out, so that the end result was layered: the cream of tartar on the bottom, then a liquid layer, with final oily/soapy layer on top. It did not look promising.

After stirring it all up, I wet my piece of linen, and rubbed the stain with it. (The “do as before” original called for woolen cloth, but that was specifically for a stain on wool. I decided that a stain on linen would be better served with a linen rub.) I then rinsed the stained cloth with warm water.

Recipe 2

How to remove grease or oil spots from white cloth

Take some starch, boiled with flour; immerse the cloth in this as far as the grease or oil spots are apparent in the cloth for one night, wash in clear running water and hang it on a place where the sun shines brightly. If, however, you wash cloth dyed with costly colors, you have to hang the fabric where the sun does not shine too hotly to avoid harming the color, because the hot sun soon damages the costly colors.

For this recipe I took about a cupful of starch (see appendix for details on the starch) and boiled it with half a cup of flour. This thickened it up dramatically, and if I were to redo this recipe, I would use less flour. The result was a very thick paste, and the cloth was less “immersed” and more “covered by piling the paste on with a spoon.”

Despite that the starch mixture was so thick, it was remarkably effective. When I rinsed it off the next morning, it was almost entirely white, even before putting it out to bleach in the sun. There was some very subtle tiny bits of bran clinging to the cloth, but that could have been avoided if I had better strained my starch in the beginning. This was my personal favorite of the four spot removal recipes I tried for this project.

Recipe 3

How to remove grease or oil spots from all sorts of clothing including white ones

Take some water from boiled peas, soak the spots therein and wash thereupon with clean running water; hang it up where the sun shines brightly.

It was not clear to me whether the recipe indicated dried peas or fresh peas, so I tried both kinds. I boiled whole dried peas and fresh peas separately, for about an hour each. I soaked the cloth in the water overnight, as a specific time was not indicated and previous recipes that required soaking asked for an overnight time frame. The spots were fainter in the morning, and lessened even more after being hung up in the sun for two days. While not quite as effective as the starch-based recipe, it was also considerably less work and could be whipped up on the spot with only peas and water to hand. I did not notice a particular difference in the efficacy of the recipe using dried versus fresh peas.

Recipe 4

Another recipe for removing grease spots

Take cold lye and warm it a little with wine lees and stir well, but take care that it should not be applied in too warm a condition. Use as above.

Despite repeated attempts over the years, I have never been able to make an effective lye. Instead I “cheated” and used potassium hydroxide flakes mixed with water to create my lye. I also did not have any wine lees, so I went straight to the probable chemical indicated, cream of tartar. I mixed the cream of tartar with water until I had equal quantities of  water/cream of tartar and lye/water. Although this recipe does not indicate proportions, the next recipe in the book is extremely similar, other than to specify that the lye be from beech ashes and that white wine lees are used, and in that recipe it asks for equal portions.


These spot removal recipes were surprisingly effective. However, plain water was also able to remove quite a bit of the stained material, to my dismay. The linen was much quicker than my mundane cotton clothing to shed stains, and the thick wool I had on hand required a level of effort to stain that would be unlikely in a real-life situation such as a spill or dribble. As I seek to try other sixteenth century stain removal techniques, I want to acquire some thinner wool to see if the type of cloth makes a difference in the stain retention, and therefore the efficacy of the stain removers.

Appendix A: “White Soap”

The  first recipe calls for “white soap.” I used a castile soap I made at home. “Castile soap” originated in the Castile area of Spain, and uses 100% olive oil, rather than tallow. This gives it a very white color.

I based my soap roughly on the recipe in the Mappae Clavicula. Even though it is from a much earlier period, the basic concept for how to make soap has changed very little even today.

After it [the lye] has clarified well let it cook, and when it has boiled for a long time and has begun to thicken, add enough oil and stir very well. Now, if you want to make the lye with lime, put a little good lime in it, but if you want it to be without lime, let the above-mentioned lye boil by itself until it is cooked down and reduced to thickness. Afterwards, allow to cool in a suitable place whatever has remained there of the lye or the watery stuff. This clarification is called the second lye of the soapmaker. Afterwards, work the soap with a little spade for 2,3, or 4 days, so that it coagulates well and is dewatered, and lay it aside for use.

The first part of this recipe (which I did not copy here) concerned making lye for the soap. I have tried this several times in the past, and did attempt it again for this project, but every time it has been a failure. I have since come to realize that the “if you want to make the lye with lime” isn’t as optional at it may appear. Regardless, for this soap I chose to use sodium hydroxide flakes instead of homemade lye. My choice in sodium hydroxide, versus potassium hydroxide, was because Castile soap is traditionally made with lye made from barilla plants, which are very high in salt. Sodium hydroxide produces a much harder bar of soap than potassium hydroxide, a characteristic of Castile soap.

“Add enough oil” was too vague for me when working with potentially dangerous chemicals, so I used a modern soap maker’s lye calculator to determine the correct proportion of lye to olive oil.

I heated the olive oil on the stove. I did not need to heat the lye because adding the lye flakes to water creates an exothermic reaction which caused the water/lye solution to rapidly heat up on its own. I then mixed the oil and lye together and stirred it together, alternating between a hand blender and a wooden spoon. When the mixture had properly thickened, I put it in a mold. Because I had used proper calculations on the lye, I did not have to worry about it “dewatering”. The soap had properly set and I did not have to work it with a spade.

Appendix B: Starch

For the starch called for in the second recipe, I made my own from bran using a recipe from the fifteenth century  Sloane Manuscript 3548, the English translation of which is: Take a quantity of bran and boil it in clean water, and let it stand 3 days or more until the water is bitter or sour; then squeeze the water out of the bran and immerse your clean cloth, linen, ‘bokeram’, or ‘carde’, or anything that you want, and afterwards dry it, and smooth with a stone.

I used a cup full of wheat bran and two cups of water, which I boiled together. If I were to do the project again, I think I would use a bit more water. I let the mixture stand for three days in late summer heat, after which point it could definitely be described as “sour.” I misguidedly interpreted squeezing to mean literally squeezing the mixture with my hands. In retrospect, the end product would have been significantly improved had I used cheesecloth to help strain the small bits of bran out of the finished starch.

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