Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  October 6, 2017

Clean as a Whistle: Keeping Clothes Clean on the Island of Arran

Rachel Sayers

As a dress historian and Costume Society ambassador I am always on the lookout for something interesting and thought provoking to write about for my monthly blog posts for the Costume Society. I’ve recently moved to the west coast of Scotland for a job with the National Trust for Scotland and this affords me the opportunity to explore heritage sites across the west coast. On one such weekend trip to the island of Arran I found myself in the island’s Heritage Museum that covers life on the island from Neolithic times to the 20th century.

The museum has an excellent archive of homespun clothing, shop bought clothing and traditional attire worn by the islanders from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. One item of interest was originally a mourning shawl from the 1870s, which had then been adapted several times over for different users. It changed from a child’s mourning dress in the early 1900s to finally become a fitted bolero in the late 1940s, via several other incarnations. Accompanying this piece were photos of the garment in its different guises. As a dress historian with an interest in the social history of dress, seeing the physical evidence of how a garment had been adapted to suit different needs was right up my street!

To keep an item like this clean was quite a task as many of the islanders didn’t get electricity until the late 1940s! So how did someone keep this mourning cape/mourning dress/bolero clean without electricity and only using their bare hands? This is where the many ‘washing machines’ situated in the main cottage of the Heritage Museum came into play. It is easy to forget when looking at spectacular garments and accessories how incredibly difficult it was to keep beautiful dresses clean on a regular basis. Washdays where literally wash days as it took all day to get through even a small family’s laundry!

In the Heritage Museum there was a machine for washing blankets and heavy material, a copper for boiling dirty linen, a smaller machine for smaller items and a generic mangle come washing machine for everyday items of clothing. Accompanying these machines were black and white photographs of laundresses and ordinary housewives using such contraptions (many at open streams and rivers) to clean their clothes. The wearer of this jacket would have come from a wealthier island family but not so wealthy that the garment only remained used as a mourning cape.

Unfortunately, my camera battery had died by the time I got to the Heritage Museum so any photos here are from other visitors. To understand how these garments were cared for it is useful to understand how they were cleaned. Firstly, there was an initial brushing down of dirt and inspection for broken hems or missing fabric, then a general soak if the item was soiled, followed by a boiling of the item or washing of it dependent on the fabric and finally the final wringing out, drying and ironing. To keep a garment such as a mourning cape ‘clean as a whistle’ was no mean feat. The tour guide who kindly supplied me with information on how different items were cleaned also told me that her mother had muscles to rival any female weight lifter!

It is important for us as dress historians to remember the minutiae of everyday life that contributed to the survival of garments in museums. Without laundresses, laundry maids, washer women etc. doing a skilful job to keep clothes clean we might not have the deluge of gorgeous garments in museums across the world for us to look and awe at today.

  • 1. Isle of Arran Heritage Museum. Source: http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/arran/heritagemuseum/index.html
  • 2. Interior of Arran Heritage Museum Cottage. Source: http://www.arranmuseum.co.uk/what-will-you-see/social-history/
  • 3. Similar 1870s Mourning Cape.
  • 4. Washing Apparatus, Arran Heritage Museum, 20th Century. Source: https://www.privatehousestays.com/l/Attractions/Arran-Heritage-Museum
  • 5. Interior of Arran Heritage Museum Cottage. Source: http://www.arranmuseum.co.uk/what-will-you-see/social-history/

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