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|Yes, usually only whites were washed
Written by Jessamyn
(2/14/2003 6:22 p.m.)
] Parson Woodforde had laundresses come in every five weeks, but (in the opinion of the editor of his diaries) it seems that only shirts, shifts, table linens, and other "whities" got washed. I am not at all sure on this, but would not be surprised if outer garments made of silk, wool, and other such fabrics were very seldom cleaned.
Outer garments of silk and wool usually weren't washed whole, just spot-cleaned. This was more obvious with 18th-century garments, which, quite apart from the question of whether water would run the dyes or beating and mangling would ruin the fibers, were constructed in ways that literally made washing impossible. That is, they had raw pinked edges that would fray away to nothing if washed, or glue-stiffened interfacings that would melt, or (very common throughout the 18th and early 19th century) self-fabric buttons made around disks of cardboard that would disintegrate. I have seen Regency vests decorated by first starching and then rolling a punch over the fabric, which pushed the fibers apart in decorative round holes. Obviously, the makers of such garments assumed that such a thing would never be washed, since washing would close up all the little holes.
Possible exceptions to this no-wash rule would be wool outer garments such as cloaks, where the wool might be boiled first to make it heavier, more water-resistant, and less likely to be marred if caught in a rainstorm. Even in the early 20th century it was still common practice for dressmakers to shrink wool before cutting by a process of wetting and ironing.
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