Archive for September, 2009

Library Find: Vintage ‘How To’

Yesterday when searching through my university’s library stacks, I came across this wonderful little book called The Expert Cleaner: A Handbook of Practical Information for All Who Like Clean Homes, Tidy Apparel, Wholesome Food, and Healthful Surroundings by Hervey J. Seaman, which was published in 1899. I couldn’t resist checking it out.

CoverI should have put a coin in the photo for a size reference, but it’s just 6″ x 4″ – a handy little guide.

Title Page

Its pages are full of practical advice about how to keep a tidy home, everything from choosing furniture, to storing food, removing all manner of stains, dying fabric, exterminating pests, and cleaning/polishing just about anything.

When I began to delve into this book, I prepared myself for an onslaught of sexist, patriarchal rhetoric, and while it is written on the premise that women manage the household (a fair assumption), I felt the tone of the book was more about empowerment. The author recognizes the challenges associated with running a household, rather than marginalizing the reader (housewife).  An excerpt:

“If the expert cook has cause to be proud, the expert housekeeper has even more reason, for she must not only possess an intimate knowledge of cooking, but of all other arts included in the domestic economy. In addition, she must be something of a chemist, a physician, an accountant, and a disciplinarian, as well as a sanitarian.”

And truly – in the 110 years since this was written, with all of our advances in technology – nothing much has changed. Men are increasingly undertaking portions of this role, but the tasks remain the same regardless of who accomplishes them.

As for the remedies, I was struck by the causal use of very harmful chemicals. For example, mercury (quicksilver) as a pesticide:

“QUICKSILVER – Quicksilver, mixed with the white of an egg, and applied to the ends of the slats and cracks of the bedstead with a feather, will kill bed-bugs.”


“TO DESTROY FLIES – Take two tablespoonfuls of water and sweeten. Then add one teaspoonful of laudanum and mix well. Put the mixture in a saucer, or several saucers, as you choose, and leave where flies can get it, and at the same time where children can not get it, as it is a narcotic.”


TO REMOVE GREASE FROM SILK – Removing grease from silk may be found easy and satisfactory, if done in the following way: Moisten the grease spot with chloroform, and then rub it with a cloth until perfectly dry. This will not injure the most delicate color.”

There’s all kinds of references to chemicals and substances that an average household no longer possesses (at least in its pure form), many of which are petrochemicals – turpentine, kerosine oil, benzine (not to be confused with benzene, fortunately), glycerin, camphor, peraffin – and many that are plant derived, such as pennyroyal, tobacco, gum arabic, quassia, lavender, and sweet clover. I wonder if, in another 110 years, people will look upon our current cleaning methods and products, and cringe at our use of triclosan (antibacterial agent) or some other “modern” cleaner that hasn’t been well tested for long-term health effects.

This reference also seems to have useful (if odd) remedies for common situations that we still encounter. For example,

INK ON WHITE LINEN – “When ink stains get on the white table-cloth, and you have nothing else convenient to apply, use a ripe tomato. Squeeze the juice from the tomato on the spot of ink, and work the juice into the spot, applying the tomato liberally. Pour clear water through the stain. Apply the juice again, and continue until the stain disappears. This will remove other stains as well as those of ink.”

A tomato? Really? I almost want to deliberately stain some white linen to try it out – I’m not quite sure how the stain-removal chemistry works here.

After browsing this guide, I was impressed at its thoroughness and detail – I imagine it must have been very helpful for several decades. I also realized that I don’t have a modern how-to guide in my own home, even though I/we could certainly use one. Do you have a housekeeping / home-remedy book you regularly refer to?

A Page

Washing Hamlet’s Mohair

Last weekend, I washed the fiber I had just sheared (shorn?) from Hamlet. I spent a good deal of time beforehand reading as much as I could about the washing process – most of the literature is written for sheep fiber, but I assumed  it was pretty cross-applicable.

One of the major drawbacks of having used kitchen scissors is that the locks of fiber are mostly individual, rather than being tucked inside a large fleece of interconnected fibers. For this reason, I decided to put the mohair inside a sweater washing bag for the process. This is what I used (Tide should pay me for this):

Fiber Washing bag

I did the washing in my laundry room sink – very hot water and about 1/4 cup of  soap (I used Palmolive Free & Clear). You can see (between the bubbles) that the water started out VERY dirty:

First Washing

I let the fiber soak for 20 minutes at a time, then I’d drain the water squeeze out the excess water in the fiber, and refill with water & soap. By the 3rd washing, the water is looks much more clean:

Third Washing

The fourth and final washing I did without any soap – only hot water.  After I was finished, I squeezed out the extra water from the fiber bag and began spreading the locks of mohair on the tiers of a hand-washing dryer rack so that it would dry over several days (yes, I have a pink laundry room):

Drying rack

A close-up of the fiber after washing – It’s just kind of a wet mess…I think I may have partially felted it when I squeezed the water out of the fiber after each wash:

Wet fiber

After two full days of drying (with a fan in the room to help the process along), it looks much better; not nearly as felted as I feared:

Washed Mohair

This fiber is RIDICULOUSLY soft – I have the urge to rub it against my cheek every time I pick up a lock. I can’t wait to spin & knit it! I’m planning to find some raw sheep’s wool and some carders to blend them together at the Fiber Festival in Orange, VA in a couple weeks.  It’s REALLY hard to restrain myself from ordering some online before then…but I know I’ll be much happier with the selection of these items at the fiber festival.

In the course of this washing experiment, I’ve come up with a list of things I’d do differently next time:

  1. NO agitation; not even to squeeze the water out of the fiber between washes.
  2. Reduce the amount of soap used in each successive wash (1/4 cup 1st wash, 1/8 cup 2nd wash, none 3rd wash).
  3. Add 1/4 cup of white vinegar to the last washing (I read – after the fact – that this helps to neutralize the alkaline soap and get the fibers fully clean & residue free)

A first try at spinning

Last year a good friend and I went to the Fall Fiber Festival & Sheepdog Trials just outside Orange, VA. We were beginner-intermediate level knitters and had NO CLUE about fiber production, spinning, etc. (Roving? What’s roving?) Needless to say, it was slightly overwhelming but opened our eyes to many wonderful new types of craft. We were especially excited about spinning, so I walked away having purchased only 2 items: a drop spindle and 3 dyed “sheep tails” for $0.75 each.

Now, I’m going to be honest here and admit that these items stayed in a bag on my craft shelf for 11 months. But this week, I pulled them out and decided to give it a go – what an experience! I’m not sure what “sheep tails” are, but I’m thinking it means “poorly carded, impossible to draft lumps of fiber” – I guess you get what you pay for.  I finally gave up trying to draft and pulled off strips of fiber that were the length I’d want post-drafting and spun that way. (I’m sure that was painful for all you spinning buffs out there!) But in any case, this is what I ended up with after working through 2 of my 3 “tails”:

Spindle Spinning

Can anyone tell if it looks over spun? I get the feeling it is, but can’t find any good references to say for sure. Maybe I have to wait until after finishing to know?

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Today is my maternal grandmother’s 84th birthday. She (and my late grandfather) were very involved in raising me as a small child and I’ve always loved her very dearly. When I was young, she would knit the most amazing dolls complete with petticoats and rosy cheeks. She taught me to knit when I was 6 or 7 and eventually passed on her needles, patterns, and notions to me when her hands became too arthritic and her sight too poor.

I have several vivid memories as a child that involved her taking care of me when I was sick. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a persistent cough and she’d come in my room, grab a sock out of my drawer and safety-pin it around my neck. In a few minutes, my cough would be gone and I’d be fast asleep again. I’ve used this sock trick MANY times throughout my adult life. It’s not exactly pretty, but it works well.

In these later years, my grandma has had an intermittent cough, which has kept a sock around her neck frequently. So for her birthday, I thought I’d knit her a neckwarmer as an alternative that’s stylish, but still not as bulky as a scarf – maybe something she would wear to church.  I used the simple, yet pretty Cashmere Cuff pattern by Jessica Vaughan with Berroco Inca Gold (an 80% merino wool / 20% silk blend) to give warmth and softness.

Grandma's Cowl

Did I mention we have llamas?

Yes, there are also llamas on the farm these days! My father-in-law bought them a couple weeks ago. As soon as I found out about them, I got very excited about the fiber producing possiblities. Unfortunately, though, their coats are COMPLETELY matted and would have to be sheared off and grown out again before I could use their fiber. I tried to cozy up to them so I could do just that, but they remain slightly unfriendly and – well – aloof. Hubby and I have been able to trick them into letting us touch their necks while we feed them grass, but after a quick pat they pull away.

We’re going to keep trying, but I think it may be quite a while before we can finally coax them into letting us shear them.

The Llamas

From right to left they are: Pedro, Napoleon, and Tina. Aren’t they cute (in that ugly sort of way)?

Shearing (Reprise)

This weekend, Hubby and I set out to finish shearing Hamlet. I looked at electric clippers online and BOY are they expensive! I figured that since I was only doing half a goat, I could get by with my trusty kitchen scissors.  And – surprisingly – it went much better than last time. I wasn’t exactly fast (took about 1hr), but I did a good job minimizing my second cuts and getting long staple lengths. Progress! I also managed to shear much more of Hamlet compared with Ivan. At one point, Hamlet kept trying to lay down and Hubby (who was holding his horns during the process) suggested that maybe he’d let us lay him on his side / back to shear the underside – and he did! Who knew these goats (even skittish little Hamlet) would be so pliable come shearing time.

I tried to get an after-shearing shot of Hamlet, but he was camera shy after his ordeal. This is the best I could do:

Hamlet Post-ShearingHis coat length is MUCH more even than Ivan’s, though I still wouldn’t call it a professional job. In fact, I think I’m going to have to redo Ivan – there’s just way to much wool left on him.  Poor guy!

On Shearing

A quick YouTube search reveals that this is how goat shearing should be done:

Not at all how it went down for poor Ivan…

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