Dirty Stories – what dirt from historic textiles can tell:

Soilings and residues on historical objects are invaluable evidence of the object’s maker or owner and its provenance, but can detract from the object’s appearance if they obscure informative details or, worse, cause damage. The more the curator and conservator know about the source and significance of the dirt, the more informed will be their decision whether to keep or remove it.

Values placed on historical objects evolve and change with time, and old dirt takes on new significance in different contexts. In retrospect, insignificant information can become potent and important evidence. The significance of dirt and grime on historic textiles is often not recognised or difficult to ascertain, especially black residue from nineteenth and early twentieth century domestic textiles. It is speculated to arise from polluted industrial and domestic environments of the period, such as coal tar dust. Justification for removal is that the soiling is acidic and contains abrasive particulates which damage fibres and weaken the structure, but this has not yet been proved.

‘Dirty Stories’ is a novel collaboration between chemical scientists with expertise in complex chemical mixtures analysis, conservation scientists with expertise in historical materials, textile conservators undertaking cleaning treatments and curators with historical knowledge about the textile being conserved. Dirt removed by mechanical cleaning and wet cleaning (aqueous and solvent) from historic textiles will be studied by applying a range of spectroscopic methods for advanced chemical analysis. As a result, a new and timely dirty conversation for conservation is sure to begin.


DrJohannes Kiefer (Principal Investigator), School of Engineering, University of Aberdeen

Dr Anita Quye (Co Investigator), Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History, School of Culture and Creative Arts, University of Glasgow

Karen Thompson, Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History

Nora Meller, MPhil Textile Conservation student, Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History


Royal Society of Edinburgh Scottish Crucible


November 2012 – December 2013.