I'm frequently asked by my customers how to best clean African Indigo and African mud cloth textiles. This post provides several suggestions on overall cleaning and spot cleaning of your African Indigo fabric.
photo: Morrissey Fabric
The vintage African Indigo in the photo above received the first step of cleaning that all my vintage indigo pieces get. I load the washing machine with hot water then add Sythropol textile soap and a cup of Oxi Clean for colors. I use a big stick to mix the water and soaps, then I add two or three indigo pieces to the washing machine. On occasion the vintage textile will split a seam or two. Unfortunately the vintage indigo shown above needed a lot of mending after washing. Since there was no staining, the mending is worth the effort.
More often than not, vintage African Indigo and mud cloth has spots and stains after washing. The African Baule cloth from the Ivory Coast shown above still has multiple stains that did not come out in the wash. This is when time becomes your friend. In a spare sink, fill half full with hot water. In my case I use large plastic storage bins. Then add a scoop of Oxi Clean and a tablespoon of Synthropol textile soap to the water and mix. Next, place the stained vintage indigo into the water mixture. Agitate to be sure the textile is fully submerged. Allow the stained textile to remain in the bath for 24 hours.
Below is a photo of how I soak out stains. Nearly every time the vintage African fabrics go through this soaking process the stains are gone and you would never know they were there.
A word of warning, DO NOT use bleach on these stains. You will ruin your indigo! Instead of removing the stain, you will bleach white areas into your cloth that you cannot reverse. Trust me, I see many a ruined vintage African textile that someone tried to spot clean with bleach or a heavy solvent.
The African indigo textiles shown above are near the end of the 24 hour textile soak. As you can see, even though these vintage indigo textiles were already washed in hot soapy water, they still had plenty of dirt and grime stuck within the cotton fibers. I used this particular photo because the water gives you a good sense of what can be cleaned out of your vintage indigo textiles. Keep in mind, many of these vintage African indigo fabrics are nearly one hundred years old. Like a pair of old blue jeans, they will hang on to some of the wear and tear of their years, so a single wash in your machine won't likely get them back to their original glory. A good soak will get you a much cleaner fabric. When you are buying from my shop, this has already been done and is reflected in the pricing.
After the 24 hours has passed, wring out the African indigo and let the dirty water go down the sink drain. I don't like to put the dirty soapy water into my outdoor drains because they go directly the bay where my husband and I swim. Our indoor garage sink drain is the safest most environmentally friendly place to dispose of the soak tub water.
Finally, I fill the washing machine with water and a half cup of Synthropol textile soap. I don't add any Oxi-clean for this final wash because there is already plenty of soap in the cotton fibers after soaking. Run your washing machine on a gentle wash cycle.
I mentioned that you should not use bleach to spot clean any vintage indigo textiles. I stand by that. However, if you want to deodorize a vintage African fabric, you can use a cup of bleach in your wash. The best way to do this is to add the bleach to a full washing machine tub. Stir it around or agitate to dilute the bleach. Then you are ok to put the vintage indigo textile into the wash. These indigo fabrics have been worn or in use for many years and the color will not suddenly bleach out of the cloth. There have been times when I wanted to fade the indigo, and adding just one cup of bleach to the wash showed no effect.
I like to line dry my indigo textiles in the California sun but this isn't always possible. When the weather doesn't permit, I dry the indigo in my dryer on a regular setting. Once it's done, you are good to go.
A final note: not all stains will come out. Some vintage African indigo has paint or markings that simply won't budge without destroying the cotton fiber. Some yellow or rust-like stains won't let go even after multiple 24 hour soaks. You can live with these impossible to remove stains and understand that it's part of the personality, character, and history of the vintage textile.
Next time I'll touch on cleaning new pieces of African mud cloth. This is an entirely different process. Stay tuned.