Help! My doll has a tan!
September 10, 2006 4:34 PM   Subscribe

I just bought an antique Japanese doll and she's in fair condition except for one thing--her silk "skin" is very discolored. How can I make her snow white again?

I have a few of these dolls and I find them fascinating. I know they probably aren't worth much in the grand scheme of things, but I like to have them around.

Most of the dolls I have are pristine white. This particular doll must have either been in a smoker's house or around heavily varnished furniture, as she has turned practically brown. Is there a way to return her to white? Everything is silk, including her skin. She's probably about 50 years old. As is, she is probably not very valuable so I'm willing to take a chance with her if it means I can restore her.

I know that I can't use bleach and I know that I probably shouldn't even get her wet. I had heard a tip that gently swabbing vintage silk with rubbing alcohol worked, but I want to get the opinions of the hive mind first.

Also, are there any ways to halt dry rot on silk? She's starting to show some deterioration in the back.

Here are some pics:

Face of doll
Doll comparison
Dry rot?

Thank you!
posted by bristolcat to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible that your doll was intended to have a more natural skin hue than the full formal geisha makeup of your comparison doll? The doll with the darker complexion doesn't seem "discolored" so much as she seems au naturale, and less formal than your geisha dolls. And even geisha don't always work in full makeup, you know.

That said, I think you'd be better off trying to powder her, rather than do anything to treat the silk. You'd have more control over the color, and very fine grades of talc might also confer some further protection against sun fading, or other environmental problems.

I can't really make out the "dry rot" in your photo, but true silk is usually pretty resistant to rot, unless it has gotten damp. Is it possible that you have some other fiber there? Do you know how to identify fibers by flame testing?
posted by paulsc at 4:52 PM on September 10, 2006

Response by poster: Paul, thanks for the answer.

She definitely is discolored. Her clothes, are too. When I poke and prod at the folds of her kimono, I can see inside to the unaffected parts of the fabric.

Powdering is an interesting idea. Would I just use talc? I had even considered just painting over the silk, but don't know if that's a really bad idea or not. There are areas of the kimono that are discolored as well and I had hoped to repair them too.

I may try the flame testing. I am somewhat loathe to remove some of the silk, but it might be helpful. I really thought it was silk but it's hard to say. I had another old doll which was rotted away to almost nothing and I just want to prevent that.
posted by bristolcat at 4:58 PM on September 10, 2006

Body talc powders are normally a combination of calcium carbonate talc powder, and various additives such as zinc oxide and sterates, plus scents and perhaps essential oils such as eucalyptus that are blended to achieve absorption, smell, and touch qualities when used as a body powder. Facial powders are made from finer grains of talc powder, which have been milled longer to achieve finer grain, down to about 5 micron average particle size. Such talc is also sold in bulk for compounding into plastics, where it adds strength and other desirable properties to injection molding and sheet extrusion plastic resins. And fine talc is also widely used in textile manufacture as a bleaching and cleaning agent, to remove oils from fabrics in manufacture.

You would want a talc that is very, very fine in granular size, and uncut with any additives, other than perhaps titanium oxide (for whiteness). Here's a bulk supplier you might contact about getting small sample quantities. You might also find some suggestions at hobby or craft stores in your area.
posted by paulsc at 5:42 PM on September 10, 2006

Forgot to add, you apply the powder with a small, fine painter's brush (camel hair), using a dabbing motion, to work the powder into the fabric fibers. Work in small areas, blending slowly into new areas, and loading your brush frequently. When you're satisfied, you can "fix" the color with a very, very light coat (or maybe two) of hair spray. Preferably, the kind of unscented, unconditioner laden hair spray that is nearly pure lacquer, suspended in a little methanol for spraying. Spray into the air, pass the doll through the sprayed air, for the lightest coat possible.

The finished product shouldn't puff dust to the occasional touch, but there shouldn't be a visible "sheen" of lacquer on the surface, either. I've done this with hats, costume collars, faded upholstery, and many other antique fabrics needing a little help in the appearance area. Quite controllable, and the results don't cause further deterioration of the fabric, although obviously, it is not a technique for frequent cleaning of fabrics exposed to heavy soils or wear.
posted by paulsc at 6:03 PM on September 10, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, thank you paulsc! There is a lot of help here! I can't wait to see how it works.
posted by bristolcat at 6:11 PM on September 10, 2006

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