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The earliest known recipe for a composite lavender water, dated 1615, gives directions for distilling the flowers together with canella, wallflower, gallingall and grains of paradise. These early forms of extraction were carried out by the process of water distillation – the flowers being literally immersed in a container of water which was then heated so the aromatic oils were carried over in a condenser with the water vapour. The distillate then separated out into two layers, with the volatile oil on top. Increasingly during the 17th century, as the knowledge of distillation spread throughout Britain, a variety of different essential oils were produced. These were blended to form exquisite natural perfumes and various ‘sweet waters’, which were commonly presented as gifts. Lavender water remained one of the most popular English scents.
There are certain types of women whose individuality seems to be better expressed by the use of lavender water than by any other scent. Gracious gentlewomen, with a love of all that is fair, harmonious and beautiful in life and thought, rather than the sophisticated, dashing type .
Queen Victoria herself had a particular fondness for the smell of lavender, and the royal apartments were redolent with its sweet, refreshing scent. Her Majesty is said to have purchased the essential oil direct from a lady who distilled it herself for use throughout the household as a domestic disinfectant. Furniture was also rubbed with lavender oil, as a forerunner of modern wax and polish. It was also used to scent gloves, leather goods and women’s hair. Indeed, the Victorian age as a whole demonstrated a penchant for lavender, and it was frequently mentioned in honeyed Victorian verse. An Elizabethan love song called ‘Lavender’s Blue’ re-emerged over 100 years later as the popular Victorian nursery rhyme:
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Lavender’s blue, dilly, dilly, lavender’s green; When I’m king, dilly, dilly, you shall be queen For many, the scent of lavender still has a nostalgic quality . it is ‘the fragrance of half-forgotten things’.3 It tends to suggest a naive, innocent quality, bringing back recollections of balmy summer days spent outdoors as a child, the comforting aroma of freshly laundered sheets, or the lingering trace of lavender water on a woman’s sleeve, even though her features may have long since faded with time: And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep, In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d ‘Eve of Saint Agnes’ John Keats (1819)
Lavender is often considered an old-fashioned perfume, associated with grandmothers and great aunts indeed, a heart-shaped lavender sachet made from pink net and tied with a velvet ribbon was once a traditional gift from a maiden aunt to her young nieces. But the ‘old maid’ image is not entirely fair -after all, it was once worn extensively by prostitutes to advertise their trade and attract customers! Yet through its rich associations lavender continues to have a strong traditional appeal, and it remains in huge demand by the perfumery industry today.
According to Priest, good lavender oil is one of the most enjoyable raw materials that a perfumer has to work with. At once powerful and delicate . it is seldom used alone but serves in many blends imparting a delightfully fresh and sweet note. It blends excellently with the citrus oils, especially bergamot, to produce colognes of all types
Yardley, one of the oldest perfume companies in the world, was founded on products based principally on lavender! They produced their first lavender soap during the reign of Charles I, and after the First World War they became the world’s largest manufacturer of lavender products. Since 1936 Norfolk Lavender Ltd, England’s largest and oldest lavender farm, has supplied Yardley with lavender oil for the manufacture of lavender water, lavender soap and other products, including their classic scent ‘Lavender’ (first produced in 1913). Other examples of quality perfumes which contain old English lavender are ‘Blue Grass’, ‘Paco Rabanna’ and ‘Silvestre’, as well as many fougere-type fragrances.