When you purchase vintage clothing you are buying a piece of history. Vintage clothing has had a prior life and, like most of us, is neither perfect nor pristine. This history is what gives it character! Even unworn items have been stored “somewhere” for at least the past 20 years. Knowing how to care for your vintage wardrobe will ensure that each piece lasts so that you can get the most wear and enjoyment from it.
Vintage clothing often has different fabrics, types of dyes, delicate trims, and often lack the protective finishes of modern clothing. Machine washing vintage garments may permanently destroy the garment. Dry cleaning may be the best option for some materials, however, many materials are best cleaned with a gentle hand washing.
Caring for Vintage Clothes
There is so much advice on how to care for, clean and preserve vintage clothes. I have sorted through this advice and provide you with best practices on clothing care.
Prevention is best for preserving vintage clothes.
- Take care in handling delicate fabrics. Make sure to wash your hands often as to not transfer grease, make-up or food stains from your hands to your clothing.
- Once you remove your vintage clothing, it is best to hang it inside out so that it can air out and perspiration can dry out. It is best to make sure it doesn’t get bundled in a hamper where odors are more likely to set in.
- Make sure that any jewelry that you wear does not snag the cloth or gouge the fabric. This can cause unnecessary wear or holes that may become not repairable.
- Make sure that you get your gowns hemmed to the appropriate height so that you do not drag material as you walk. The bottom of gowns can become filthy and tattered. Another approach is to make sure you hold the fabric up while walking to prevent dragging.
- Hats can be stuff with acid-free paper, and stored in trunks or boxes. Hats hold up quite well and using acid free paper to stuff and loosely wrap will keep them nice for another 100 years. Store in a cool, dry place. Alternatively, displaying them in an area where the sun won’t hit them is also acceptable.
- Never store your vintage clothing in plastic bags –clothing needs to breathe. Old pillowcase/sheets work if you really want to cover your pieces.
- Never use wire hangers –they will stretch your clothes and can rust, leading to discoloration.
- Always fold heavy pieces such as beaded gowns and sweaters. Try not to stack heavy folded items as this will cause unnecessary wrinkles and fold marks if stored for a long period of time.
- Make sure your clothing is in a climate controlled environment –dampness can cause mold and mildew and heat can cause discoloration. Both can attract unwanted pests and critters.
- Any items with fur should be stored in cedar-closet, chest, etc.
- Keep fabrics away from light. Light will cause discoloration and fading over time.
- Lavender will keep away pests – make sure it is near but not touching your vintage clothing.
Fabrics that may be machine washed include:
- Linen– note that linen needs steaming or pressing if machine washed. It is best cleaned by professionals.
- Some acetates, spandex, and synthetics were created to be able to be machine washed
Sometimes you can wash:
- Silk – in pure form. Note that crepes, knits, and raw silks all need to be professionally cleaned
- Rayon – if it is a plain weave. Crepe should be attended to by a professional cleaner.
Always Dry Clean:
- Wool – if washed, this fabric will most likely shrink severely.
- Fur and Leather
- Vinyl and Solid Plastics
- Iron-on Patches
- Other Trims
How to wash
Machine Wash –
Only wash vintage clothes that have machine washing instructions. If in doubt, do not put into a washing machine. Make sure to zip all zippers and fasten buttons before washing so that your clothes do not snag on each other. Do as your mother taught you and sepera4e your whites and darks – make sure there are no red socks near your whites.
Hand Wash –
- Make sure that the sink, tub or basin that you plan to clean your clothes in is in fact also clean before you begin. It is best to wipe it down with a white towel to see if you missed any spots.
- Choose the correct temperature for the garment and fill the basin partway. Drop a spot of the water on an inside seam to check for puckering or bleeding. If it puckers or bleeds, take the garment to a dry cleaner.
- Continue to fill the container. Make sure to leave enough space to add your garment without overflowing the container.
- Add detergent after the water is filled – use a few drops for a lightly used garment to 2 tablespoons for a heavily soiled article. Ivory Snow is a recommended detergent by vintage professionals.
- Mix the detergent with the water.
- Add the garment– slowly push and pull the garment through the water, allowing the entire garment to become soaked. Constantly check for bleeding or shrinking.
- When the water turns yellow, drain the water and press out excess water from the garment – do not wring out the garment.
- Make sure to lift the garment by its entire weight and not by one area – such as a leg/arm – this can lead to unnecessary stretching or breaking of fibers.
- Refill the container. Repeat until water stays fresh with no yellow.
- Make sure the water runs clear –usually 2 or more rinses are necessary. Make sure there are no suds or remaining soap residue.
- Gently squeeze excess water from the garment – hang or lie flat to dry (depending on weight).
Tricks for handwashing –
- Make sure all buttons, zippers, hooks and eyes, etc. are closed prior to washing. These can often get snagged on materials causing tears and snags.
- If you are washing a garment for the first time, make sure to test a hidden seam with water before soaking the entire garment. If you see any puckering in the area, do not submerge –your garment will shrink. Also make sure that dye does not run from the area as you do not want to lose color either.
- If you garment has stains, research the best way to remove the stain before washing. Using heat on the stain may set the stain. Make sure to inspect the area that was stained before drying the item.
Tricks for Line Drying -
- Hang or lie flat your wet garments immediately. Use a paddedhanger.Second best –use a plastic hanger.
- Many items are too heavy to hang to dry. Make surer to lie sweaters, dresses, and bulky items flat to dry.
- Do not hang clothing on a wire hanger to dry or else you will end up with stretching on the shoulders. Wire hangers may also rust, thus discoloring your garment.
- Make sure to reshape a garment before laying it flat to dry, otherwise you will end up with unwanted bulges and wrinkles in the garment.
Pressing your garments:
- Make sure your garment can be pressed before beginning – do not press fabrics such as velvet or crepe materials. Do not press items with embroidery, special trims such as beads/sequins.
- If unsure, try a test patch on an interior seam.
- It is always best to press the interior of the garment.
- Do not starch.
- Make sure your water is fresh when steaming.
- If you notice your garment starting to melt – STOP.
Different Heat for Different Materials:
- Low Heat– nylon, rayon, silks, and polyester, as well as most synthetics.
- Medium Heat – many blends of natural and synthetic fibers, like a cotton-polyester blend.
- High Heat – pure cotton and linen.
I recommend a handheld or professional steamer for remove wrinkles and pressing garments. It is fast, easy and you can steam many fabrics that cannot otherwise be pressed.
- Never iron velvet – steam from the inside and brush as you go. Velvet has a thick nap that can be ruined by pressing with an iron. A Dry Cleaner should be your first choice. If you must do it yourself, steam, not iron.
- Always steam rayon on the inside – otherwise shiny spots will appear. Rayon is another tricky fabric. You, again, should let a dry cleaner do it. But if you insist on doing it yourself, steaming from the inside while pulling fabric slightly taut will give it a flawless finish.