Having moved into the world of vintage clothing you'll need to decide on a policy for laundering. This may well depend on whether you specialise in white goods and
old lace or decorative items. Whatever your final selections you need to be aware of some pitfalls to cleaning old textiles.
Unless stored correctly few textiles survive beyond
400 years due to disintegration. If you have a great piece you feel is old, you will be torn about cleaning it. The rule is think first, don't
rush headlong into action.
Many people wonder if they should wash vintage
clothes. Well presentation of an item is important, but it does
all depend on the item. If it's likely to be considered a museum piece leave
it for the specialist conservators who would certainly prefer to purchase
the item as is. The most important concept here is to think first
and then act. Don't rush headlong into cleaning or pressing
the garment without
thinking out the best procedure for a particular item. Pressing
fixes some stains that might come out with treatment if previously
untouched by heat. The older
the item the less well it responds to any type of cleaning - this is
particularly true of the dry cleaning of old silk.
One other important factor to consider is original tags and labels.
usually means these need to be removed. Many buyers prefer to buy
goods with the tags on. Think about how removing original tags
might devalue the item.
Conversely if the item is fairly ordinary, think about
whether you would prefer to buy it in clean condition, particularly if
it's cotton and probably could be washed. If you want to wash the
item try a test patch on an inner seam. Some glazed cottons will
lose their finish. Just as many people don't want the garments
cleaned as those who do. Try to get to know your clientele and
find out their preferences.
Velvets can be problematic, if in doubt do nothing.
You can read more about handling
velvet here. Where velvet is concerned less work of the right
treatment, can be better than more of the wrong treatment!
Consider firstly how good you are at washing your own
laundry. Do your clothes look as good after many washings?
Do you shrink knitwear on a regular basis, ruin delicate blouses, have
colour runs frequently, over press garments and get scorch or shine
marks? If you do, home laundering may not be your forte. But
if you are confident that you can be trusted to wash these vintage items
carefully by hand then go ahead.
The operative word above was HAND.
Do not use a washing machine or a dryer for any
Vintage fabrics suitable to wash are cotton, linen and some wools usually when mixed with nylon and acrylics.
As a guideline nylon goods or mixtures will be after 1940, acrylics
after 1950 and polyester marked labels after 1960. Many fabrics from the sixties will be under specific registered
trademark names such as Crimplene which is high bulk polyester.
washes and drip dries like a dream if washed correctly below 40 degrees centigrade
and is then cold rinsed. (See tip below)
Rayon is best dry cleaned, as is any vintage fabric
that obviously rustles or looks as if it has a special finish like
watermark moiré. Whilst many modern moiré fabrics wash easily,
older versions and other taffeta like fabrics may be silk, rayon or acetate
based which with washing will not only lose all body, but may shrink,
lose colour and distort beyond recognition to look like a limp rag.
Some rayons will disintegrate and 'split and shred' in water and I have
had this happen with fine silk too.
Many older fabrics are not colour fast, but dye fastness has improved
enormously over the years.
Certain wools and silks will wash, but many will not.
More importantly many trims will collapse if washed. Lace will
frequently lose crispness and some trims may shrink and pull along a
facing edge distorting the neckline etc. If in doubt don't wash
them, have them dry cleaned by a specialist cleaner.
As an alternative you can simply valet them by hanging
in fresh air to get rid of any smells. If suitable, lightly pressing
on the reverse of a fabric, that you have tested in an inconspicuous
part, can work well. Give the garment a good brush down and spot stain remove if
it's an appropriate fabric.
Don't hang white or creamy wools or silks in the sun
as they are easily yellowed by direct sunlight. This is caused
because of the presence of cystine in the fibre which is sulphur
bearing and causes a discolouring reaction with direct sunlight.
Instead hang the items in a room with a bowl of white vinegar for a few days
and let the vinegar absorb any smells. On a breezy day open the window and
let fresh air into the room too.
If light ironing is out of the question consider
whether direct steaming would work, or whether non invasive steaming
such as hanging the garment in a steamy shower room would be better.
The latter works well on velvets.
Read about handling
Dry cleaning would add to the cost, but remember your
time is money so weigh up whether trying for hours to improve the look
of a garment would be better achieved by a professional cleaner.
If it is a desirable designer item don't hesitate to have it dry cleaned
if it would truly benefit the item.
Wrinkled DRY cotton items can be freshened up by
laying them between 2 clean damp bath towels which have been spun at
1000 rpm to remove excess moisture. Leave the garments between the
damp towels for about 5 or 10 minutes and then check them to see if the
fabric would iron more comfortably. Try this technique on a modern
shirt first so you get an idea of the method.
Make sure you know your fabrics well before you wash
silk or wool and even buy unusable silk thrift items just to try
techniques of stain removal, washing and pressing. Be very careful
with silks used in suits that have ribbed or other special embossed
effect weaves and specialist dry clean them, or sell as is.
I watched a conservationist use this method many years
ago. The only difference is that she had access to deionised
water. If you live in a hard water area or you have water deposits like iron
pigments sometimes showing up as discolouration on whites, think twice about
1. Only wash one item at a time.
2. Generously fill either a deep Belfast basin or a bathtub
with lukewarm water. (Lukewarm is blood heat - the temperature of
water usually diluted with about one part boiling to about 3 parts cold water.
As hot as the hand can stand is 48 deg Centigrade and that really is far
too hot for wools for example)
3. Start your cleaning by using the most gentle of
products i.e. Woolite or Dreft or Lux soapflakes. You can work up
to more alkaline products as you feel the item needs more severe
treatment. Dissolve one of these products in a jug of hot
water and add the completely dissolved solution to the bathtub.
4. Lay the garment in the tub and pat it flat with
your hands letting the solution run through the garment as it floats in
the water. NEVER AGITATE THE GARMENT.You could use a sponge and just press the suds through the garment
with the sponge. This could be an even better technique if
you have long fingernails. If it is cotton or linen let it soak for about 15 to 30 minutes if
it needs more than just a freshening wash. Don't over soak it if
wool, as that will cause excess shrinkage.
5. Prepare to rinse. Get a clean large baby bath
or similar bowl ready nearby, or if you have no bowl use a large clean
refuse bin liner bag if you need to to take the garment downstairs or outside. Let water out of the tub leaving the
soapy garment in the tub. Whatever the fibre, any wet garment will
be much heavier, but wool will be much weaker wet than when
dry, so handle it carefully when you need to lift it out.
6. The secret of good washing is good rinsing.
Use the shower head attachment if your bath has one and spray rinse the
garment moving the fabric folds gently if needed. An alternative
to the conservation method is rinsing the garment either by running
fresh cold water into the bath 5 or 6 times until the water runs clear.
Do make sure you do this stage thoroughly as you do not want to leave
any residue in the garment that will hasten its demise.
7. If the garment is wool use a plastic tray to slip
under the sweater and support the now very heavy weight of it without
causing it to stretch. If it's cotton or linen move it into your
clean bowl and let residual water drain away. Wrap it carefully in
a big bath towel and get rid of that excess water. Use another
bath towel if it helps get rid of more water. (You may now be
thinking specialist cleaning would be worth paying for!)
8. Avoid putting it in a spin drier, but if you cannot
resist spinning it, take the time to first put the garment inside a
pillowslip and close it up, or use a specialist lingerie bag to protect
the fabric. Never spin with other garments especially bras with
hooks and never use a spin higher than 400 to 500 rpm unless you want creases
that are the devil to iron out. Be warned that many spun
garments end up with odd little holes that are impossible to repair.
9. This will amaze you. The conservationist laid
the garment on a special draining unit. She next
proceeded to dry the drained washed cotton garment with a
hairdryer, gently directionally caressing the length of the fabric
gathers whilst her colleague held the hairdryer. No wonder it was
so time consuming. But they did not iron the garment as it was
crease free with this method.
N.B. If you do opt for this
method, you must remember that water and electricity don't mix and an
accident could result in death. A
second person is needed to hold the dryer. The person holding and
smoothing the wet garment should not touch the hairdryer. We take no responsibility for your careless use of
equipment which results in harm to you or others.
10. For practicality I suggest you omit the hairdryer
unless it is a lightweight blouse. Instead use a suit weight
strong plastic hanger and let the item drip dry over the bath if it is
cotton or linen. Be careful not to use a fancy padded hanger or a wooden
hanger at this stage, which might transfer wood or dye stains to the item. You
could use a hanger covered with soft bulked plastic, terylene wadding or
bubble wrap. If
there are shoulder pads squeeze out as much excess moisture as you can
as it can sometimes cause differences in colour to other parts of the
garment. If the skirt is unusually heavy, support the garment
skirt weight with a
11.DO NOT TUMBLE DRY THE ITEM.
12. When the garment is dry or damp dry, press it
carefully having first tested pressing on an inside facing.
13. Hang the item on a padded hanger. Do not
pack for shipping until totally aired - allow about 8 hours minimum or
more if possible. Do not press again just before packing as the warmth
in the fabric will cause folds to fix.
Vintage Textile Soak is a proprietary brand that many people now
consider superior to Oxyclean. Use it on a variety of fabrics and
get good results. You can buy it on the internet if it is hard to
Oxyclean can be used very effectively for cotton and linen,
but it must be totally dissolved in hot water before mixing with more
water. You can soak items for about 24 hours if you are prepared to take
the risk. It can also be used as a paste on difficult grimy areas
like collar necklines or other stains. Keep it working on the
stain for several days by covering it with a piece of dampened quality
white kitchen roll and polythene or plastic Clingfilm or Gladwrap to
keep moisture in the paste. Show patience and stains will come out
with repeat action. Areas like necklines also respond well to the
use of a fine brush like a toothbrush kept specially for the purpose.
Zout, Shout and Dryel stain removers can all be
used on stains before washing. Orvus is also effective to
remove stains and you should follow the manufacturers instructions.
Clean white kitchen paper towels or clean white muslin clothes can be
useful under the area being treated to stop stains being transferred.
Don't use printed kitchen paper towels.
Whether or not to use bleach is always a problem. Most white cottons can
be bleached with chlorine bleach if they have no other fibres mixed with
them and no special finishes - but use it as a last resort -
remember this is a vintage item !
Chlorine based bleach
should NEVER be used on wool or silk and for the same reason neither fabrics
should be put in direct sunlight. The sulphur in both fibres reacts with
the chlorine bleach and causes yellowing of both wool and silk.
(Chlorine bleach is commonly known in the UK as Domestos. Any other which states
Sodium Hypochlorite on the bottle is also Chlorine bleach and will smell
like a swimming pool). It also
causes the disintegration of silk (typically fine scarf silk) and it can
actually shred apart as you are rinsing the chlorine bleach out.
You only ever make this mistake once, but it's better never to make it
bleach may be kinder. If you use any detergent product containing sodium perborate oxygen bleach remember that the water temperature must be near
boiling for it to work effectively, meaning that only linen or cotton
can be treated this way.
Many vintage garments have underarm stains and
collectors sometimes wrongly assume that deodorants have caused the
discoloration. Some changes in fabric colour are actually due to a
phenomenon called gas fading and occurs when certain dyes are used on
lining fabrics and the garment is stored in a house with gas
central heating or gas fires. A chemical reaction occurs from the presence of
deposits from the gas usage and the dyes in the lining cause the dye
to degrade particularly in the underarm region, but often all over the
lining. So some black, navy and other dark linings like bottle green
develop a reddish brown tinge.
Deodorant underarm stains are another matter and those
greyish white, powdery dry markings
can often be removed by spot dabbing with white vinegar using a lint free
clean white cloth. Lemon juice also works in a similar manner.
Lucky vintage collectors may find a dress with dress
shields. We always used to sew these detachable underarm cotton
inserts into wool and silk dresses to prolong their wear and reduce the
cost of constant dry cleaning in the sixties. Removing someone else's dress
shield may be unpleasant, but it may well have protected the dress
brilliantly from damage. Excess perspiration left on a fabric can
speed up the rotting process particularly on weighted silks where the
metal salts such as those used in tin weighting, react with the chemicals in an antiperspirant
and often create weakness or colour damage.
spoil the look of any item and frankly it's best not to buy smelly goods
or items with mildew.
However if you
have something with mildew on it, begin by putting it in the fresh air
outside and letting sunlight get to it. This at least often
removes the odour. Sometimes the mildew is so ingrained nothing
will improve it, but fresh air and sunlight gives you a good basis to
work from with specific laundering methods.
If the items are in fabrics that do not demand dry
cleaning then you can use various products to deal with mildew. If
possible try to kill the mildew as it can reappear. Products like
half water mixed with lemon juice or white vinegar when sprayed on the
item kill it. Lysol is available both as a spray or a wash product
and gives good results on linen and on cotton. For mildew on leather use
saddle soap and then mink oil to recondition as indicated below. On minimal mildew on small items like leather gloves, try
the lemon juice or white vinegar method.
Leather jackets and worship of James Dean and Marlon Brando were all part of
growing up if you were a teen in the 1950s and 60s. There is a good trade in
fifties leather jackets and flying jackets today. However a true fifties
leather jacket you might purchase or happen along in a car boot sale, might
be in need of some tender loving care.
A jacket that is drying out will need to be
treated either by you or a specialist leather restorer. Use saddle soap from
a pet shop or equestrian dealer to clean it, applying the saddle soap
according to the label instructions. Completely dry and buff the leather and
then use mink oil to condition the leather. You must condition the leather
if you have cleaned with the saddle soap otherwise you have done half a job
and will create even more drying out problems as the saddle soap removes not
only dirt, but also leather oils.
Applying the mink oil is an important and
essential stage of restoring the leather. Rub the mink oil into the leather
using the natural warmth of your hand to work it into the leather with a
massage movement. Do this when you know you have time to clean the oil
residue off, as leaving the oil on the leather for days will simply leave a
wax like slick all over the leather. You must wipe off all excess mink oil
with a clean dry cloth and buff the leather really well. Don't start this
task until you have the time to spare to follow through every stage
You could also use Pecard's leather
conditioner to improve it. Pecards have a whole range of leather products
just for motorcycle users and some contain mink oil. Nikwax is also a water
based treatment that can restore dried out leather and make it more supple
again. A product called Leather Amore also works well. Blackrock Leather 'N'
Rich is another proven leather cleaner and conditioner. Plenty of commercial
choice is available, so restoration of vintage leather is usually feasible.
Once the garment is restored to its previous
glory, store it on a padded hanger and give it the six monthly treatment
with a leather conditioner. With care like this, a vintage or new garment can
last for many years.
Use freezing as a method of insect control for bugs
such as moths. Put the item in a clean polythene bag, vacuum out
excess air without crushing the item and seal the bag with a good duct
tape or if it has one a self healing zipper. This helps prevent
condensation which might add to your difficulties. Leave the bag
in a chest freezer (not a domestic fridge freezer) for about a week at
least without opening the door. The temperature should be about -5
to -12F. Thaw the package thoroughly - don't panic when you see
condensation on the outside of the bag. Carefully inspect
the item and check all bugs are dead, if not, repeat the process and
finally dislodge all debris from the fabric by vacuuming carefully.
Bakelite was used in buttons, buckles and bags.
Real bakelite is more valuable than plastic which looks similar. The best test for this is the simplest test of all if
you are not at home. Rub your finger over the plastic until some
friction occurs and it gets hot. Smell the plastic and if it is Bakelite
it will have a distinctive odour of carbolic acid. A similar
test that you can do at home is to run some hot water over the item and
again the distinctive smell will almost overpower you. Bakelite also feels denser and heavier than other plastics as well as having a
heavy sound when tapped. Read more about products that used bakelite in the
50's vintage tips section.
Final Thoughts on Cleaning
Do not store
vintage goods or wedding dresses in vacuum packed bags as creases will
permanently set. You may instead consider using a textile preservation
system such as that offered by Heritage Garment Preservation who also
have excellent tips
on storing treasured gowns.
We take no responsibility for your careless use of
electrical equipment which results in harm to you or others. Nor do we take
any responsibility for any damage you may cause to your goods should you
use any of the methods described here to renovate vintage goods.
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