How to Clean Vintage Clothing

One of the most common questions I get as a vintage seller is how to care for a newly acquired vintage garment. While so much of the beauty in vintage lies in it's history, it's this same aged history that can make caring for vintage pieces seem daunting. But that shouldn't be the case!

It's true, yes, that vintage clothing often requires different laundering techniques than your average modern garment. However, that shouldn't hold you back from collecting and adding those special vintage pieces to your wardrobe. It just so happens you've come to the right place. With the help of several fellow vintage sellers, I've put together a few starter tips that will hopefully give you a little confidence boost when it comes to caring for vintage clothing.

Let me preface this by mentioning that I'm by no means an expert on cleaning and laundering vintage garments, but that I've definitely learned a lot in my ten years of running Dalena Vintage. It's been a trial and error process, and I've learned the hard way on many a piece. But my loss is your gain today as I share some of the best practices on how to clean vintage clothing. 

 How to Clean Vintage Clothing. A simple guide from Dalena Vintage focusing on the basic care and cleaning of vintage dresses.

General Vintage Care Tips

 

1. Always hang your vintage

It's easy to toss your vintage in the laundry basket or shove it in the corner of your closet as you would with the rest of your wardrobe, but please...Resist! Dark places are a favorite hang out spot for silverfish aka the arch nemesis of vintage clothing. While they can still reach your clothing on a hanger, it's less likely to occur than when on the ground. Additionally, clothing is more likely to harbor odors and dampness when wadded up. The simple act of hanging a dress (even when dirty) allows it to breath and air out any funky smells. It also helps prevent mold from forming.

2. Check for holes, weak spots and loose seams after each wear

Vintage clothing is at least 20 years old and as such the fabric has already been subjected to years of wear and tear. Even if you have a deadstock garment that has never been worn, the fabric is still old and has experienced wear from toxins in the air. The best way to prevent further damage to a vintage garment is to stay ahead of the game.

If you notice a weak spot in the fabric, go ahead and reinforce it. There are a variety of ways to do this, depending on the age and material. If you notice a small hole, go ahead and mend it. My favorite technique is basic darning. I've found this works well on knits and cottons. I have used this technique on thinner more delicate fabric but it requires more prep work, which I'll save for a future post. You'll also want to keep an eye on loose seams as these can lead to larger rips and tears. Basically, maintenance is key!

3. Never use wire hangers

Never, ever, on any condition should you use wire hangers! I would consider the wire hanger to be a contender for the arch nemesis of vintage clothing award. Seriously. Stop reading right now and go throw out all the wire hangers in your closet. They only mean to cause you harm. They can tear or rip a mint vintage dress in seconds. I'hWhen a garment is left on a wire hanger for a long period of time, not only is the piece at risk for stretching it in unsightly ways it can also cause rust stains that are one of the most difficult (if not impossible) stains to remove.

4. Fold or box heavy vintage items

This tip is especially good for 1920s beaded gowns and dresses with thin straps. The weight of a heavy dress is often more than the fabric of the straps or shoulders can handle. It's pained me too many times to see the death of an otherwise perfect dress by hanger, the weight of the dress just too much to bear.

Vintage Cleaning Tips

 

1. Washing

Machine Washable Fabrics:  Cotton, linen, polyester and nylon. Also some acetates, spandex and synthetics were created to be able to be machine washed. 

When machine washing vintage I always used cool water on the most gentle setting and to be honest I am very particular in what I put in the washing machine. Generally, I only do it for cotton, polyester or nylon that I can tell has already been washed. Sometimes I'll machine wash a 1940's cotton dress but typically I don't go earlier than the 1950's. Again, machine wash at your own risk! And if you have an old washing machine (one with the center piece), I would probably stick to hand washing. 

Sometimes Washable Fabrics:  Silk in it's pure form and rayon. Raw silks need to be professionally cleaned. 

When I say washable here, I mean hand washable. I would never put vintage silk or rayon in the washing machine. When hand washing, I tend to stick with room temperature water. Going either direction the temperature scale can damage a fabric by either shrinking or running the color.

Always Dry Clean:  Wool (if washed, this fabric will most likely shrink severely), velvet, fur, leather, vinyl, solid plastics and other trims.

Dry cleaning is actually the form of cleaning I use the least. This is because I don't think dry cleaning is very effective in actually cleaning a garment. Certainly it's a great way to remove scents and body odor and they will spot clean upon request. But really I've never found a dry cleaner I was super happy with in terms of cleaning. Maybe that's just me though. 

2. Color test

Katie of Shell and Pine mentioned color testing as a must in my call for suggestions on cleaning vintage last year and I gotta say this is super important. As a rule of thumb, it's always good to color test a garment before washing, especially reds. Do this simply by running a small piece of the garment under water to see what happens. I like to use a piece that isn't easily visible just in case it does bleed. 

You can also take a damp paper towel and blot on the area in question. If you see color on the paper towel when you remove it, it's probably going to bleed so either opt for the dry cleaners or practice caution when washing. A tip here is when washing, use a large tub and lay the garment out. The likelihood of color staining other parts of the the garment is less when it's laid out versus wadded up with the fabric touching. Make sense? 

3. Remove metal fasteners and metal-based buttons before washing

This is an important one that is often overlooked. Leaving metal pieces on fabric while washing doesn't always cause rust but it can. If you can easily remove these bits, it's best to do so while washing the garment and reattach after washed. Let's say you're a bit lazy or it's a difficult task to remove a bunch of metal based buttons. That's ok too. Just make sure you remove the garment from the water immediately and use a hair dryer to dry the buttons. 

4. Remove rhinestone buttons and/or all fragile trims before taking to the cleaners

When writing this all I can think of is the time I took a mint condition 1950s swing coat in chocolate satin with the most beautiful over-sized rhinestone buttons to my dry cleaners. The result...A teary eyed me driving home with completely ruined rare rhinestone faceted buttons that I have yet to find again! I always regret not taking the time to remove the buttons prior to dropping off at my cleaners. Live and learn, I suppose. 

Additional Specifics on Vintage cleaning

 

1. Rust Removal

As tempting as it may be, DO NOT try to remove a rust stain with bleach. This will only set the stain further, pretty much eliminating any chance of removal.

I've had luck with a concoction of cream of tarter, lemon juice and sunlight. To make this mix 1 part cream of tarter and 1 part fresh lemon juice. Apply to the rust spot and let sit in the sunlight for several hours, if not the entire day. This doesn't always work but I've found it does lighten the rust spot at the very least. My only warning with this is to use extreme caution as it can bleach a fabric.

No Carnations Vintage recommends trying the household cleaner CLR (Calcium, Lime & Rust) on old rust spots. “Always test! And I used a small amount repeatedly with a Q-tip."

2. Removing Smells

I actually did an entire post on this a few years ago! There are numerous ways to get those stubborn smells out including diluted vinegar soaks, straight steaming and vodka spritz, just to name a few. Which route you choose to go depends on the type of fabric and the delicacy. Check out our post How to Get the Odor Out of Vintage Clothing for a detailed write up!

 

Cleaning, storing and caring for vintage clothes is such a broad topic! I definitely plan on expanding here and creating future posts to help boost knowledge on the subject but this is catch all post for how to clean vintage clothing. If you have tips or helpful hints, I would absolutely, positively love to hear them! Comments welcome below or feel free to email me too!