Cleaning Vintage Clothing

How to clean vintage clothing varies by the age of the garment and the type of material. The main basic rule is not to put anything vintage through the washing machine or dryer. Hand wash or dry cleaning  are the best ways to clean vintage, although I have used the washing machine as a basin when the garment is too large to fit comfortably in the kitchen sink, but make sure that you do not use the agitator when the garment is soaking.  I usually fill the washer half full with warm water, a tablespoon of salt and mild detergent and let it soak. To move the garment around, I use a long wooden spoon to gently move the garment around, being careful not to tear the material.

Cleaning Vintage Clothing Based on Type of Material of the Garment

Never hand wash velvet, silk, or rayon crepe.  These materials should always be dry cleaned, if it is necessary to clean them, although older silk garments (particularly structured silk) can be easily shredded by the intense heat and harsh chemicals used by the dry cleaners. You need to make sure the silk item is strong enough for cleaning. Silk is likely to bleed or the fibers may separate when hand washed.  Rayon crepe was so popular from the mid 30s through the 40s and is a durable material, unless you get it wet, then it will shrink several sizes.  Velvet can be altered easily from washing, steaming and particularly from ironing. It will cause the fibers to lie flat and develop a shiny appearance, which is permanently damaged.

To hand wash most vintage garments, use Luke warm water, a tablespoon of table salt (to control fabric bleeding) and a mild detergent like Woolite, Dreft, or Ivory soap flakes.  If the material is durable, I often use Tide. If the item has a bad smell, add baking soda or white vinegar to the mix, a few tablespoons of either item.

If the garment has only a small flaw, like a single spot, I recommend one of the following spot cleaners. One of my favorite methods is the cleaning solution found in a box of Dryel.  It can be applied without having to rinse. It is great on fresh stains and good on old stains. Other spot cleaners that do not require washing are applying white vinegar, rubbing alcohol or like Dryel, the Tide to Go Pens can be applied on the spot and air dries. All of these spot cleaners should have a white cloth placed under the spot that you are cleaning so that it can catch the stain.

Spot cleaning methods that need to be rinsed out after applied are:

Oxyclean spray – I use this often and depending on the material will leave on the spot for 30 minutes to 2 days and then rinse and hand wash and rinse again. Then air dry in an area without direct sunlight.

Hydrogen Peroxide, Baking soda, and water mixed in equal parts into a paste. Apply the paste to the spot.  Allow to sit on the spot for 30 minutes, then rinse, hand wash, rinse again and air dry in an area without direct sunlight.

Aspirin, Cream of Tartar, and water in equal parts mixed into a paste. Apply the paste to the spot.  Allow to sit on the spot for 30 minutes to a few hours, then rinse, hand wash, rinse again and air dry in an area without direct sunlight.

Lemon juice with a layer of salt applied to a spot and then placed in full sun for several hours.  Rinse the solution, hand wash, rinse and air dry. This method is helpful with mold or rust, but is also helpful on other stains.

Clorox beach pen can be applied on a white spot, as long as it is not a synthetic material. On most synthetics, bleach will turn white yellow and is very hard to remove, particularly on polyester and nylon. The pen can be reapplied several times. Once you are happy with the results, you can rinse it off thoroughly. It does not necessarily need to be washed again after rinsing, that can be left to your own discretion.

Wink is a rust remover for porcelain, but can be used on durable white material. The best method for this is to but the stain area on top of an open bowl, dampen the stain with water and then squirt the wink on the spot. Let it sit for a few moments, if the stain is still present you can reapply. After applying, rinse thoroughly, then hand wash, rinse, and air dry. Whites can be dried in direct sunlight.

I know several people, who recommend applying hairspray to a stain and allow sitting for 30 minutes to a few hours, then hand wash, rinse, and air dry. I have not had success with this method, but I do know people who like this method.

If after hand washing and spot cleaning, the stain still remains, there are yet a few methods that may help. I have success with all four of these solutions and recommend all of them. They are:

A solution of white vinegar and water in 1 part vinegar to 3 part cool water soak. This is the safest method and you can soak the garment a few hours to 2 days. You need to hand wash after the soak to eliminate the vinegar smell. This method works really well on that pale orange spotting that appears on garments that were stored in an uncontrolled climate area, like an attic. Always hand wash the item before you soak in vinegar and water, then wash again. This will reduce the orange better than any other way that I have come across.

Oxyclean powder and water helps to eliminate a lot of different type stains, but you have to make sure the material is durable enough. I have used this method on fragile items and the garment almost completely disintegrated.  You need to mix the powder with hot water, once it is mixed well, and then you can add cool water to soak the garment in a Luke warm bath. Depending on the garment, you can soak it from 20 minutes to a few hours. Rinse thoroughly and air dry in an area without direct sunlight.

For whites that have extensive yellowing, you can soak the garment in Iron Out. It is also used for iron spots. The garment should be white and durable, as this is a more harsh solution. You mix the powder in hot water in a plastic tub or bowl. After the mix has dissolved, then you can add cool water to soak in a Luke warm bath for 20 minutes. Rinse thoroughly and hand wash, rinse and air dry. If the garment is white cotton, it can be dried in the sun, but other materials don’t fare well in sunlight.

The most harsh solution, but old standby is a short soak in Clorox bleach and warm water. Make sure the item is cotton and that is durable. Watch the garment closely when soaking. After a 5 to 20 minute soak, rinse, hand wash, rinse and air dry.       

Never use a dryer on vintage clothing. Hang and air dry a garment. Unless the item is white cotton, I do not recommend hanging to dry in or near direct sunlight. Some garments will fade and others will yellow in the sun. I ruined a silk blouse drying on the clothes line in the sun. It made light and dark blotches of color on a perfect garment and is now permanently damaged.  I have a few plant hooks on my ceiling that I place the garment on a hanger and let air dry in a room with very little sun light.      

Cleaning Vintage Clothing Based on the Age of the Garment

Antique   garments and vintage items from earlier than 1935 should be carefully examined and considered before any type of cleaning, be it hand washing or dry cleaning. Silk and velvet tend to be the most fragile of materials and if they were made before 1935, probably should not be cleaned, unless you are going to dispose of the item unless it is cleaned. At that point I would recommend dry cleaning for velvet and hand wash for silk. Wool is the other material that would have been made before 1935. Some solid color wool pants can be hand washed, but if it is a sweater or knit material, I would recommend dry cleaning. When this type of wool gets wet it tends to make holes, especially if it is hung up to dry. It should be dried flat. Wool jackets should be taken to the cleaners. Wool is more durable than silk or velvet unless weakened by old stains or moth holes.  Cotton garments from this era may be ok to hand wash in Woolite and then air dry, but again cleaning anything this old is risky.

 Cleaning vintage clothing from the later 1930s to 1940s should be ok. Cotton and linen can be hand washed or dry cleaned, depending on the stain. Some hand washing spot cleaning methods may be better than the dry cleaners, depending on the fabric. Never hand wash rayon crepe. I have many 30s to 40s dresses made of rayon crepe. It is a thick somewhat spongy texture and if gotten wet, it will shrink several sizes and probably cannot be reversed.  Jersey rayon can sometimes be hand washed, but you need to do a test on an inside seam to check. All of the color prints need to be washed with salt to prevent bleeding. Rayon from this era can usually be dry cleaned. Silk and velvet from this era are still risky to clean by hand or by dry cleaning and a judgment call will have to be made.

The garments of the 50s can be hand washed or dry cleaned, except for silk, which can still be problematic. Probably a jersey silk is ok to dry clean, but structured silk can be shredded by the dry cleaners, unless you are lucky enough to have cleaner who specializes in vintage clothing. Cotton, linen, and nylon can be hand washed. Rayon crepe still needs to be dry cleaned and rayon jersey possibly can be hand washed but be careful of color bleeds. Always use salt when hand washing a colorful print in any type of material.  

Items from the 1960s can all be either dry cleaned or hand washed, depending on the material and the instructions on the garment.  Silk, velvet, rayon crepe, wool and blends should probably go to the cleaners. Cotton, linen, nylon, polyester and some rayon jersey can be hand washed.  Always add salt into the mix for hand washing colors to prevent bleeding. There were some unusual blends in the 60s that I would not recommend hand washing. Just be sure and check the content label and instructions, which should start showing up in the 1960s garments.

1970s garments are usually marked for laundry instructions and material content. Most of the fabrics can be dry cleaned and some can be hand washed.  Cotton, linen, polyester and nylon can be hand washed. Rayon and acetate should be cleaned according to the instructions only.

By the 1980s, almost all garments are marked with cleaning instructions and material content, unless the label has been intentionally removed by the former owner. Most of the fabrics can be dry cleaned and some can be hand washed.  Cotton, linen, polyester and nylon can be hand washed. Rayon and acetate should be cleaned according to the instructions only.  

Ironing or Steaming a Vintage Garment to Remove the Wrinkles

Cotton and linen garments can be steamed or ironed, but it is my preference to iron cotton with a touch of starch. I use Faultless Premium Starch, which does not leave white flakes behind. To me, the steamer just does not make cotton look as good as an iron, but cotton and linen from the 1940s and later are durable enough to be steamed or ironed on the high setting. Garments from the 1930s and earlier can go through either process, but the iron should be on a low setting. You may want to place a damp clean white wash cloth in between the material and the iron, which is the safest way to iron any garment.

Some rayon can be steamed or ironed on a low synthetic setting, but others need to avoid the steamer. In particular, my steamer drips and on the later 80s rayon, the water drops from the steamer actually leave water marks. The only way to remove them is to dampen the whole garment and dry iron or iron with a damp white clean wash cloth in between the garment and the iron.  Some of the rayon nightgowns from the 30s and 40s should also be ironed with a white damp cloth in between the iron and the garment. My assistant was steaming a 40s nightgown and where she had steamed one area too long, the material became damaged and weak leaving lines in the fabric. It was permanently damaged. Rayon crepe can be ironed with a dry iron. Since water makes it shrink, the steamer and ironing with a wash cloth are both bad ideas.

Never use an iron on velvet. It completely changes the appearance to flat and shiny. I do use the steamer on velvet, but only from the inside of the velvet, never allowing the steamer to touch the outside layer of the velvet. You have to move the steamer really fast across the inside to avoid damage. Velvet older then the 1950s should not be steamed. Most of the 1940s and earlier velvet has become thin and somewhat fragile, so I really do not recommend dry cleaning either for velvet earlier than the 50s. 1950s and later velvet should be dry cleaned for wrinkles or cleaning.

Silk does best with an iron on a low silk setting and a damp clean white wash cloth placed in between the iron and the garment. I do not recommend using the steamer on silk. The drycleaner is good on later silk garments but only from the 1960s and later. The dry cleaner here in York SC shredded 2 of my 50s structured silk dresses in the process of removing the wrinkles and then charged me for this service. Not a good customer service experience.

There were some odd combinations of synthetic and natural materials made in the 1960s used mainly for dresses and suits that you have to be careful of when steaming or ironing.  I had a suit that was part linen, part rayon and part nylon that did not like the water drops from my steamer. It left water spots on a NOS suit. I had to dampen the whole suit and then iron with a damp white wash cloth in between the suit and the iron. It never really looked quite right though. 

Acetate can be ironed or steamed, but some acetates, particularly the type used as a lining in 50s prom dresses will change colors if submerged in water. It usually can be steamed, but ironing is probably the better method. You can use a lightly damp white wash cloth in between the iron and the material, which helps to get the wrinkles out better, but you want to make sure not to get the cloth too damp.

Polyester is a wonderful material for maintenance – the only thing that bothers it is bleach, which will make it yellow. Polyester can be steamed or ironed, but on a low or synthetic setting.

Nylon can be steamed very nicely and can be ironed too, but on a low setting.  The only problem with nylon is that stains do not come out well, so be careful when considering purchasing a nylon garment with a stain.

Most garments of the later 70s to present are marked with material content and clear cleaning instructions. I recommend following those instructions, it will extend the life of the garment.

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