Caring for your vintage clothing
In purchasing a vintage garment, you become the caretaker of a piece of history. As such, vintage clothing often requires a little more care and attention than the equivalent garment bought from a high-street shop.
For me, there is little better reward or satisfaction than rescuing an old garment that probably wouldn’t survive another ten years without some TLC. Keeping vintage garments clean will not only make them look better, but will prolong their wearable life. Bacteria in the fabric (particularly prolific in the armpit area) if left for a long time will weaken and break down fabric so that it will rip more easily. Dirty garments are also more likely to attract moths and believe me, above all else this is something that you want to avoid.
I have worked with old clothing professionally for several years now and collected them for much longer. Everything I know about caring for vintage clothing I have learned through my own trial and error as well as benefitting from the advice of those more experienced than myself. In this post, I would like to pass on my knowledge and experiences so that you can carry on the process of conserving your precious piece of dress history.
A note on washing old garments
As a general rule of thumb, if it looks too delicate to survive washing- don’t. If in doubt, take it to a dry cleaner that you trust and ask for their professional opinion which they should offer for free. However, in some cases it is appropriate and even desirable for you to do it yourself at home.
An important thing to bear in mind when washing old clothing is that fabrics used to make vintage clothing probably weren’t pre-washed. This means that the fabric was not washed prior to being made into the garment and as such, if you wash your vintage item it may be the first time the fabric reacts with water. If this is the case, if you are not very careful several things can happen and none of them desirable:
- Dye can run into areas of the garment that it is not supposed to. For example a black and white patterned fabric will suddenly become grey and black.
- Fabric can shrink - this especially happens with 1940’s crepe and rayon dresses and with some types of silk.
- When drying, fabrics may stretch from the weight of the water and delicate seams can split – for this reason, I would always try to dry garments flat
- This is a gentle and controllable way to wash your vintage garments and in some cases will be more effective than dry cleaning. Please note, when I talk about hand washing I mean laundering clothes the old fashioned way- using ones hands and not the ‘delicate wash’ setting on the washing machine!
- Only wash one garment at a time- even if they are the same colour. Different fabrics may react in different ways and you need to be able to distinguish how each garment is coping with the wash.
- I recommend that you never use hot water as this is more likely to shrink fabric. Instead use luke-warm and cold water and run this into a clean washing up bowl or bath.
- If possible, always use ecological detergent options for your clothing as these contain fewer chemicals that might damage delicate fabric. A word of warning- dyes in detergents can leave stains on pale fabrics so I seriously recommend never using a detergent with any sort of colour to it. Instead use a clear detergent designed for washing delicate materials.
- It is best not to agitate delicate fabrics too much. I prefer to move the fabric gently in the water and leave it to soak for ten minutes or so rather than vigorously manipulating it.
- Always rinse the garment thoroughly in cold water. Residue detergent will not only change the feel of the fabric but may accelerate its deterioration.
- The only vintage garments I have ever, or would ever wash in a machine are robust items with strong seams designed to withstand heavy duty washing methods. An example of this is early 20th century cotton nightgowns and undergarments which were constructed to withstand vigorous and frequent washing.
- In general, garments from the 1970’s onwards can cope with a more robust method of washing too. Poly fabrics should always be washed on a ‘synthetics’ setting and cotton fabrics can cope with the ‘cotton’ wash. However, I would still refrain from putting any silk, chiffon or delicate lace fabrics anywhere near the machine. The same goes for anything with any form of embellishment and I would always use a dry cleaner in these cases.
- In general, I wouldn’t recommend using a dryer as will place extra strain on the structure of the garment as well as encourage shrinking. If possible I always air dry vintage garments flat. This will avoid placing strain on the seams when the fabric is heavy with water.
- Lay several large clean towels on the bathroom floor or equivalent and spread the garment out as flat as you can to avoid creasing leaving it to dry naturally.
- If you do need/ want to let your garment dry on a hanger, use one with ample padding as hangers can leave nasty marks in the fabric.
- A word of caution for drying garments outside- whilst it is certainly lovely to leave garments to dry in the fresh air, if it is a delicate dyed fabric this may fade in direct sunlight.
- I always use padded hangers for all of my vintage items. Thin hangers cut into the material and over time, weaken the fabric and leave indents where the fabric has been holding the weight of the garment. Please never use metal hangers- these are my nemesis and they have the potential to utterly destroy vintage clothing by tearing fabric and causing rust.
- If possible, store more delicate vintage items flat in a box, particularly if they are heavily beaded. Acid free tissue paper is highly recommended to wrap garments in if being stored for long periods of time. Where garments are folded, place sausages of tissue paper in the crease, as this will prevent a permanent mark from forming.
- Always keep garments away from direct sunlight as this will fade and weaken the fabric. Dark vintage garments such as purples and black, in particular will fade very quickly as the dyes were both difficult to achieve and even harder to fix.
- Never hang knitwear at the shoulders. This will cause it to stretch out of shape and destroy the weave of the fabric. If a knitted garment must be hung, fold the garment in half and drape it around a padded hanger.
- Guard against moths with your life. If an infestation takes hold the consequences will be devastating. Arm yourself with hanging moth killer and lavender bags and please check wardrobes regularly for any signs of the little beasts. Tell tail signs are white trails, fabric pile worn down and flaking and holes in material.
- Moths especially like fur so keep items with fur trim separately and check these even more regularly. I personally detest fur and prefer to remove it from my vintage garments if this can be done without causing damage.
I really hope this proves helpful to you in conserving your treasured vintage items. I am very passionate about the conservation of clothing and believe that every garment deserves to be treated well, regardless of it’s value or historical merit.
Clothing is one of the few commodities that every person owns, and as such is an incredibly important record of human history. Not every garment can benefit from being stored in the V&A or Met Museum however. So it is up to those of us who love vintage clothing to do our best to preserve the garments that we come across in our search for our own piece of dress history.
Written by Hannah Mays Chandler for Dressedinhistory.com. Please do not cite this work without the explicit permission of Dressed in History.
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