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Sorting and Cleaning

When handling your vintage, whether store stock or private collection, some guidelines that will help avoid problems:

  • Wash your hands. Frequently.
  • Consider purchasing white cotton gloves if you handle a lot of early textiles. Change gloves as they soil so you don‘t transfer dirt from one item to another.
  • No ink pens, use pencil in the work area if you are labeling tags.
  • Don’t smoke, eat or drink in your work area. Accidents always happen.
  • Remove sharp jewelry that can catch on, snag or tear textiles.
  • Remember that food, flowers , fur and old woolens may bring insects into the work area.
  • Keep your work area clean, especially the table top where you will be placing textiles.

Now that you have your finds in your home or shop, this is a good time to sort out what needs cleaning, what needs repair and what needs no work at all.

Let’s Focus on Cleaning

Let’s face some realities. There a many, many pieces of vintage clothing that are just too delicate for handling. We need to leave these alone. The vast majority of stains don’t come out. The solution to this is to leave that dress alone or live with it. Shattering and splitting can’t be solved. Same solution as above. Most older textiles will not tolerate washing or dry cleaning, so you have to learn to live with flaws.

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Now, Let’s Talk About What We Can Do:

Brushing. This just involves removing surface dust and dirt. And it’ s amazing what a difference this can make. I have 3 brushes I use: a small, very, very soft bristle brush, (I think it was a mushroom scrubbing brush in another life, an artists brush would work as well) for delicate pieces and smooth textures such as satin; a stiffer bristle suede brush for suede shoes and encrusted dirt on tougher, newer textiles; and then a lint brush. Now I do have one of the sticky tape roller lint brushes and this is fine for woolens and sturdy textiles. But never use these on older or fragile fabrics. The tape will grab your fabric and tear it. It will also grab beads and any loose trim and pull it right off.

Vacuuming. A low grade brush attachment can do wonders. With fragile garments, vacuum over a screen so that you don’t pull the fabric into the vacuum. Plastic screening will work, be sure to get the edges smooth or cover them with bias tape so the screening won’t catch at the garment.

Airing. Many a smelly garment has hung out to air around here. If it works, it’s the gentlest way to get rid of odors. This can also let any wrinkles relax before tackling them with steam.

Washing and dry cleaning are The Big Ones. Let’s start with a definition of term. When I say wash, I mean hand wash and lay flat to dry. With the exception of newer, say 1980s and forward, garments, I would never put a vintage textile in the washer and dryer. It’s too rough. The agitation and tumbling are just too much, plus the heat. And you can’t control that environment.

What Not To Wash:

  • Velvet. Any velvet.
  • Brittle or powdering fibers
  • Moiré, (the pattern will disappear)
  • Glazed cottons (the glazing will wash off)
  • Silk embroidery (dye runs!)
  • Cotton embroidery that isn’t dye fast
  • Painted surfaces
  • Leather or feathers
  • Sequins (they can melt)
  • Garments with a combination of fabrics (e.g. a cotton and velvet dress, a lined suit with horsehair construction). Here you have the potential for different rates of shrinkage, dye runs and many older interfacing used a lot of starch, which will wash away.
  • Printed silks – many of these are not dye fast

Now washing is irreversible. So you have the potential to ruin the garment. Rule No 2 comes in play here. When in Doubt, Don’t. There is a corollary to this rule I didn’t mention – When it’s So Bad You Can’t Keep It In The House You Can Wash It.

Now please understand. I am not advocating wholesale washing of all textiles. If you have museum quality or important textiles, say a 1920s Chanel, a ca 1800s silk dress, or a Charles James evening gown, please, please take them to a pro. Having said all that, I have washed many items with success. Cottons, linens, solid color silks and some woolens. Now realize, all you may accomplish with washing is returning garment to a clean, neutral state. You may not change the appearance of the garment at all.

So if you are sure you want to wash, here’s what to do:


You will want to check for dye fastness. Take a wet Q-tip and test in an inconspicuous place. Blot with a white towel. See if any color transfers. Then test with a bit of the soap you will be using. If all is clear – off you go.

Remove any metal parts or buttons, including covered buttons with metal shanks. These can rust. Remove shoulder pads, these can leave huge rings as the garment dries. Remove buttons or parts with rhinestones – the rhinestones can be ruined in water. If the problem is that old hooks have left rust marks, you really need to remove the hooks, or you will just get more rust. Fasten all remaining fasteners so they don’t catch on the dress while washing.

Get some plastic window screening from your hardware store. Cut two pieces the size of your washing area, say a bath tub. Cut the edges so they are nice and smooth. Stitch these together by hand or machine down one side. Place this screening open on a table like a book. Place the garment in this, laid out as smoothly as possible, If you have two small same color garments, such as white cotton Edwardian blouses, you can do them at the same time. Close the screen and either safety pin or hand baste it closed.

Run your water in the tub – somewhere in the 80-115 degree range is good, although I have used hotter water on heavily stained white cotton. You will need just enough water to cover the garment. I use Orvus for almost everything, although I have read that Ivory Soap will work as well. But I will use an oxyclean type detergent with the Orvus when the garment is cotton and heavily stained. I never use it on silk or wool.

When the detergent is dissolves, lower the screen with garment into the water. Press it down gently to remove the air under it. Let this soak. I have been told 45 minutes will neutralize the garment. But with sturdier items, I have left it in longer. With heavily soiled items, I have also changed the water and soaked again.

Do not agitate, rub or swirl around. Just let it lay there.

Now – drain. Rinse by running clean barely lukewarm water, press down lightly to push the water through the textile and drain again. Repeat the rinse at least four times. When I asked the curator at The KY Historical Society how clean the water needed to be at the final rinse, she told me “So clean you can drink it.” This last rinse should be distilled water for a really good textile. Actually, if you have a really fine piece, distilled water would be great for the whole process.

After the last drain, lay clean towels over the garment and roll it up. This will take a lot of the moisture out and help you transport to the drying area.


Lay clean towels on a flat surface large enough to lay out your garment as flat as possible. Unroll the screen and remove the wet towel from the tub. If the garment has become wadded or folded over, open the screen, and while leaving the garment on the table, adjust it to have as few folds and wrinkles as possible. Close the screen. If you have pets, place a towel over the screen. Let dry.

In humid months, I use window fans to circulate the air and help the garment dry more quickly. You can also change the damp towels to dry ones to speed this up.

Never, ever hang older textiles to dry. The fibers are weakest when wet. And gravity can be so very cruel.

Steaming or Pressing

Steaming is gentler and often much more effective. You will use a good steamer over and over again. It’s best for velvets, satins, brocades, suits and hats. Pressing when needed is best done on the coolest temperature that will do some good and from the wrong side of the fabric. If you can’t get to the wrong side a press cloth will protect the surface of the garment from the hard metal plate of the iron.

Crepe and chiffon can be permanently changed by steam, so a coolish iron on the wrong side or with a press cloth may be your best choice with these. Avoid pressing dirty fabrics. It just grinds the soil into the fibers and makes it even harder to remove. If you do press, be careful with your motion. When sliding the iron around you can catch threads and lace with the point of the iron. An up and down motion is safer.

When steaming, avoid letting the hot metal head come in direct contact with the fabric. I usually steam from the wrong side and have found this works quite well, particularly with velvet and satin.

It’s Dry Cleaning Time

I must admit I am an anti-dry cleaning gal. So bear that in mind. I just have not found it to be effective for most vintage clothing.

The Pros:

  • You can dry clean items that can‘t be washed.
  • They do the pressing.
  • It can be effective on oil-based stains.

The Cons:

  • It is harsh, harsh, harsh on delicate and old textiles
  • It causes a lot shattering and splitting
  • It smells
  • It doesn’t remove body odors or armpit stains
  • It is costly
  • It is an irremediable process
  • If the pressing is incorrect or flawed, it is usually permanent
  • About 80% of the time, it doesn’t remove the stains or soiling.

Having said that, what garments would I consider dry-cleaning if they were visibly soiled? Modern textiles, sturdy woolens and crepes from the 1940s to the present, some velvets and sturdy manmade fibers from the 1960s to the present. You are probably safe with garments from the 1970s to the present.

What Not to Dry-clean:

  • Anything pre-1940s. It just isn’t worth the risk.
  • 1940s to 1960s silks – it can be risky.
  • Anything that appears delicate or fragile.
  • Anything painted or with old leather or feather trims.
  • Wool suits and pants that have silk lapels, trims or linings – the silk can shatter.
  • Bias cuts – the process with often takes these permanently out of shape.
  • White cotton and linen – these can come back dirtier than when you left them.

Now if you choose to dry clean, some things to do. Try out cleaners with modern garments until you find a good one. Take all glass or breakable buttons off. Remove shoulder pads. Note to the cleaners if there are belts or scarves. Ask you cleaner if they can clean fragile items in mesh bags. Do the pressing yourself. Ask them when they change the cleaning fluid and do your vintage when it’s fresh. Ask them to clean white and light colored items with like colors.

Spot Cleaning

This is a tough one. It is so tempting. And there are a ton (Zout, Dryel, Carbona) of cleaners on the market. But remember, they are meant for contemporary textiles. And many a dry cleaner will beg you not to use them, as they often are ineffective and complicate the cleaning process.

Spot cleaning has Big Drawbacks: Scenario 1 – you end up with the stain and the solvent making a dark ring around the original spot.Scenario 2 – the garment is evenly, but not noticeably soiled. The spot cleaner then leaves a nice clean spot in an otherwise even field of slight soil.Scenario 3 – the cleaner is too harsh and you get a hole.

I have tried out some of the products available on unimportant items, but the only real success I have had was on rough textured wools. Satins and shiny textures, even wool gaberdine, always get a tide ring and velvet doesn’t respond well to the water base. I have used Carbona’s wax and crayon cleaner on those unfortunate red wax prices you sometimes see, but it did leave a ring on the lining. I did feel that wasn’t any worse than the red wax pencil.

So generally, spot cleaning is best left to a pro. If you must experiment, do so on garments that fall into the – ‘I have nothing to lose’ category.

Onto the Fabulous World of Mold and Insects!

We will take on storage issues in part 7. What do you do if you already have mold? Lower the humidity in your space. Improve the air circulation. You can take items with mold outside on a sunny day and expose them to light for about an hour. Or, according to one of my texts, you can use a blow dryer on low setting about 12” from the surface, then vacuum the textile. If it is washable (see above!) then you can wash .

Insects, these are likely to be moths, carpet beetles and silverfish. Moths and beetles like protein – silk, wool, fur, and feathers. They also like soil. You will usually just see the results rather then the actual adult critter. Silk cocoons, holes, and tunneling will tell you they have been there. Silverfish like starch (think paste and sizing). Vacuuming can help but is not the total answer. Cedar will repel, but not kill. Freezing is the easiest and most practical thing to do.

Freezing textiles: In “Preserving Textiles a Guide for the Non Specialist”, Harold Mailand and Dorothy Alig suggest:

Fold or wrap the garment in acid free tissue or muslin to absorb any condensation. And them seal it in plastic sheeting. Eliminate as much air as possible and tape it closed with a sticky tape such a duct tape that will stick at freezing temps. The bag must be completely sealed.”

It must be brought from room temp to freezing quickly so the insects cannot adapt to the temperature change. They recommend freezing for one week to ensure all insects and stages of insect are killed. When removing the garment from the freezer, allow it to come to room temp slowly. This may take a day. Some condensation will form on the outside of the plastic – this is okay. Do not open the package prematurely as condensation may happen on the textiles. When it is room temperature, remove form the plastic, and examine, then brush or vacuum away any insect debris.

Don’t freeze very brittle materials, such as glass, metal, or ceramics. Some plastic garment components are vulnerable to damage as well.

Let’s look at Hats, Shoes and Purses

Shoes will respond well to brushing, vacuuming and a clear polish (for smooth leathers). Spot cleaning and suede cleaners really aren’t effective.

Hats also respond well to brushing, but be careful vacuuming it is very easy to damage hat trims and feathers. I have taken a blow dryer on low fan and no heat and ‘dusted’ large hats with ostrich plumes.

Purses again, a brush-on suede and saddle soap, or polish on smooth leather, can be very effective. Fabric purses can be brushed or vacuumed inside and out. If they have stains or soil – best left alone. Because you will get a ring, and there won’t be much you can do.

Beaded bags take care. If you vacuum, be sure to use a screen as beads can easily be swept away. If you brush, use a very soft brush and do this on a sheet of muslin or acid free paper so you can see if any beads come off and you can rescue them.

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by Hollis Jenkins-Evans