Welcome to a Down And Dirty Guide to Care and Cleaning.
And let’s get this straight right off the top, I am not a museum conservator.
Not by a long shot.
What I know about the area of textiles comes from reading, talking to people who know more than I do and study with that unforgiving teacher – Trial and Error.
I did study costume history for several years a part of an MFA degree in Costume Design and Construction and I started collecting in oh, 1979, and have been selling since 1992.
So where to start?
Most of us are dealers with stock inventory. Museum techniques really won’t work for us.
But I have rarely met a seller who didn‘t have a personal collection. And there are many things we can do to protect what we have and pass it on to the next owner.
After all, we are investing our hard to come by cash and it behooves us to protect that investment.
Two good rules to start with:
Do No Harm
When in Doubt , Don’t.
There are hard to live up to, and I have failed the first more times than I like to remember.
It’s a long and sordid tale of washing machines, attics, dye runs, and dry-cleaners.
The second rule has saved me and my treasures from disaster.
So let’s start with the point of purchase.
A lot of damage happens just getting our treasures home.
Maybe you have found things at a local shop, vintage clothing show or were lucky enough to be given goodies. Usually they are stuffed in a tiny grocery sack, or a dirty cardboard box or even a huge used garbage bag and then handed to you. Delicious. If you can, try to wash your hands before you handle it all. Those nachos and cheese dishes can leave some really greasy stuff on the clothes.
Now for the obvious: Don’t try to carry too much – if you head to the car with 15 dresses and 10 hats piled in your arms, I promise you will drop something or drag on the ground. And those velvet dresses don’t look good after you have stepped on them in the gravel parking lot.
So be patient, be careful. Carry what you can securely. If you have a lot of dresses, lay them flat, grab all the hangers in your right hand, then slide your left under the garments and carry horizontally.
You won’t drop anything and nothing will drag on the ground.
Make as many trips at it takes.
So, now we have you to the car. If you car is not all that clean, or you transport pets, consider taking a clean sheet along on buying trips to lay on the back seat to protect the clothing. You can wrap this over them a well.
If there are any wire hangers, this is the time to get rid of them. They are DOOM.
Not only are they terrible to hang garments on, they rust and the damn things catch on other garments and tear them.
Nothing quite matches the feeling you get when you have bought a mint condition lace dress, then getting home and realizing the next two hangers on either side of it are entwined in it and have put a 3” rip in the front of the dress.
Ooooorr the hangers have rusted and not only do you have rust on the original garment, you have rust on the ones next to it.
So like Joan Crawford, your mantra should be:
“No Wire Hangers-Ever!”
I do suggest taking a garbage bag along to big sale and throwing the hangers out before I leave.
If you have a hanging bar, take along some padded hangers, and you can get the clothing home reasonably unwrinkled. It’s worth it to take some time. I mean really, if that Adrian suit is in good presentable shape when you buy it, why would you wad it in a bag and have to steam it all over again when you get back to your home or shop?
If you don’t have a hanging bar, lay the garments on the back seat, with as few folds as possible.
I place heavy items such as coats to the bottom, lighter weights at the toward the top with satins and velvets at the top to avoid irremediable crushing.
I do keep hats and shoes in boxes to protect them. And these can go in the trunk. My trunk was only clean enough for clothing when we drove it home from the dealer.
Please don’t store food and drink in the back with the clothing, you never know what can happen if you have to slam on the brakes. That may sound odd but when you go on long drives to hunt for the good stuff you may well have a few soft drinks and snack in the car.
If you buy in large lots, I also recommend having a garbage bag or two along and weeding out the items you aren’t keeping. Plus one for the trash, the nasty old boxes, the old wood and wire hangers, the dirty newspaper stuffing, old discolored tissue, cracked plastic garment bags, and other goodies that so often are part of the territory. There is no need to even take any of that in the house or shop. And it may well be home to insects, so all the better to get it out of the way ASAP.
I have been known to drop off the rejects at my local thrift on the way home from the sale.
And the trash bag goes right on out to the bin when I get home.
Now , you’re home.
I don’t know about you but it’s always dark or raining or both when I get home for a buy.
And I am always tired from a day on the road or a day driving all around town.
So if it‘s raining, wait until it quits to unload. Water spots can be the difference in a big price tag and a medium one. If it’s dark and you can’t see well enough to be able to tell if you dropped anything, wait until morning to unload.
Now, take as much care getting everything into your house or shop as you did getting it to the car. Dropping satin dresses onto oily driveways or muddy grass verges is heartbreaking.
Here’s the hard part, don’t throw everything over chair or table and decide to face it later.
The time to get this new purchase hung up and temporarily stowed is now. You want to get it done before the pets get to give it the once over or it gets thoroughly crushed.
If you are a seller, I suggest you have staging area even a temporary one with an empty rack and clean table that you can unload onto. Have your padded and skirt hangers nearby and hang everything up as soon a you come in.
I lay out all the hats, shoes and accessories separately at this point. If I am going to be away for awhile I stow all these in clear plastic tubs until I can get back to them.
I do shut my cat out of the staging room until I have it all safely stowed.
He’s a cat. He is curious. He just has to inspect all that new smelly stuff and since fur and feathers are just dead animals to him, you can imagine the destruction he is capable of.
If you are a private collector it’s still a good idea to have a clean area you can unload to and then get these hung up. If you use a bedroom, you may want to put a sheet down on the bed first – I am always amazed at some of the stuff that is left on the table after I hang it all up. And it will catch any beads that may fall off.
Now there are some exceptions to the hang it up right away rule:
*Anything with signs of fabric stress at the shoulders
*Delicate garments, such as old chiffon or silk taffeta’s. These often end up with the hanger sticking right through the sleeves.
*Children’s garments that are too small to fit over adult hangers
*Garments with a lot of weight that strain the shoulder.
A few more thoughts, don’t stack the hats on top of each other, that’s a great way to break feathers and beat down crowns. Be careful of shoes, scuffs can happen in storage almost as well as in wear.
So we have you and your treasures home now, ready to face tomorrow’s ever so much more glamorous and exciting topic:
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.
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. Jonathan mentioned this in his Shoe Workshop. 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 wrinkle relax before tackling them with steam.
Washing and dry-cleaning are The Big Ones. Lets 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 an 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
*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, an ca 1800s silk dress, or an 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 2 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 sam 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 ruse 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 4 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 an wrinkles a 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 temp that will do some good and from the wrong side of the fabric. If you can 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 cool’ish iron on the wrong side or with 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 an 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.
*You can dry-clean items that can‘t be washed.
*They do the pressing
*It can be effective on oil based stains.
*It is harsh, harsh, harsh on delicate and old textiles
*It causes a lot shattering and splitting
*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% if 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.
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 one – 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 gab, 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.
Now – it’s onto the Fabulous World of Mold and Insects!
We will take on storage issues a bit later.
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 beetle 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.
“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 form 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 just for a bit.
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.
Warning, I may not be a conservator but I have been a prof. seamstress and draper/pattern maker for 25 years. So I do have this club in my bag.
Now that you have your fab find or two home and clean, let’s finish getting get in good shape. But before we go too far, if you are seller, I do want to state that any repairs that involve replacement of original pieces, e.g. new buttons, need to be stated at point of sale.
If you either collect or deal in vintage clothing, I heartily recommend you acquire basic sewing skills. I know, you avoided Home Ec like the plague but some basic skills will save a lot of time and hassle, not to mention cash.
A course at the local fabric store may be available, or self taught skills can be had by picking up an old Vogue or Singer How to Sew text in a used bookstores. Stitching techniques haven’t changed. A slip stitch in 1919 is a slip stitch now.
Tools you need:
*Sharp needles, the finest and smallest eyed you can get.
*A needle threader for those of us who don’t see as well as we used to
*Wax to run the thread through to keep it from knotting
*A pair of small sharp snip type scissors
*A small sharp seam ripper
*High quality , thin, sharp pins. I prefer glass headed pins as they are easier on the fingertips and easier to find when done
The main thing is to use sharp and fine needles and pins as they will make smaller holes in the fabric and will penetrate easily.
Some guidelines always try to match the existing thread of the fabric, which may be quite a different color than the material. Be gentle with the fabrics- no tugging . Match any hooks, snaps, etc in type, size and color.
There are quite a few basic repairs that can easily be managed :
Reinforcing loose buttons, hooks, snaps, etc.
Stitching popped seams, be sure to follow the original stitching line
Reattaching loose hems.
Restoring hems to he original length when they have been
Restoring hems to the original length when they have been shortened requires a judgment call. If the shortened hem ha s left a dirt or fold line, you are better off leaving is as is.
Re-tacking facings and shoulder pads.
Holes are more involved. If the garment is old enough or of enough interest to warrant it, the best thing is to match the fabric and invisibly stitch a small piece from the back. No visible thread is the goal. This is something you might do on an 1890s print dress, but wouldn’t bother with on a 1950 house dress.
Patches placed on the outside just look bad and are very distracting. You may be able to find a small bit of fabric in a seam allowance. Match the direction of the weave and the pattern.
Missing buttons and fasteners – there several ways to go here. If the garment is older and the buttons are of great interest, leave it as is.
If all the buttons or hooks are gone, find replacements in the right size, and period. Modern buttons just don‘t cut it. Neither do modern hooks on an 1850s bodice. Plastic buttons on an 1881 dress ( I have seen it!) just don’t work and are a waste of time.
If most of the buttons are gone, try replacing them but keep the original ones with the garment as a record.
Tears – smaller tears can be reinforced from the back by hand sewing a thin , sturdy fabric such as organza to the garment and arranging the edges a they were, then stitching them down with small, discreet stitches in a matching thread. If you can, match not only the color, but the fiber of the thread.
Some people do small darts in the fabric to hide the tear. This still shows and distorts the lay of the fabric. It’ s not the best solution.
Traditionally, cotton garments were darned when they developed holes and tears. If you are good at darning and patient enough to do a good job, you might give this a try.
Moth holes – these take reweaving which is a job for a pro. If you want to give this try and do a little practicing on new garments, here are some suggestions.
You will need excellent lighting and most likely a magnifying glass. You also need tons of patience. This is Zen sewing. Threads are unraveled from seam allowances or hems, and threaded through a short needle using a needle threader. Since any thread you get from the seam allowance will be short, this has to be done frequently.
These are then literally woven in each direction of the grain, working from the back of the fabric. For this to look good, the weaving must follow the grains very closely.
NOTE: Some fabrics cannot be rewoven- sheers such as organza, chiffon and organdy will show all the work. Velvet, taffeta and satin are a no go as well. Changeables or multi-color twills are very difficult. The best results even from a professional are on rougher textured wool weaves and tweeds, or coarser weaves of linen and cotton.
Reinforcing loose trims. Duplicate the way it was sewn on to start. Many trims, especially from the turn of the century and before were sewn on from the back with largish stitches, so while secure, they seemed to lay on the garment effortlessly.
It’s important that in doing repairs, you are restoring the garment as it is was, not redesigning it or trying to ‘improve’ it. Those type attempts are most often quite obvious and devalue the piece.
These are for the adept hand sewer with time and patience. Hand sewn buttonholes are an art. Directions are available in many older sewing texts. A great deal of practice will be required before attempting these on any garment you care about. Do purchase the correct thread – buttonhole twist is still available in some shops.
Added panels and size alterations
Many older garments have had panels added as the original or subsequent owners need more room. If added panels are distracting or a non matching fabric, these can be removed and the original seam lines restored by hand sewing. If it’s an older piece, you want to document what you have done.
If a garment has been taken in or let out , usually on the sides, the question is: Can you put it back with out the old alteration lines showing?
If a line of needle holes will be visible, it may be best to leave this alone.
Beading. This requires matching beads, a beading needle and more patience. You may be able to steal beads from the seam allowance or hem or an older garment in poor condition.
Most of the time, the losses will be on Victorian/Edwardian dresses or 1920s gowns. You must tie off the ends of the existing beads, or stitch these beads down at least an 1” back from the missing area. The difficulty is the on the older garments, the thread holding the beads on is rotting. If the more you handle it, the worse it gets – best left alone.
On 1920s dresses, the beads were usually machine stitched on with a chain stitch and can all come off with a slight tug, so handle these gently. You must match the shape, size and color of the bead and the spacing of the beads. If you aren’t sure where they were sewn on , lift the fabric to the light and you will almost always be able to see the old needle holes.
As you may note, I haven’t mentioned Fusibles, such as Stitchwitchery, Wonder Under or Iron On Tape etc. Some people use these to stabilize weak areas. Some use this stuff to iron on fabric behind holes.
It’s only my opinion, but I hate them. To me, they are a detriment to the garment and devalue it.
They stiffen the area where they are used, they aren’t removable and so are a permanent change, and They Show, leaving a ghost around the edges. Iron on tape is the worst. I have removed this by steaming the garment and gently working the stuff off. But it is a dicey deal. Better to keep the hole intact than use this stuff.
I think I will save my thoughts on major restorations, reinforcement and replacement until later in the week as those projects are for the advanced seamstress.
Regarding machine sewing on older textiles.
I generally prefer hand sewing as it is gentler on the fibers and much easier to remove. If you are re-stitching seams on newer and post 1920s garments, machine sewing may be alright.
Several things you can do – instead of machine back-stitching each end, take a hand needle and thread the bobbin thread through to the same side as the needle thread and hand tie this off. Use the longest length stitch you can that will lay well. Then if there is a need so take the stitching out, it can be with a lot less strain to the fabric.
If a garment was originally hand sewn, you really must hand sew any repairs. I purchased an 1837 silk gown where the skirt seams had all been re-stitched by machine. I felt duty bound to take it all out and resew by hand. I must say, at least the stitches were long and easy to remove.
If the garment is older, say pre-1930s, be careful. Don’t pull the hemstitching, but cut the threads and remove very short segments at a time. You can tear old taffeta’s and silks by pulling the thread.
Documentation and Inventory
You found it , you’ve cleaned it, you’ve repaired it.
Now is a good time to document and photograph your new acquisition, before you pack it away. Once packed away, the less you disturb it the better.
If you are a seller or store owner, odds are you already entered that great new Ceil Chapman dress in your inventory. If not, now is the time. You know what you have in it and what you have done to it.
Note the date purchased, the vendor, the cost, and assign your inventory number. Note repair or cleaning costs.
If you do know the provenance, please make a note of it in your inventory. Its is so easy to lose this information, and it will add to the monetary value of the piece. And it can be substantial amount.
I sold an 1837 wedding dress several years ago that would normally have brought in the $400 range that went for over $1000 because I knew whose it was and was fortunate that a local museum saw it and wanted it.
If you are a collector, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you keep an inventory record of your collection. Make a record and keep a copy with your insurance agent , in a safe deposit box box or in a fire proof box. The value of vintage clothing and accessories has really skyrocketed in the last 20 years. It would be a shame to lose a collection to fire or flood, and be unable to collect on a claim. Because when yo collect, you get to start shopping again.
Thorough documentation will help with the common misconception that’s all just old clothes and doodads
And should the day come you wish to sell your collection, you will already have photo and an inventory prepared that you can show prospective brokers or purchasers.
An added bonus is that you will have on hand photos for PR purposes.
For your personal records, I suggest you have a form that is easy to access on your computer. You want to record a fair amount of information:
Inventory Number – Assign a number. Any system will do really, as long as you understand it and are consistent. I have a very simple D = dress, SH = shoes, H = at, etc.
I assign a number when I purchase.
What is the item?
Current storage location of the item
Who owned it?
When did they own it?
Description of the garment, including color, materials, trims
Condition, including any cleaning or restoration that has been done
Where did you acquire it
Who did you purchase it from?
If you have the original owner information and any pertinent details, enter those
If you have documents or photos pertaining to it, note those as well
Take a clear photo and paste it onto the form you have devised
You should keep a paper copy as well as separate disk or CD. It’s a bit easier to refer to. And you definitely want a copy that is separate form your hard drive should your computer collapse!
Lets talk about the photo.
This is no time to get fancy and doll up a background or do borders. You want, simple well lit photo against a clean background. A white sheet will do. You want to be able to see the garment and its details. You may want to take a detail shot of complex trimmings.
You may also want to take a shot of the labels.
Once you have it all packed away in blue acid free boxes (which all look exactly a like) you will be so happy to be able to put your finger on an item without having to open very single box.
Or having to wander room to room ,asking yourself, “where did I put that beaded cloche that matches this dress?”
Or the sad moment when you say, “I know that dealer said who this 18th Century gown belonged to. Now as I enter my declining years and my memory is shot, I sure wish I had written all information down.”
As part of your documentation, you may want to file research along with your inventory sheets.
I have started to print out any auction results, internet store listngs or research photos from the web that are extremely similar to an item in my collection.
Should the day come that you need to assign a hard value to that Adrian suit, this could be very helpful.
As to assigning value. This can be tough on your own treasures. It is hard to be objective. You know what you paid for it. But is that the actual value?
For insurance, you want to assign a replacement value, or what it would cost to replace the item at this time.
For resale, you want to establish a fair market value.
At one time, I did actually pay a museum appraiser to come and do formal appraisals on my collection. It was very, very helpful. That was before Internet, though.
I think you can do a fair amount of research on going prices yourself these days. Be sure to check out various sources. Ebay is only one venue. There are several auction houses who have online auctions that can be informative, as well as brick and mortar shop prices and web site values.
If you do hire an appraiser, get a specialist who knows textiles. A general line antiques appraiser will not necessarily know any more than you do. And appraisers are not cheap. You will pay an hourly rate including travel time and their expenses.
Storage or What do With All This Stuff Now!
Storage. The bane of everyone’s existence with vintage clothing is having enough space to store it properly. I can’t help you add a room onto your shop or home, but I can tell you organization will make a huge difference.
A few thoughts about the storage area:
Be sure your storage area has good air circulation and keep it swept up and clean. This will help enormously with mold and insects. Never store your vintage ( or any other) textiles in attics or basements. Or unheated and un-air conditioned spaces. The temperature changes and moisture will cause and contribute to quick decay. And water leaks and vermin will be hard to spot.
Ideally, the temperature range of your area should be 65 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit and have a relative humidity level of 45% – 55 %. But since we aren’t museums with fine climate control, a good rule of thumb is that if you are comfortable , it probably is as well. If you are too hot, the textiles are as well. If you have trouble with high humidity, a dehumidifier will help. Fans can assist with air circulation.
Continued exposure to light is to be avoided as well, so cover your racks. Note: if you display items, do so out of direct sunlight and strong lighting and rotate your items. You want to avoid ultra violet light and heat.
If you have enough closets to hang your collection – you are way ahead. If not, sturdy racks will help. Spend the money to get a rack that won’t fall down or lean over under too much weight. If you hang pipes from the ceiling or on walls, be sure to hit some studs. Clothes get damaged when racks fall down.
If high enough, a wall or ceiling pipe does have the advantage of letting you double hang a second pipe underneath and you can use all the available ceiling height to extend your hanging storage.
The salesman rolling racks are great – these are sturdy and have rollers. And they fold up and fit in your trunk if you need to go on the road. If you use racks, whether in a home or shop, do cover your textiles with clean sheeting to protect them from dust and light.
Some storage areas black out the windows. This may be a extreme for the private collect, So consider tow covers – a white one for cleanliness, and a black over that to block out tall the eligh6.
What is it safe to hang?
You can safely hang garments that are in good repair, sturdy and have strong construction .And show no signs of shoulder damage or stress. Also, very lightweight dresses with little strain on the shoulders can be hung.
If you hang – get padded hangers. For the shop owner of seller, purchasable padded hangers will be fine a as long as they are not perfumed. Hopefully, you will be turning over your inventory quickly enough that you won‘t have to think in terms of long term storage.
To the collector who will be storing long term, you can make your own padded hangers . Use a plastic hanger as a base. You want a hanger that has the same shoulder shape as your garment and isn’t too wide. If too wide, it will poke out the sleeves of the garment over time.
Wrap the hanger with layers of non adhesive poly or cotton batting . Then cover this with washed muslin and secure it with large hand stitches as needed.
Never, ever use wire or wood hangers. Wire rusts, causes distortion and tears and doesn’t support properly. Wood is acid and eats the textile.
If the garment is heavy, support the waist with cotton twill tape tacked to waist band or seams in large loops use this as a hanging loops to the hanger to take the weight. . If the garment has a train you might suspend a covered and padded roll from twill tape and lay the train over this for support. Sleeves may need acid free tissue stuffing to keep their shape.
Loose muslin hanging bags for fragile garments are a good way to protect them. This is also effective for garment with sharp or fragile elements that might damage the hanging items on either side.
Do not store in plastic bags. Many plastics are chemically unstable and will react with the textile inside. If sealed, plastic will also trap moisture an d help mold grow. And , if the worst happens, and insect get in , they may not be able to get out.
This is what many dry cleaners, etc. call “Preservation”.
Most garments will respond well to flat storage. It is imperative you use archival supplies. Again, regular paper, cardboard, tissue ( especially that blue stuff) and wood are to be avoided.
Acid free boxes come in a wide range of sizes and prices ( There will be a list of supply house at the end of the workshop).
Flat storage is best for anything that is at all fragile, has hanging stress on the shoulders or waist, is beaded or heavily trimmed, bias cut, or strapless.
Start with a acid free box. Place a piece of tissue in the box that can act as a lifting aid when you need to take the garment out of the box. Ideally , the garment will not be folded. But realistically, most garments have to have some folding. Use acid free tissue paper crumpled up in rolls inside the folds to prevent creasing.
I stuff the bodice and sleeves as well. Avoid creasing the garment along fold lines that are already creased in. If there are metallic threads or parts, use tissue to keep these from touching other areas.
Pad any folds you have to make to fit the garment into the storage box.
Now if you have to use what space you have, and have cedar chests and the like available, or if you are going to be buying boxes and tissue over time, then adapt what you have.
You can use heavily washed cotton sheeting (light colors- no dye!) or washed muslin to line drawers and chests. Be sure to cover every bit of wood and have enough muslin to cover the garment after you have placed it in inside. You can use scraps of muslin to pad the garment and folds.
If the garment is not too big, you can store more than one like colored item per box. Place the heaviest item at the bottom. I don’t have more than 3 items in any box. And they are thin ones. For example, 1920s beaded dress at bottom, medium weight 30s dress next, lightweight cotton lingerie dress on top. Large bustle dresses, ball gowns and the like will take up a box of their own.
When you have placed the garment in the box and closed it up, do not seal it and don’t put it in a plastic bag. You want some air circulation.
Acid free boxes all look alike. If you start to acquire a collection of any size, you will have no way of knowing what is in each one. And you will disturb the contents searching through every box hunting for the one item you need.
Be sure to label your box with the contents. Us pencil, and note the inventory number you assigned it, a short description and list in order the garments that are stacked in the box.
You may want to make a plastic sleeve and tape it to the box and slide your label into this so you can change the label easily in the future.
If you are being very thorough, you can label the box on both the top and the side so you can easily se the label no matter how you store these.
If you are a dealer who is storing some items as investments or for a period of time, please consider some of these techniques.
You certainly don’t want to invest in acid free boxes for your entire inventory, but clean washed sheeting to line plastic and card board boxes would be a great start to preserving that investment. Padding folds will help you get a dress out of boxed storage in far better condition than smashed flat.
Shoes and Hats
Stuffing shoes lightly with tissue. These can be stored in boxes as well or if you have shelving that is protected from light you can cover the shelving with heavy acid free tissue or washed muslin.
Hats should also be lightly stuffed and stored either in boxes or on shelves as well.
Again – avoid stacking hats. If the hats have fragile feathers or metal components, consider using acid free tissue to make a roll that will support and protect the component.
Dyeing and Major Restoration
Dyeing. Let’s deal with this issue since it comes up fairly often in the forums.
This is something we do a lot in theater and costuming, where the needs of the production come first. But it isn’t something I recommend for vintage clothing.
It is permanent change. And the vast majority of the time, it just doesn‘t work. Think of dye as a watercolor. It isn’t opaque. It’s just a wash of color over whatever is dye is already there. So if there are stains or light areas, they will end up darker or lighter than the rest of the field.
Over dyeing also dyes all the interfacings and threads and labels that originally were another color, leaving a telltale sign you have been there.
Most garments are made of commercially dyed fabric if already and the fabric won’t usually take much more color. And purchasable dye remover won’t touch most commercial dyes.
Other pitfalls are shrinkage, the fabric taking the dye unevenly and dye spots.
About the only scenario where over-dyeing might help is rinsing a dark garment with it’s existing color to freshen it up. And I still can’t really recommend it.
And here‘s the kicker – over dyed garments lose a lot of value. Many a collector, including myself, will pass over a re-dyed garment, no matter how fab, without a second thought.
Trying to dye only small spots of dye loss is a very tricky undertaking, not to be attempted by the amateur dyer.
How to dye fabric:
Having said all that, here are directions if you feel you just must take a project in hand.
First- the garment must be washable. Cotton takes dye well. Linen takes light colors well, silk usually soaks up the dye, and wool will dye somewhat. Nylon and poly don’t dye well if at all.
The garment must be clean and stain free.
There are sources for dye on the internet from Rit to Deka silk dyes. Whatever your choice, be sure to follow any directions for adding either vinegar or salt to the dye bath and water temperature.
The hotter the water, the quicker and deeper the dye will take.
Boil water on the strove in a pot you will never again use for food preparation. Wear a dust mast an drubber gloves. Turn off any fans. You don’t want to inhale or absorb dye into your system or have it become airborne in your home. Add the dye and stir until it is all thoroughly dissolved. Set aside.
Fill your washer or a very large pot on your stove with the appropriate temperature of water. Usually as hot as the garment will tolerate, but there are cold water dyes, so check your directions. You want enough water that the garment has plenty of room to circulate.
Slide the garment into the water and get it completely wet, Remove it and set it aside. Pour the dissolved dye into the water, making sure it is thoroughly dispersed. Running the agitator will do this.
Now slide the wet garment into the dye bath. Let it agitate at least briefly to make sure it all gets in the dye. Depending on the depth of color desired, either let the machine run through it’s cycle and rinse, or let the garment soak.
Make sure it is all down in the dye bath without air bubbles. You may have to weight the garment to keep it down. Plastic bottles filled with water will work. Let the garment rinse well when it is a shade darker than you want. It will lighten a bit when dry.
Lay flat on dark towels to dry and then press or steam.
Be sure to run a load of rags or old towels with bleach in the washer next to clean out any residual dye.
If you are going to try to remove dye, use dye or color remover rather than bleach. Bleach will weaken the fibers and turns many fibers such as silk and nylon permanently yellow.
Both Rules we mentioned way back at the beginning come into play here.
*Do No Harm
When in Doubt, Don’t*
Most major restorations should be left to the expert. More damage has been done by inexperienced seamstresses than you can imagine.
Paying someone to do major e jobs such as relining a coat or replacing damaged areas is expensive in both supplies and labor. And if it isn’t done well, it lowers rather then raises the value of the garment.
In my experience, it is best to leave this sort of work to the buyer’s discretion. Most serious collectors would much rather have their own conservator do the work.
Fabric must be dyed to match, not something for the casual dyer to attempt, and the fabric types must be right. Relining a silk velvet 1920s opera coat with polyester satin doesn’t help the garment, it hurts it.
If you do anything along these lines, try to keep the work you do such that it can be removed and the garment is will still be intact. Don’t cut the garment, as this can’t be restored. If you remove trims, buttons or lining, please retain them with the garment as a record. If you just must try a hand at relining, leave the original lining in place under the new fabric.
Don’t try to redesign or ‘Improve” the dress. It is what it is . Accept it. If you think it’s dowdy or unattractive, perhaps best to leave it at the store.
If you have a textile that has fabric losses, but is still a worthwhile piece, you can stabilize those areas. Simple techniques to address this are whip stitching the raw edges of holes or tears to prevent raveling. Use a matching color cotton thread . Nylon net or silk crêpeline may be placed over and under vulnerable areas or holes and stitched loosely into place with running stitch. . This can also help stabilized small areas of shattering. This will stabilize an area until you can work with a conservator to determine a long term solution.
Written by Hollis Jenkins-Evans pastperfectvintage.com 2004