Daily Wear & Washing Tips For Vintage Clothing

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Basic Practical Tips for Daily Care


Preventative Maintenance:

  • Be careful when wearing any type of vintage item.  Unconsciously, people wipe their hands on their clothes, drop food on them, and brush garments against cars and walls that can cause dinginess and stains.

  • With vintage and antique clothing, you should expect seams and points of stress to be more susceptible to problems than with new clothing.  To remedy a seam that opens or a hem that begins to fall, keep an emergency repair kit in your purse or car.  This kit should include:

    • thread (white, black, brown, gray, primary and secondary colors)

    • two needles (one for regular sewing, and a beading needle in case of loose beads)

    • scissors

    • scraps of fabric, in several colors & weights if possible (to be used to tack a tear closed and minimize fraying)

    • cornstarch or plain talcum powder to blot onto any stains that occur while worn (the talc absorbs liquid/oil and minimizes damage, as a stop-gap measure before regular cleaning)

  • After wearing, hang your garments inside out before they're washed.  This will allow the garment to dry out if it's had perspiration.  If they're left in a hamper, garments can mildew or get mingled odors that may set in.

  • Ideally, you should wash a garment just after taking it off.  The less time you give stains and odors to set in, the more likely they will vanish during washing.

  • If you need to pin a neckline closed, or you'll be wearing a brooch, make sure that the pin's thickness is not gouging the threads of the fabric.  A fine fabric can have its threads broken by a too-large pin, which can begin a hole that will not easily repair.

  • For long gowns, very commonly tears occur from caught heels and dirt markings are commonly seen on trailing hems and trains.  If you want to avoid this, practice walking with your skirt lightly pulled up in one hand, and remember there's fabric behind your heels.  Although it's cliche, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

When you get ready to do the wash:

  • Determine if the garment should be washed or not.

  • Separate according to lights and darks.

  • Do a separate load of whites and blacks if possible.

  • If the garments are too few to make viable loads, consider hand washing. Many recently made washing machines have "hand wash" features that are as good as actual hand washing, and a real time saver.

  • Check for weak seams, any beginnings of holes, any frays that could increase with washing.  Any garment that could be deteriorated by a machine washing should be hand washed, or solve the problem with a repair before washing. When in doubt, wash in a sink by hand, at least so that you can witness any changes happening to the garment in real time.

  • Zip up zippers to reduce catching on other garments, close snaps, and fasten hooks and eyes in case any come loose with washing.

  • Use liquid detergent instead of powder to prevent deposits and allow easier mixing with the water. Solid pieces of detergent left to settle on fabrics can lighten them unevenly.

To set your water temperature, we usually use cool to mild water for natural fibers (linen, cotton and silk) and warm to hot water for synthetic fabrics and blends.  The variations on this rule depend on whether there are stains you're trying to remove, and whether the dye of the fabric runs in warmer water.

Before placing garments in the washer, make sure they are washable in water!  Some garments shrink or their dyes bleed if they're washed in water, especially warm or hot water.  These garments must be dry cleaned.

Washable fabrics include:

  • Cotton - always washable in pure form, usually washable in blends; if there's a glaze or finish on the cotton, it may be removed with washing

  • Linen - needs serious steaming or pressing if machine washed, sometimes it's easier to have this fabric professionally washed or dry cleaned

  • Polyester - touted for its wash-ability, this fabric really can make it through the washer and dryer with a minimum of wrinkles

  • Nylon - another good fabric for wash-ability, with a minimum of wrinkles

  • Acetate, triacetate, spandex, and most other synthetics are washable and were created for wash-ability

Sometimes washable fabrics include:

  • Silk - usually washable in pure form, silk is best cleaned with cold or lukewarm water.  Silks that need to be dry cleaned include crepes, knits, and raw silks.  Also, any lined silks are best dry cleaned.

  • Rayon - can normally be washed if it's a plain weave, needs dry cleaning if it's a crepe.  We prefer warm water.  Other types of weaves should be dry cleaned unless testing proves otherwise.

Dry cleanable fabrics include:

  • Wool - if washed, this fabric will most likely shrink severely unless it's very carefully done.  Wool fibers catch themselves closer and closer together when wet, as they have microscopic hook-like parts that will not "unhook" after being washed in water.  If this happens, the garment will look shrunken, and under a microscope, the fibers have locked closer and become denser.  Water washing is not as severe if cold water is used, and no agitation or scrubbing is given, but would only recommend it be done by experienced hands.

Special care fabrics/trims include:

  • Velvet - must be dry cleaned, unless it's silk velvet and too fragile.  Spot dry cleaning by hand is usually the best solution for silk velvet, though it can be expensive and hard to find this service.

  • Fur and Leather - needs to be cared for by a furrier and/or leather specialist.  Their processes are different from dry cleaning.  If they trim a garment of other materials, ask a dry cleaner their opinion for the best cleaning method.  A spot cleaning may be the best solution.

  • Vinyl and Solid Plastics - usually in sheet plastic, these should not be heat dried, and usually should not be washed by machine.  Treat these materials by wiping them down.  If they're combined with other fabrics, a hand washing may be possible.

  • Iron-on Patches - like those on T-shirts that are made to melt to fabric are not often made for durability.  They should not be heat dried, and if possible, they should be hand washed to prevent peeling and cracking.

  • Other Trims - may include porcelain or glass buttons, embroidery, metal closures or other miscellany.  Vintage clothing provides a plethora of unusual trims, and their care should be considered on a case-by-case basis. In particular, buttons with fabric covering may rust from the inside out once they're immersed in water. This is a subtle inherent problem that's easily solved if you remove the buttons before washing the garment.

If you're washing knits or loose weaves, be careful that they will not be snagged by other garments' hooks, eyes, or zippers.  These types of garments are usually dried flat instead of machine dried.  This will keep pilling and worn appearance to a minimum, and it will allow you to re-shape the garment before it dries.

If you're washing a garment you've never washed before, test a hidden seam using the water temperature you think it will use.  Let a dot of water dry.  Watch for puckers around the area, which indicate that the fabric will shrink if submerged.  Watch for running dyes.  If either happens, do not wash the garment.

If you're washing a garment with stains, pre-treating often makes the difference between success and failure in terms of removing stains.  See our golden rules for removing stains.  Also - any heat applied to the stained area may set the stain.  Do not dry it in a dryer or apply an iron or steamer, unless the stains are something you can live with.  If you want to remove the stain with the wash, inspect it after washing, before tossing it in the dryer.  This is a wise step to take before drying anything, since bleeding dyes or deposits of excess soap can be made permanent if they're not caught first.

After washing:

Minimize wrinkles by hanging your garments immediately.  Using padded hangers is not a luxury, it's a necessity for vintage clothes.  They will benefit because the point of stress at the shoulder is not concentrated as it would be with a thin wire hanger.  Wire hangers also rust, which is an easily avoided dilemma.  Use plastic hangers if not enough padded ones are available.

Press your garments according to the type of fiber that they're made of.  It's nearly always best to press the wrong side of the fabric (i.e. turn it inside out and press).  If you use steam in your iron, make sure the water is fresh.  You can use a mist bottle instead.  Don't add starches to vintage garments unless you'll be wearing and washing them soon. Starch attracts pests.

  • Lowest Heat is specific to acetate, one of the earliest created synthetic fabrics.

  • Low Heat is required of nylon, rayon, silks, and polyester, as well as most synthetics.

  • Medium Heat is necessary for many blends of natural and synthetic fibers, like a cotton-polyester blend.

  • High Heat is usually used for pure cotton and linen.

  • Never press velvet, embroidery, raised or embossed fabrics or special trims like sequins.

  • Stop pressing a garment if the fabric begins to melt or shine.  Usually the heat is too high and/or the pressure you're using is too great.  Test press in an inadvertent spot if you're unsure of the heat.

  • Instead of ironing, buy a small garment steamer.  They are a great way to make your clothes wrinkle free in less time.  You don't have to set a heat setting, and they cannot burn fabric.  And, you can use a steamer on all the "never press" fabrics listed above.


To hand wash a garment, the same rules apply as far as water temperature and preparation of fabrics.  The differences are that you'll be the mixer and the agitator, instead of the washing machine.  Here are the steps we use:

  • Clean the container or sink you will be using very thoroughly, and wipe it down with a white towel to be sure its surface is clean.

  • Run the water until its temperature is right, then mix a drop or two of detergent in a small pool of water at the bottom of the container.  Touch this to a hidden seam, let it dry, and then check it for bleeding or puckering.  If nothing occurs, it's passed the pretest.  If it bleeds, try very cold water.  If it puckers around the edge of the once-wet area, it needs to be dry cleaned.

  • Fill the container with water at the right temperature, leaving enough physical space for the garment to be submerged and not overflow the container.

  • Add liquid detergent after the water is done, from a few drops for a lightly used garment to two tablespoons for a heavily soiled garment.  This amount is used for an eight quart container.

  • Mix the liquid detergent into the water thoroughly.

  • Add the garment in a coil or swirl shape, and gently push and move the garment to allow detergent to penetrate the entire garment.

  • Be alert for any bleeding, shrinkage, or other adverse problems.

  • Watch for the water to change from clear to yellow.  When it does, let the water drain out and gently press out excess water from the garment.  Never wring, twist, or pull the garment.  Also, always pick up the garment in total, not by a sleeve or a part.  Fabric is often weakest when wet.

  • After the water is drained, refill the container with water and repeat the process.  If the water continues to turn yellow, repeat this sequence until fresh water remains clear.  You can add detergent each time (usually in smaller amounts) if the fabric is stained or dingy.

  • When the water does remain clear, then you can begin looking at the amount of detergent in the water.  If there are any suds in the water, repeat the emptying and refilling sequence until no suds show on the surface.

  • When the detergent is completely removed, be gentle in squeezing out the water from the garment.  Let it dry by hanging it folded in half over a towel rack, with a white towel hung between the garment and the rack.  You can also lay the garment flat on a white towel, which is better for heavy or knit garments, or anything that could stretch out of shape if hung.  Remember that the fabric is much heavier when saturated with water.  Tumble dry anything that is okay for a machine drying.

Most of these steps are common sense, but it's easy to make a mistake, even if you have experience.  Usually we find that it's common to put too much detergent in the water, to leave too much detergent in the garment, to scrub and agitate too roughly.  Be observant and use your sensibility to keep your garments in an improved condition after they're washed.


Choosing a dry cleaner is not usually difficult when you're cleaning regular clothing, but for vintage clothing it can be a more involved process.  Cleaning a 1970s wool dress isn't usually a challenge for a dry cleaner, but cleaning a silk Victorian bodice is usually complicated.  Here are the tips we recommend for finding a caring cleaner:

  • Ask as many questions about their attention to detail as you feel is necessary.  Some good questions are:

    • Do you send these garments off-site for cleaning?  If the answer is yes, then more than likely your garments will be sent to a massive plant and have very little attention to detail.

    • Do you have a spotter?  This should be answered yes.  A spotter will personally look at any present stains on the garment and use chemicals to try to remove them.

    • Have you worked on vintage garments before?  Most likely they have, but the real question is, did they know they were working on particularly old and possibly fragile garments.  Their answer to this question will be telling; if they affirm that they've had experience with vintage garments and they're willing to put special care into them, you have probably found a gem.  More than likely, they will give a different answer, but this doesn't mean that they are not of excellent quality in general ability to clean well.

    • What is your policy for damaged or lost garments?  This is a very important question to ask before anything is left with the cleaner.  A respectable cleaner may be willing to reimburse you for the purchase price, assuming you have its original receipt.  Other cleaners will go by an association policy that depreciates the value of a garment per year.  If you bring in a 50-year-old garment, even if it had the tags on until yesterday, according to depreciation it's worth very little.  Make sure the cleaners know the age of the garment and understand its value.

  • Give a cleaning establishment a test, by bringing a garment that has a stain on it and isn't worth much to you.  You can do lots of different tests, depending on the type of questions you want answered.  Trying this out first may save lots of money later, if you're looking for a cleaner that you'll use regularly.

    • Send in a garment with a very old stain, one that was probably stained from the era of the garment itself.  This is a very difficult test for any stain remover, if the stain truly is that old.

    • Send in a garment with a stain that you know the history of.  Maybe it's something you spilled on the garment at a meal, or an ink/dye spot or mildew.  In any case, decide whether you want to tell the cleaners what the stain is.  If you don't, it needs to look ambiguous, and you'll be testing their spotter's skills for identification of the stain.  If you do tell them, it will be an easy test to tell whether the cleaners have a competent spotter.  The only caveats here: make sure the spot is not that old, since the older it is, the more difficult it is to remove.  And make sure the stain is not a toughie to remove in general, like perspiration, or impossible, like fading.

  • For fragile garments, anything that you wouldn't put in the dry cleaning equivalent of a washing machine, consider dry cleaning them by hand.  If you cannot find a professional cleaner to do this, try finding dry cleaning fluid at a hardware store.  We use a product made by Guardsman.  Be aware, some states will not sell these cleaners because they are highly toxic.  Besides this caution, there are supplies you'll need to dry clean, including a fumes mask (about $30-40), latex gloves, yards of clean unbleached muslin, and a very ventilated area closed off from your living space.  It takes some planning, but for fragile dry-clean-only garments, it's safer to do this than to arrive at the dry cleaner's and have them present you with a shredded remnant of your garment.

  • Some final precautions - You'll need to pretest garments to make sure their dyes won't bleed, just like it can happen sometimes with water washing.  Ask your dry cleaner whether they will do this.  Also, some synthetic fabrics (namely acetate) and details like plastic buttons will melt in dry cleaning fluid.  Dry cleaners should be aware of this, but ask beforehand.








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