Looking After Your Clothes – Part I: To Wash or Not to Wash?

by @style

So, you’ve read the introduction to this series, yes? And now you’re horrified about all the things you have hanging on wire hangers and the red wine stain on your vintage dress? Not to worry, I’m here to help.

One of the things about buying and collecting vintage and antique textiles is that they can sometimes be damaged and that’s a factor in the price. Of course, if we all had the budget we’d be shopping at Kerry Taylor Auctions and buying museum quality couture. When your budget is more Oxfam and vintage fair than Sothebys, however, you need to be slightly less discerning about your purchases which means that sometimes you’ll buy things that are less than pristine.

This is a bit of a double edged sword – you get bargains, but you need to take into consideration the damage and whether it can be restored or if cleaning would destroy it.

For example:

*conservators, curators and those with a squeamish disposition look away now*

A girl once came into my shop and handed me a parcel. She said it was found in an old wardrobe and it was probably beyond saving, but she couldn’t bear to just throw it in the bin and would I like it? When I opened the parcel I found an early 1960s ivory silk cocktail dress and coat, THICK with nicotine. Honestly, when you touched this thing your hands came off covered in sticky, black nicotine. The smell was revolting.

That aside, it was a gorgeous little suit, and, thinking if we didn’t try something it would be straight for the bin, we decided to bring out the big guns.

*conservators, seriously, stop reading*

The dress and coat went into buckets filled with water, Vanish and Stain Devil. We left them for about four days, took them out and rinsed them. Not much change. So, then we put them in the washing machine and they came out a little bit better, but still horribly stained.

So, they wen’t back into buckets, this time filled with a mix of water and white spirit and we left them for a couple of days. Again, they came out a bit better, but not great. Back in the machine. Out, again, not much improvement. AGAIN, back in the buckets, this time full of water and white vinegar. Out again and another level of improvement, but still not perfect.

On a last ditch attempt we treated all the very stained bits with Vanish and Stain Devil and then back in the machine. I should say that throughout all this, both garments were incredibly strong; any signs of real distress and we would have stopped. It didn’t even shrink.

Finally, after all that, it came out pristinely clean and I sold it to a very happy customer. So we rescued the outfit and the gamble paid off and all was well.

Another gamble was a 1930s white chiffon wedding dress with some staining and foxing (foxing is the little brown spots you sometimes see on vintage clothes). This one was delicate just by the very nature of the fabric, so required specialist cleaning. I put it into a dry cleaners and hoped for the best. I’m not a fan of dry cleaning at all; especially not for vintage. Apart from being generally unsuccessful and bloody expensive, the chemicals they use are far too harsh for antique textiles and will more often than not completely ruin your garment.

Anyway, the dress went in, pretty clean apart from some yellowing under the arms and a couple of tiny brown spots around the skirt. It came back pretty clean apart from some yellowing under the arms and a couple of tiny brown spots around the skirt. And I had £20 less in my purse.

The decision was taken again to wash it; a huge gamble but a necessary one if it was to be worn again. This time, however, we used kid gloves.

We laid it flat in the bath and very gently used the shower attachment at a trickle to soak the dress in clean, tepid water (pretty much cold). We then used a specialist silk detergent, only a tiny amount, around the armholes. We didn’t rub, massage or otherwise over handle the fabric. We soaked a very soft sponge in water with some detergent and sponged, very lightly, around the area. We left that for around half an hour then rinsed, again with the shower attachment on a very low pressure. The dress was obviously vulnerable at this stage, the weight of the water etc. could have destroyed the delicate fabric.

Somehow, we got it out of the bath right onto clean, white cotton towels we had laid on the floor. We then very gently pressed more towels on to it to remove as much excess water as carefully as possible. It was then transferred on to more clean towels, arranged neatly and left to dry flat, away from light, heat, dust, pets and people for a few days.

It came out clean, however, where the little spots of foxing had been on the skirt we now had small holes. This might sound like a complete catastrophe, but actually, it was a risk worth taking. The volume of fabric on the skirt meant that we could stitch tiny darts to close the holes up without damaging the surrounding fabric or compromising the integrity of the dress at all. One thing, however, we have a massive stock of threads and haberdashery items from the 1920s onwards (all my mum’s, she’s been buying these kinds of things up forever) so the thread we used was as close to the original threat as you can get. A modern thread might have been obvious.

So. To conclude this enormous essay I would recommend you consider treating stains, only, however, if you can answer yes to all of these statements:

I am incredibly patient

I have all the appropriate tools and washing fluids to hand

I am as gentle as a baby dandelion on the breeze

I will not be completely devastated if this goes wrong and it ends up ruined

If you can answer ‘yes’ to all of those, go ahead, proceed with caution and good luck!

A word of warning: I am not a conservator and anything I’ve tried with my collection has been pure, amateur, haphazard luck, although I always do as much research as possible before I go ahead with anything really precious and if in doubt, don’t.

Here’s some pictures of both the items, after they’d been washed. I wish I’d taken ‘before’ pictures, but at the time, I was running the shop and I didn’t think there would be any need!

The coat of the suit. We obviously removed the fur collar before washing. We just rubbed bicarbonate of soda into the fur with a slightly damp cloth, left it for a few hours then brushed the bicarb out. We then left it to air for around two weeks and it was fine and stitched back once the coat was clean!

The dress of the suit. You can see how clean it came up, if you had seen it before you wouldn't have recognised it!

The wedding dress. This isn't the best photo as it was slightly too big for the model around the shoulders, but you get the general idea.

And from the back

I think next week I’ll do knitwear, considering we’re in a deep freeze at the moment! And maybe fur, too, although really the best advice I can give where fur is concerned is take it to a furrier, they know what they’re doing!