How To Care For Vintage
When people find out that I have a large collection of vintage clothing, they immediately begin to quiz me: “How are they stored?”…“What’s the best way to take care of my grandmother’s silk dress?”… “I bought an amazing dress at a thrift store and then realized it had a stain—what can I do about it?” Over the years, I’ve amassed some helpful tips on the caring, cleaning, and storage of vintage that will stand you in good stead, plus any new Vetements or Gucci pieces that you may want to preserve for future generations.
Follow Laura on instagram here.
Caring for Vintage Clothes
Often the most basic things are the most important—when handling vintage clothes of any age do so delicately and with clean hands. When wearing, take care not to spill or wipe your hands while eating, and pay attention to your movements—sometimes even waving your arm can tear a delicate underarm seam. Have a long dress hemmed to the correct length for you so it doesn’t drag behind you—heel tears, dust, and puddles will quickly destroy your beautiful vintage prize.
Unless you know how to do your own repairs, it is usually best to purchase vintage that is flawless or with only a few minor flaws.
Most of us have likely encountered a vintage garment with deeply embedded smells—mildew, mothballs, BO, cigarettes…. It is possible to get them out and sometimes all that is needed is to hang in the sunshine and fresh air for a bit. Zero Odor spray also works wonders (though always test in a hidden place first to check for dye fastness). Some dry cleaners offer ozone treatments that can be beneficial to removing set-in smoke smells.
After washing (see below), hang most garments up to dry in order to prevent wrinkles; knits and delicates should dry flat. Cotton and linen should then be ironed—I like to use a press cloth and iron on the reverse. Use a steamer on wool, silk and rayon pieces.
Washing Vintage Clothes
Due to the age and delicacy of vintage pieces, the cleaning and washing of them is a complex subject. Aside from vintage band t-shirts and jeans, most vintage should never be put in the washing machine. Care labels were introduced in 1971 and, while you can try following their instructions, it is always preferable to take a gentler approach with a vintage garment. Any piece that has an inner construction or lining should be dry-cleaned.
Cotton and polyester are the most durable, but should be hand-washed as dyes may bleed—it’s always good to have an eye on a piece while it is soaking to may sure that the dyes are colorfast. You can check for dye bleed and shrinkage prior to washing by dabbing the detergent and water (at the temperature in which you plan to wash) on a small hidden spot of your garment. After a moment blot with a white towel—if there is any color, dry clean. A non-chlorine bleach such as Oxyclean or Biz can be used on cotton to help lift out stains, but a regular hand-wash detergent is fine for normal cleaning. If you are washing older, glazed cotton, be aware that the finish might wash out and thereby change the feel of the fabric.
Pure silk garments (as long as they are not knit or crepe) should also be hand washed. Some vintage dealers recommend soaking the garment first in cool to tepid water with very mild soap or gentle shampoo, rinsing well in cold water, then adding a very small amount of white vinegar to clean rinse water in order to pull out any remaining soap, and also to revive the silk’s luster. The Laundress makes a good Delicate Wash for hand-washing silks, synthetics, and blends. Always dry clean silk crepe, knits, and velvet.
Wool knits can be hand-washed, but woven wool should be dry cleaned to prevent shrinkage. For knits, they can be washed with cool water and Euculan (a gentle no-rinse wash) then remove excess moisture by rolling the knit in a clean towel. Carefully block the piece back to original dimensions and dry flat.
Linens and plain-weave rayons can be hand-washed in cool water—test for dye bleed first. Rayon crepes should always be dry-cleaned.
Leather, suede, and fur should go to a specialist cleaner.
It is important to do your research and find a dry cleaner that is knowledgeable about vintage clothing. I like to test out a new dry cleaner with a piece of OK-but-not-amazing vintage and if they do well with that, test out a few more garments. A great dry cleaner will go above and beyond to preserve your vintage clothes, while even an okay one might destroy them.
These are simply guidelines—each garment should really be analyzed individually, on a case-by-case basis, to see what method of cleaning would be best for it. Likewise, stains need to be approached differently based on their type, whether blood, sweat or lipstick; there are several articles online (here and here) that outline the steps to be taken for different stains.
Storing Vintage Clothes
In an ideal world, your closet should be climate controlled as excess damp can cause mildew and mold while too much heat will break down delicate textile fibers. An air conditioner and dehumidifier are your clothes’ best friends. Make sure that there is no direct sunlight and only low lighting (fluorescent, compact fluorescent, and LED lights will cause less damage than incandescent).
Always remove dry cleaner poly bags, as your pieces need to breathe—if you prefer for them to be protected, a breathable canvas or Tyvek garment bag works well. Following Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford’s demand in Mommie Dearest, no wire hangers—ever. Padded hangers are the best for vintage in general, as they help save the shoulders on pieces and also force space between garments so they have room to breathe. Skirts and pant hangers can–unfortunately–leave permanent marks on fabrics, so it is best to either clip them around an extra scrap of fabric or turn the garment inside-out for hanging. It’s best to fold or roll knit fabrics as they will lose their shape while hanging. Delicate items (lace, silk, beading) should be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and stored flat in a drawer, a cedar chest or another archival storage box. Use the acid-free tissue to fold items to prevent creases, and stuff it into hats, shoes, and handbags to retain their shape. If you have any furs, consider moving them to a fur storage facility for the warmer months.
If you are ever in the unfortunate situation where you have a moth infestation (I can tell you from experience that it is the absolute worst), purchase a roll of dry cleaner poly-bags and bag every item in your closet that contains animal fibers (silk, wool, rayon, feathers, fur, snakeskin)—making sure to tape up the top and the bottom so that no air (or moths) can get in or out. This will asphyxiate all the moths and their larvae. While regular moth traps might help for a small influx of moths, for a true infestation a museum textile conservator recommended a mix of pheromone lures and traps from Insects Limited Incorporated. To truly prevent moths, she also suggested that anytime you purchase a new vintage piece that they bag it for a three-month quarantine period to ensure that it isn’t bringing moths into your closet—difficult to do when you want to wear it out as soon as possible, but good advice for a true collector. Keep your closet very clean—vacuum every nook and cranny often—and don’t store dirty pieces in there as the moths are attracted to the soiling; vitamin B found in body oil and sweat is food for the earliest stage of the larvae.
With vintage (and even new) clothing, a little prevention can completely transform the longevity of your pieces. For more in-depth information on specific questions and how-to videos for handwashing, The Laundress’s site is a valuable resource. Hopefully, the information above makes you more aware of your clothing and how you care for it, allowing you to wear and love those pieces for many more years to come.
Shop the best vintage on Heroine here