The Proper Care and Feeding of Vintage: How to Launder Vintage Clothing and Textiles

The Proper Care and Feeding of Vintage: How to Launder Vintage Clothing and Textiles

Oh the joy of finding the perfect 1950s chiffon fit and flare dress! It fits like it was made for you, it makes all your best bits look even better and makes your not so best bits seem to disappear. Its color gives your skin an ethereal glow...but ohmygoodness what to do about an air of overall dinginess it has!?

A basket of vintage clothing in a laundry basket waiting to be cleaned

One of the main jobs of a good vintage shop owner is cleaning and refreshing vintage clothing to bring them back to as much of a pristine state as possible. I don't really care for dry-cleaning for vintage as I have never found a dry cleaner I trust with older pieces. I prefer to do it all myself and here are some tricks I've picked up over the years. 

First: Some basics you may want to have on hand if you have a lot of vintage to clean or intend to start collecting it.

  1. A big plastic tub, or a variety of them in differing sizes. Be sure it's not so big you can't carry it if it's full of water. Conversely do your washing in your bathtub so you can just drain the water.
  2. Oxyclean (There are other good vintage cleaners out there too, Retroclean, Borax, Whink...) but my fave for general use is Oxyclean.
  3. A laundry line or a drying rack or both. My laundry line is my best friend.
  4. Clothes pegs--for the laundry line of course

So now that you have most of those or intend to get them, let's move on to my actual methods. Remember nothing works perfectly on all vintage so try these at your own risk.

  • Stick it in the washing machine.  Yep. No, I'm serious. Yes, absolutely. I have found that with many, many vintage pieces a regular trip through the wash with your other clothes works just as well as it does with your modern pieces. Maybe even better.  Fabrics and materials from several decades ago (or even longer in some cases) were made to last much longer than the fashion we are used to today. Cottons, nylons, linens...they all do very well in a washing machine, and it will save you hours of work and waterlogged hands.  I generally use the hand-wash or gentle cycle and cold water please. I also don't tend to use the dryer. I hang to dry and then steam them after to get rid of wrinkles and help them regain their proper shape. A couple of caveats though...I don't recommend this for ALL vintage. Silks, wools, rayons and anything already losing structural stability is not going to hold up well. Also, even the material I listed above if its super thin or delicate (like Edwardian cotton lawns) I would recommend hand washing instead. More of that later. So be picky and careful!

Vintage dresses hanging on a clothing line to dry

  • For yellowed or stained whites and some lighter colors a good soak overnight in an Oxyclean bath can work wonders. I've brought Edwardian white cotton lawn dresses that have aged to a mellow tea color back to pristine white with this method.  It also takes a lot of human body oil stains out so if you have old pillowcases or sheets that have gone gray from body oils over the years...try Oxyclean, it doesn't make them perfect but it works pretty well!  For most items a quarter cup of Oxy with a little standard detergent in as hot of water as you and the item can stand. Soak overnight. Sometimes it takes a couple of soakings, but you'd be surprised at what it will do.
  • Don't bother cleaning, just steam. Unless it's truly dirty if you have a rayon or wool or something that won't really survive the washing machine or a hand wash, just steam it. A decent mini hand steamer is maybe $20 to $30 and its so helpful to have one around. Larger home steamers run maybe $50-$75. The hot steam will remove a lot of odors and refresh the clothing really well. After you've steamed it hang it in a well-ventilated place or even outside out of the sun for a few days and voila! 

Vintage linens draped over a drying rack in the sun to dry

  • Handwashing. This is the tried-and-true method used, I daresay, by most vintage sellers. Including myself. A vast majority of vintage can and should be hand washed. I own several very big plastic tubs and I fill them with as much lukewarm water as I need for what I'm washing. Pour a little gentle detergent in and drop in the clothing or linens. I agitate with my hands, scrubbing lightly at specific stains and then I usually allow it to sit for maybe 30 minutes to an hour depending on how dirty everything is. If it's really dirty I may do this 2 or 3 times. Then I take it out, gently press the water out (Or wring it if it's tough enough to handle it, like old towels or linens) and hang to dry.  A word of warning, I'd still be very cautious with certain fabrics, like silks and rayons. Some silks seem to handle a wash well, others will literally disintegrate in water. Wools can be become mis-shapen and shrink so cold water only for those and be prepared to block or steam them back into shape. Some older dyes are not color fast so be very cautious when washing anything with more than one color as a darker color may bleed onto a lighter one. If you're handy with a needle and thread you may consider removing a white collar from a navy blue dress for example and washing them separately then reattaching it.

A small tub full of vintage clothing soaking in water and bubbles

Those are the main methods I use to clean my vintage. Each piece is inspected before I decide which method would work best in my opinion.  I hope this gives you at least a jumping off point to start exploring your own methods of laundering vintage clothing. I personally love doing laundry (I'm weird, I know) and I suspect a lot of the reason why is because there is an art to it when you get into the nitty gritty of it all.  I plan on going into specific stain treatments and things like sweater blocking for shrunken woolens etc. in future articles so keep an eye on this page and be sure to subscribe for updates.

Vintage apron hanging from a tree

Be well my lovely Misfits and leave a comment below with some of your favorite laundry tricks and tips for vintage! Or do you have any questions about vintage you'd like me to write a blog about? How to source it? Tricks for dating vintage items? Anything you can think of just leave me a com,ment below and I'll get to work on it. 

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