As a follow up on my Taking Care of Your Vintage Clothing post, I’m re-posting an article written in 2000 by Kathleen Keifer of the U.S. Department of the Interior entitled “Dry Cleaning Museum Textiles.” (The link is a PDF, it may ask you to download.) While the focus here is museums, many of the same issues arise in museum textiles as in vintage clothing.
The important thing to cull from this article is the process of analysis. Most of us may have picked up a vintage garment and don’t know much about it. This article gives you a comprehensive process about assessing the garment’s viability for cleaning, information about dry cleaning processes, how to select a dry cleaner, and what to discuss with your dry cleaner. While you may not need the process outlined in this brochure for every garment, when you do encounter a garment that leaves you baffled as to how to clean it, you will know what the professionals would do by consulting this handy guide.
I’m excited to announce that the Yehoodi staff has invited me to contribute featured content to the Yehoodi website. This is my first article for Yehoodi, which I am also publishing here on Lindy Shopper for your use and enjoyment.
Following the Why I Wear Vintage post, Evan Philips requested an entry on how to take care of your vintage clothing and I am happy to oblige. Taking care of any wardrobe requires some maintenance if you want to keep it looking nice. Vintage clothing sometimes requires a little more effort to keep it looking fresh, but if you are careful in your choices for maintaining your vintage garments, you can enjoy them longer and with less worry.
For this article, I consulted with the all-knowing Movie Diva, Laura Boyes, who has experience working with the costume collection at the North Carolina Museum of History. I’ll share my observations from experience, but Laura will be providing the pro tips!
So you bought an article of vintage clothing, wore it to a dance, sweated in it for three hours, and now it’s a little ripe. You’d like to know how to clean it, but there’s no convenient garment tag telling you if it’s dry clean only, hand wash, or wash cold/tumble dry low. Think about what you have in your closet that is in the same fabric – what instructions for care are on that garment? Now, consider that this garment is vintage and, as a precautionary measure, what method of cleaning would be a bit more delicate than that, just in case?
Identifying the fabric is very important. Unless a garment is made of cotton, I will be sending it to the dry cleaners, and even the cotton garments sometimes get sent there if I’m particularly squeamish about hand washing the garment or putting it into my washing machine on the hand wash setting. If I am washing a garment myself, I always hang it up or lay it flat to dry, rather than putting it in the dryer. Laura recommends washing your vintage clothing in a gentle detergent, such as Orvus WA Paste, “a synthetic anionic detergent with a neutral pH which will remove most common dirt and stains.” You may be able to find this at farm supply stores, as it is used to shampoo show horses.
Finding a dry cleaner you trust is worth its weight in gold. You want to find someone with years of experience – don’t cheap out on this just because the $1.99 cleaner is near your house. Do some research, make calls to find out how long they have been in business, if they have worked with vintage and antique clothing, and be willing to sign your life away for them to clean it because most of them won’t want the liability of having to deal with you if the garment deteriorates. Usually if a place has been in business for a long time, they will have a good reputation and will also have older clientele who may have some of these older fabrics and older items that need some extra care when cleaned. I feel truly lucky to have found an amazing dry cleaner in Chapel Hill, NC, Plaza Dry Cleaners. Not only are they the oldest dry cleaners in town, one of their cleaners has taken classes in clothing preservation at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I’ve been using their services for 6 years now and they have yet to ruin one of my vintage items; in most cases, the garments come out looking even better, with fewer stains and a fresher look to the fabric.
When you take a garment into the dry cleaners, you will need to make a few declarations about the garment so that they know that you are educated about the garment, so they have the information they need to make an informed decision about cleaning the garment, and so they are on notice that this is a special care item. If you know the decade, tell them how old the garment is, note in advance the flaws you are aware of (spots, holes, etc.), indicate whether or not you want them to try to get the spot out, and tell them what you believe to be the correct fabric. If you don’t know what kind of fabric you have, someone there will be able to identify it.
They may not want to clean the item for fear that the process will do something to the fabric or that something on the garment will be harmed in the process. I will say that this situation is pretty rare and limited to uncommon garments, like a 1920’s velvet dress with a jeweled piece or a 1930’s rain coat. In this situation I usually ask if there is some other way I could clean the garment myself or ask if hand-washing would damage the garment. If I really want the item cleaned and do not care if the garment could be harmed in the process, they will usually have me sign a waiver stating that I have been informed of the potential consequences and waive their liability.
Unless you are wearing vintage every day, the cost for your vintage dry cleaning shouldn’t be prohibitive. I might have two items per month that I take out for cleaning.
In those extremely rare cases where the garment can’t be cleaned, don’t wear those garments dancing or in places where you will sweat a lot. Hang them up after you wear them and let them air out for a few days before storing them again.
Almost everything can be fixed. Many times, if you look closely at a vintage garment, you can find places where it has already been fixed or altered by the previous owner. Earlier generations mended holes in garments, rather than discarding them, because resources and clothing were more limited. I find that vintage garments tend to take a mending much easier than newer garments because of the way the garments were constructed.
Order of operations number one is to find a tailor who has either worked with vintage clothing in the past, works with fine fabrics, and/or has been sewing for longer than you’ve been alive. I once made the mistake of handing over a silk 1940’s suit in a strawberry print for my mom to reinforce the seams on the sleeves and, having never worked with silks, made the mistake of putting the suit under the needle of her Singer sewing machine on the regular setting. She might as well have put it under the knife, because the silk shredded into a million pieces. I should have told her to hand sew the sleeves, but this is a lesson in assumptions – don’t assume that every tailor will know how to fix your garment. Ask lots of questions and err on the side of caution.
I found my vintage tailor through a locally owned fabric store that sells fine fabrics and other fabrics for clothing. The had a list of people they recommend for people who want custom made items, with a description of each person’s areas of expertise. After talking with the ladies in the store about what I was looking for, they were able to make recommendations as to which tailor(s) would be best for the job.
You may have noticed that article of clothing purchased new that you wear frequently for a period of several years may begin to fall into disrepair, or even fall into disrepair after one season if not well made – remember this when you are cursing that newly discovered hole in your 1940’s pants or dress. The tendency for modern clothing is to get rid of it – throw it away or donate it to a thrift shop, because there will always be something to buy new. The approach to wearing vintage clothing is entirely different and is rooted in that era’s sensibilities. There may be more vintage clothing, but the supply is not replenishing, so repairing a vintage garment becomes an act of preservation.
To preserve your vintage clothing, you sometimes have to think outside of the box, or ask your tailor to be creative. If a button falls off, there’s no little plastic baggie with an extra button for you to sew on and finding a matching button is impossible. So, you find new button and use this opportunity to make the garment even better – something as simple as buttons can change the entire look of a garment, and you can update the garment with new buttons or find vintage buttons on Etsy, eBay, or a few other online resources. I had a 1940’s dress with terrible buttons on it and just switching out the buttons took the dress from matronly to swing-worthy with just a few stitches.
What if there’s a giant hole? Your tailor may be able to harvest some fabric from a hem or inside part of the garment to create a seamless patch, or come up with another way to cover the hole.
What if the seam split? Get your tailor to sew it up and perhaps reinforce it.
You get the idea. 🙂
Moth balls smell like old people. Vintage clothing was once worn by old people and stored by old people. Why is vintage clothing still around? I’m not going to credit moth balls with saving all vintage clothing from moths, but I am going to credit it with maintaining a good portion of my wardrobe and the portion of my wardrobe inherited from others who used moth balls to keep their clothing free from holes. I initially shunned moth balls because of my mother’s over-use of the moth ball when I was growing up – she would toss a whole box into a closet and stuff them in drawers, until every time you tried to wear something that hadn’t been just laundered, you’d come out of the house smelling like a great-aunt. When I went to college I stayed far away from moth balls until I pulled my favorite red wool dress out of the closet to wear at Christmas and discovered two large moth holes in the shoulder; a deeper dig into my wardrobe and I discovered even more casualties. In tears on the floor of my bedroom, I vowed that the moths would never claim another victim from my closet.
Moderation is key. I don’t need moth balls to protect everything, so I have a moth ball section in my closet. I use a hanging moth ball basket I got at the grocery store, which initially came with moth cakes, but I can also fill with moth balls. The moth cakes/balls dissipate over time, so you do have to refill them from time to time. The hanging basket allows me to group my most vulnerable clothing (wools and other natural fibers) in one section of my closet and hang the basket in the middle of that group. It has limited the extreme moth ball smell to a smaller group of garments, which I then air out a few days before I plan to wear them.
Let’s talk about hangers – next to moths, wire hangers are your clothing’s worst enemy. Wire hangers are too sparse to hold clothing without almost penetrating it and, over time, the wires begin to rust and that rust is corrosive to clothing. I’ve seen countless casualties created by wire hangers, where the rust stains have eaten holes in the garment and you can see exactly how that garment was hung on the wire hanger. Please invest in plastic, wooden, or fabric covered hangers for your clothing. Plastic and wooden hangers are good for everyday clothing. If you have a more delicate item, such as mesh, chiffon, or other sheer fabric, pick up a few padded, fabric covered hangers.
If an items is particularly fragile or the weight of the garment is too much for the straps or shoulder of the garment, consider storing the garment folded in a drawer, with ample space and nothing stored on top of it (i.e. don’t cram it into an already full drawer). According to Laura, it’s also a good idea to have some acid free tissue paper on hand to line drawers, separate layers, stuff hats, or pad hangers, as needed.
If you have clothing that is from the 1920’s or older, Laura states that these garments should be stored flat. “If you buy one of these boxes (and keep it under your bed, or on a closet shelf) and layer in between with acid free tissue, it will preserve your dresses from the stress of hanging. You would probably want to store items this way that you wear only occasionally.”
The rest is common sense: Don’t leave things where your pets have access to them; men, hang up your ties, don’t leave them on the floor; don’t store things where they might get soiled; etc.
If you have any further questions about this topic, please feel free to ask! We want to keep these articles of vintage clothing alive and wearable as long as possible.