how to wash vintage clothes

I'm so sorry, this is an incredibly long, possibly boring post but I wanted to be sure to cover all of the details of washing vintage clothes. This is such an important topic because one wrong move can destroy a piece of fashion history.

After my adventures in a clothing warehouse, I've been spending most of my time leaning over the bathtub, washing all of the old grit and grime out of my new clothes and I thought I'd share my experiences with all of you.

 Every time you wash a t-shirt or pair of jeans, the color fades and the fibers in the fabric break down. We've all had laundry disasters with modern clothing but an oops moment with a vintage dress can be devastating.

 I'm not a textile preservation specialist (although that would be an -awesome- job) but I've done my best to check valid resources on the topic of vintage laundry and fiber care. The number one rule for vintage laundry is:  if in doubt, look it up or ask a professional dry cleaner.

If you have any tips or advice on vintage laundry, please do share in a comment below! There are a lot of conflicting statements regarding vintage laundry and the best detergent/stain removers so I'm only suggesting products that I've used personally.

Determine your Fabric Content

Fabric Study
The most important thing to know about washing your vintage clothes is knowledge of fabrics.  I've learned a lot about fabrics through sewing or simply visiting a fabric store. Feel fabrics, read the label to see what it is and take notes. You can get tiny swatches of fabric and keep it in a notebook with cleaning instructions.

 Fiber Burn Testing
Another way to determine what kind of fabric you're dealing with is through a fiber burn test. To do a fiber burn test, turn your garment inside out and try to find a little snippet of fabric along the hem or seam that you can carefully remove for testing without causing damage to the garment.

You only need a tiny piece about 1/3 the size of your pinky fingernail. While standing over a metal or porcelain sink of water, hold the fabric piece with a pair of tweezers and light it on fire. This is easily done with a candle. Observe the fabric as it burns and note the scent that comes from the burning fabric. Use this chart to determine your fiber content.

Caution: some fabrics will burn and drip down, which can cause damage to your home or injury to you. Keep your hair and clothing away from the flame and use extreme caution when burning fabrics. Keep the burning fiber over a sink full of water. I will not be held responsible for anyone who lights their head on fire

  Vintage Fabrics 

Many widely-known fabrics have been around for a very long time. In the court of Queen Elizabeth taffeta and velvet was all the rage in high fashion. However, there are a lot of modern fabrics that have come around fairly recently. These are just some of the fabrics that you may find in your vintage wardrobe . For a better list of fabric descriptions, check here

Cottons and Linens

Cottons may be washed by hand and line dried or lay flat to dry. For linen, dry clean to keep fabric crisp or hand wash, no bleach and dry flat. Hand washing softens linen. Machine drying can shrink linens.

corduroy- strong cotton fabric with textured ribs
muslin- light, fine cotton
piqué- stiff fabric of cotton. Pique is a woven fabric, often with raised geometric shapes.
cotton voile-soft fine sheer fabric
dungaree-heavy, twilled cotton
moleskin  -heavy, strong cotton
poplin- heavy, durable fabric with noticeable ridges
linen- light to medium fabric similar to cotton but more expensive.

Washing: Dry cleaning is usually preferred. Hand washing is possible but use body temperature water and mild detergent. Lay flat to dry.

brocade- brocades are rich, silky fabrics with raised, textured patterns, often floral
chiffon- sheer, lightweight flowing silk
organza- sheer, flowing silk often made with nylon today
pique- woven fabric, often with raised geometric shapes.
Satin- closely woven silk with smooth sheen
Taffeta- thin, glossy silk, often stiff with a crinkly sound
poplin- heavy, durable fabric with noticeable ridges

Washing: Generally, people take wools to the dry cleaner but dry cleaning is not always the best option for vintage wools. If you opt for the dry cleaning route, take it to a good cleaner that someone  has recommended or that you have experience with.

Wool can also be washed by hand but it must be done carefully. Wool can be hand washed in Woolite or Eucalan. Agitating the wool too much can cause shrinkage too so be sure to just let it be. When removing wool from a wash basin, lift it carefully so the garment doesn't just hang there. Pulling on the fibers can cause them to stretch or break so wet wool must be laid flat to dry and blocked to keep its original shape.

Test your wool garment's lining to be sure that it can be washed. It would be a shame to have a perfectly clean wool jacket with a shredding lining! Wool can be freshened up in many ways without washing it, see the "bad smells, mildew and nasty stains" section below for ideas to keep your wools in top shape.

Angora- silky, soft luxurious fabric made from the wool of Angora goats
Alpaca- fine, soft wool made from Alpaca hair
cashmere- soft fabric made of fine goat's wool
tweed-rough, twilled wool, usually for suits
sharkskin- smooth durable wool or worsted fabric

Other Fabrics
Washing- Many of these fabrics are made from different fibers so always try to determine your fiber content before laundering. Specific instructions are noted under some of these fabrics types.

Crepe-light crinkled fabric, made of silks, wool or synthetics. Many vintage crepes can get really screwed up if they get wet. Dry cleaning is often best for crepes.

velvet -soft piled fabric of silk, cotton or synthetic material. Hand wash, hang to dry.

acetate- synthetic fiber with a silky sheen. Most vintage acetate garments need to be dry cleaned.

acrylic- a synthetic substitute for expensive wool fabrics. Vintage acrylic may pill (get little lumps) in the dryer and may be itchy. If in doubt, hand wash and lay flat to dry.

nylon- very light weight yet strong. Dries quickly and may pill up in the dryer. Hand wash nylon and hang to dry.

lastex-yarn that has an elastic core wound around with cotton or silk or nylon or rayon threads, used in vintage girdles and other shape wear. Refer to washing vintage lingerie below.

rayon- popular vintage fabric made from cellulose. Strong fabric with many different weights. Wrinkles easily and may stretch or shrink when wet.

Dry cleaning rayon is often the best choice although some rayons can be washed by hand and lay flat to dry.  I have a rayon dress that shrank just a bit the first time I washed it so now I dry clean it.

rayon pique- woven fabric, often with raised geometric shapes.

How to Hand Wash Vintage Clothes

Before you take the plunge, its important to know that some vintage garments will fall apart if you get them wet. You can do your fiber test, check the label, use the mildest soap on the face of the earth and that thing will still fall to pieces.

 It happens...not often,. but it does happen. Again, try to use your best judgment and if in doubt, ask a reputable cleaner before laundering.


Wash one item at a time in body temperature water. Vintage dyes tend to run or fade and could damage lighter fabrics if they are washed together.

Use caution on multi-colored fabrics. Let it soak for about 30 minutes, making sure that the garment isn't balled up in the water. If there are spots that need extra attention, dab at them with a clean sponge. Avoid scrubbing or swishing the wet fabric around in the water.

To rinse, drain the dirty,soapy water out and let the tub water run over the garment for about 5 minutes or until the water is clear. I use my removable shower head to give each garment a really good rinse. I use a gentle setting on my shower head. Be sure to get all detergent out of the fabric.
Some fibers such as wool can become weak when wet, so if you lift a wet wool dress or knitted sweater by the shoulders and hang it on a line, the fibers may stretch and pull and result in a garment that doesn't fit like it did before.

For heavy items, carefully remove the garment from the rinse tub or basin and lay it flat on a white bath towel. Colored towels may damage a while or light colored garment.

Roll it up in the towel, gently squeezing out excess water, being careful to not stretch the fabric. You can do the same for most other garments. The fabric dye may stain your bath towel so I buy a few cheap towels to keep on hand for this.

After the excess water is removed, it's time to dry it. With knitted items, heavy things and anything that may warp when drying, I always lay it flat. With things like light blouses, cotton dresses and durable fabric skirts, I hang them to dry.

When drying an item, be sure that the drying surface is clean, dry and free of stains or dyes that may rub off onto your garment. I admit, I have a few plain, easy skirts and dresses that I drape over my stair banister or shower rod to dry but I always wipe the surface clean first. There's no point in washing a skirt to drape it over a dusty banister.

 I've washed vintage girdles and bras with excellent results by soaking them in warm water  with soap, sponging spots down and laying flat to dry. Be cautious when soaking metal to avoid rusting. If any of your girdle elastic has dry rot, they may crumble in the water.

If that happens, you can replace the elastic panels with new powernet and have a perfectly clean, wonderful girdle.

Dry Cleaning Vintage Clothes

Dry Cleaning is not always the best option for vintage clothing. Some garments can be completely ruined by dry cleaning. Dry Cleaning chemicals and heat used to dry clean can be very harsh on antique fabrics. Glues used to bind fabrics on wool suits can melt during the dry clean process, beading and sequins can fall apart, etc.

 Always use caution and take your garments to reputable cleaners that knows how to handle vintage clothing and ask them about their damage policy. If you're nervous or on a budget, you can do it yourself with a home dry clean kit.

You don't have to dry clean something after every wearing. Just like machine washing your jeans, fabrics break down after every washing. It's a good idea to clean an item as soon as you get it, to get out any musty smells but after that, only clean it as needed. See below for ideas on keeping your clothes from needing that extra cleaning.

     Bad Smells, Mildew and Nasty Stains

When wearing clothes that are older than your mom or grandmother, you'll come across some...errr, interesting things. Smells of smoke, tissues in the pockets, odd stains and spots, body odor, rust and who knows what else! The following are tried and true tips that I have used or collected from other sources. I hope that they help you to solve your pesky laundry problems!

Vinegar mixed with water has been used to remove odors but it may remove dye in fabrics as well, so test your fabric in an inconspicuous spot. Vinegar and water can be used to kill and treat mildew.

Baking soda and water mixed in a spray bottle helps with odors but if you just spray the smelly areas, it may leave a water ring. Try it on an inconspicuous area and let it dry completely before doing it on the whole garment. Some people have had success by spraying the whole garment to avoid water rings. This is a good trick for wools and works well on body odor.

Sunshine Hang a garment on a line in the sunshine all day (except white or light silk or wool- the sun may yellow them!). Sunshine will brighten white fabrics, remove nasty smells and kill problem mildew.

 Lemon Juice Fashion says this about rust "Lemon juice mixed with common household salt creates Oxalic Acid the traditional, but poisonous proprietary remover for rust stains.  Commercial products like Zud also work on rust."

Steam is a gentle way to de-wrinkle and freshen up your clothes. An affordable garment steamer or simply hanging in the bathroom during a steamy shower works wonders on many bad smells.

Fresh Air You wouldn't think that the vile stench coming from that suit can be fixed with fresh air but it's worth a try! Many vintage garments have been stashed in a grimy basement or stuffy attic for the past 50 years. Hang it up, open a window and set it near a bowl of vinegar, which also helps to soak up the stink.

Stain Removal Guide Although vintage and modern clothes are not treated equally, for all sorts of stain removal ideas. As always, use your best judgment.

Dress Shields or underarm shields will protect your clothes from sweat and deodorant while you wear them. Wearing a full slip or undershirt for guys can help protect delicate fabrics from natural oils on your skin

Cleaning Products and Tools

Here are a few different detergents, soaps and cleaning products that many people have recommended for vintage laundry.

Woolite- a gentle detergent used for wools and other delicates. View the Woolite website for more info

Eucalan - gentle no-rinse cleaner used on wools View the website here

Dryel- an at-home dry cleaning product, available anywhere that sells laundry detergent. I have heard of some people may have an allergic reaction to Dryel so if you're worried, you can try it out on a t-shirt first. I've used Dryel on many of my vintage dresses and have never had any problems.

Whirlpool Fabric freshener- another at-home dry cleaning product, but this time it's a chemical-free machine.

Bleach- I've read that some people will use a little bit of bleach to wash vintage but I'm too much of a chicken to try it myself.  Bleach is so harsh and dangerous on modern clothes. If you need to whiten something, try the sunshine technique as mentioned above and try to save bleach for the last resort.

Dreft- A gentle detergent, marketed for baby clothes I use dreft to wash my baby clothes. It's very mild and has a really nice, powdery/flowey smell.

Ivory Snow- a gentle detergent for your delicates, sold in flakes and liquid form. It's my new detergent of choice. 

Oxyclean- I have used Oxyclean with success on almost all of my vintage items but it can be harsh so you must always be sure to rinse very well. Oxyclean must be dissolved completely  and works best in hot water, which may not be best for all fabrics.

 It's best to not use it on rayons or silks but it's good on things like cottons. I've rescued many sad, filthy garments by soaking overnight with Oxyclean. That can be risky depending on the fabric, so always think about it before you dive in.

Restoration- Antique and vintage clothing dealers swear by Restoration to clean antique textiles. It removes all kinds of bad stains and will not harm fabric.

A baby toothbrush- a toothbrush for babies or toddlers has very gentle bristles and can be used to scrub a stained spot.

A soft hair brush- a soft hair brush can be used to dust off clothes or smooth out the fibers on a wool garment.

 I'm so sorry that was so long-winded but I hope this helps with your vintage laundry day. Again, please leave any of your tried and true tips or advice on the subject in a comment below. Thanks and Happy Laundry Day!

how to wash vintage clothes