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How to Wash, Repair, Store, and Care for Your Vintage Clothes: Rayon and Silk

Galaxy is a mother of three with thirty years of experience in making money go further.

Flower Covered Vintage Bras.

Flower Covered Vintage Bras.

How to Restore and Care for Vintage Clothing

Vintage clothes are all the rage right now, with some items selling for tens, if not hundreds of pounds on sites such as eBay—pretty much out-of-pocket range for the vast majority of ordinary people.

Luckily, you don’t need to spend a fortune on them if you don’t have that kind of money to spare, as you can still pick up some real bargains in charity shops, car boot sales, clothes swapping parties, and markets, etc. But what happens when you need to clean them?

Let’s face it, any fabric fifty or sixty years old is going to have its own—how can I put this—unique aroma and even if it isn’t really dirty, it is likely to be, at the very least, pretty darn dusty.

Check the Seams for Signs of Wear

You really can't get away from the fact that vintage fabrics do need a little more care and attention than the modern types.

The seams, in particular, can be one real trouble spot as they often have small splits in them.

Cotton can become a bit brittle and stiff over time, and you may need to go over the seams very carefully before you wear an item.

Check the neck, arms and hem before trying something on for the first time, look at them closely, and give them a little gentle tug. If they are broken, then wait until you have carried out repairs before putting it on.

The last thing you want to do is ruin your vintage find before you even get the chance to wear it.

Sometimes an item is so good even if it is a little damaged that you feel you really must have it. In that case, check and then re-check the seams, etc.

If they look as if they are not just coming open but are fraying too, then put the thing back and look for something else.

Sometimes it is easy for your heart to rule your head, but you can end up with an expensive item that you will never be able to wear.

Storing Vintage Clothes

Once you have checked your vintage clothes over and carried out any needed repairs, cleaned them, etc. then you need to know the best way to store them. Always hang vintage clothes inside out to protect them from dust.

Use plastic hangers and, if necessary, pad the ends with an old white sock to protect the delicate fabric on the shoulders of your clothes.

Folded clothes can be wrapped around cotton t-shirts to prevent creasing and placed in a drawer no more than three items deep.

Cardboard boxes are also very good for storing smaller items of clothing, put a few small air holes in the lid to prevent clothes from smelling musty.

Sometimes all your vintage clothes will need is a good airing; if they look clean but smell a little musty, then try hanging them outside in the fresh air for a day or two.

Give them a good shake now and then to remove any dust and brush them down with a soft brush.

Be extra careful on sunny days if the clothes are made from white wool or silk, as these can turn yellow easily in direct sunlight.

The same thing applies to any vintage clothes that have been cleaned by washing. Alternatively, hang the clothes in a spare room with a large glass bowl filled with white vinegar. This might sound odd but the vinegar really does absorb the bad smells.

You can use this tip on new clothes too, and it also works if you have a carpet or rug that has developed a bad odour for any reason.

Vintage clothes label. Often little or no information is given.

Vintage clothes label. Often little or no information is given.

Vintage clothes

Vintage clothes

Washing Vintage Clothes

Labels on vintage clothes are often less than helpful.

If you decide that your vintage clothes need more attention to make them clean enough to be wearable then washing will be in order. Vintage clothes from the fifties and sixties were often made from materials such as nylon, crimplene and polyester, all things that need a little extra care when cleaning. If you happen upon a garment made from rayon it might be best to bite the bullet and take it to a professional dry cleaner.

Vintage Rayon can be washed with care but you might end up ruining the item, it can shred and end up looking as if you have run it over a cheese grater, so it is best not to take the chance if it is something you really love. You can wash some vintage clothes made from materials such as silks and wool but I have had the odd disaster when doing it so I really can’t recommend it to you.

The most important rule to remember is never, ever wash anything vintage in a washing machine. There really are no exceptions to this rule. Vintage clothes need careful handling and that means washing them by hand. Be prepared for the colours to run - a lot! Always wash items individually to prevent dye transference. Colour fastness wasn’t something they had mastered in the fifties and sixties. Do up any buttons, zips or fastenings and wash the garments inside out.

If you find any grease stains then pre-treat them with some talcum powder. Sprinkle a small amount onto the stain and leave for ten minutes. Take the garment outside and give it a shake to remove the excess talcum, now using a very soft brush remove the rest of the powder.

What's the Best Thing to Use to Wash Your Vintage Clothes?

Use a very gentle washing agent, something like lux flakes or Dreft is best. You will need to dissolve the washing agent in hot water first, so pour a small amount of water onto the soap in a deep washing-up bowl and then top up with lukewarm water until it feels pleasantly warm to the touch. Make sure that the water isn’t too hot as this can ruin your vintage clothes. Put the item to be washed into the bowl and move it around slowly, don’t rub or handle the fabric too harshly.

You can leave the clothes to soak for ten minutes if they are dirty and not just in need of freshening up, but don’t over soak anything made of wool as it can shrink. When you are happy that your clothes are clean, fill a bathtub with cold water and rinse out the soap, you will need to change the water at least twice. Once again, remember to handle the fabric with care, it can be even more delicate when wet. Make sure that all of the soap has been removed, as leaving any in can damage the garment. Empty the bath and leave the clothes in the tub to allow excess water to drain out.

You can give the clothes a very gentle squeeze at this stage before wrapping them in a large clean bath towel and patting them to remove even more water. DO NOT WRING. It is so easy to forget yourself and pick up something and give it a good wring out, but even if this doesn’t ruin the item, it will leave it so creased there isn’t an iron in the world that will be able to sort it out for you.

Pretty girl wearing a vintage dress from the 1960's. My daughter!

Pretty girl wearing a vintage dress from the 1960's. My daughter!

Drying Your Washed Vintage Clothes Safely

Dry the vintage clothes on a line outside or over the bathtub, but be careful to only use plastic pegs as the wooden ones can leave a nasty brown mark on your wet clothes. It is also useful to hang the clothes on a clean sheet or pillowcase, as even some very clean-looking plastic lines can leave marks on the clothes as well.

Some very heavy items might need to be dried flat as the weight of the water will pull them out of shape, you can use a drying rack laid over the bath for this. Be prepared for it to take days to dry, this is no exaggeration, it can take literally days to dry. I now have a newfound admiration for my mother's generation after washing my old clothes; they must have had the patience of a saint!

Never be tempted to put your vintage clothes into a tumble dryer, or a spin dryer, as they are much too delicate for that kind of treatment. At the very least, they will be left badly creased, at worst, they will shrink, or the material will bubble up and leave the garment unwearable.

When it comes to ironing, never iron directly onto the vintage fabric, try a small inconspicuous spot and iron through a clean white tea towel or white pillowcase. If the garment isn’t too badly creased, you can try hanging it in the bathroom when you shower, the steam can work magic on creases, and it will freshen up the clothes and help to remove any residual stale odours too.

A Unique Item of Clothing

Most important of all is to remember to treat your vintage clothes with the care and respect due to something that old. It will be delicate and isn't going to be the sort of thing you can wear every day, throw over the back of a chair and still expect it to look good. Vintage clothes take a lot of work.

Vintage clothes do take a lot more care and attention than anything made from modern fabrics but in my opinion, they are well worth the effort.

Treat them properly and you will be rewarded with an item of clothing that will no doubt be unique and a real talking point amongst your family and friends.

You just know that if you wear one of your vintage finds out that the chances of bumping into someone else wearing the exact same thing are going to be pretty remote!

And if you do then compliment them on their great taste and make them a new friend.

Vintage Underwear

Cleaning vintage underwear can present its own problems as the elastic can be quite fragile. I always place the items to be washed inside a white cotton pillowcase and hand wash them in lukewarm water in the sink. Rinse well and dry by hanging them as if being worn.

The colours and fabrics as so nice and the wide straps are really comfortable.

Vintage Makeup

A good thing to do is to match your makeup to your vintage clothes. It can really help to complete the whole vintage look you are aiming for, You can buy special makeup for this but it can be expensive, what you already have in your bag will do the job just as well if it is applied in the right way. Ask your mother or grandmother for help, my own grandmother wore makeup every day of her life and loved buying the latest colours but still knew the ways to give herself a vintage look.

Now that you know how to clean, repair, store and care for your vintage clothes, I hope they give you many years of happy wear.

© 2011 Galaxy Harvey


Galaxy Harvey (author) from United Kingdom on February 12, 2012:

Thank you for commenting, kittyjj. Good luck with your vintage clothes.

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on February 11, 2012:

A very informative hub! Now I know I need to hang my vintage clothes inside out to protect them from dust. Thanks for sharing!

Galaxy Harvey (author) from United Kingdom on March 03, 2011:

I believe that the coolness gene skips a generation, A stranger. Which means your kids are going to love clothes like these.

A stranger. on March 03, 2011:

Wow, your daughter looks far too cool to be related to you!

Galaxy Harvey (author) from United Kingdom on March 02, 2011:

Thank you, bridgessarah.This hub was prompted by a find of vintage clothes that my youngest daughter found and that I needed to get clean for her. They are hard to clean but well worth the effort.

bridgessarah on March 02, 2011:

This is a very useful guide about how to clean vintage clothes. Vintage clothes from the fifties and sixties really need some special care when cleaning as these were made from special materials. I like the selection of vintage clothes here!