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How to clean vintage clothes

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

Depending on the age, condition and composition of your vintage items, you will have to care for them differently. Some can go in the washing machine or be dry cleaned, while others require gentle hand washing, brushing, or simply needs to be left alone. Read on to learn what cleaning method to use for what vintage clothing item.

First of all...

Not all vintage items can, or should be cleaned. Some pieces are just too delicate and a large majority of old stains will not come out without ruining the fabric. If you happen to damage any of your darlings, I have a post on how to repair vintage clothing.

So what can you do to clean vintage items?

Woman sitting on the floor next to a washing machine and a pile of vintage clothes.

1. Airing

Won't remove any stains but it is the most gentle way to get rid of smells, it will also relax any creases before steaming your vintage garments.

2. Brushing or rolling

Brushing is a great way to remove surface dust and dirt that works wonders for many vintage fabrics and leathers. For delicate pieces made out of satin or silk I recommend a small, soft bristle brush (I use an eye shadow brush purchased specifically for this purpose). For sturdier fabrics like wool and cotton a regular lint brush or sticky clothes roller will do the trick. Just make sure you never use a sticky roller on really old or fragile fabrics since the stickyness can pull it apart.

I like to use a slightly stiff bristled brush for my outerwear since it not only removes dust and surface stains but also brushes the wool making my coats and jackets look refreshed. I use a regular suede brush to remove encrusted dirt from suedes and sturdy fabrics that I know won't break from the tougher treatment.

3. Vacuuming

Use a low grade brush attachment to not put too much stress on the fabric. For more delicate fabrics you could use plastic screening, just make sure you get any edges of the screening smooth or cover them with tape so they won't catch on the fabric. Be careful with garments that have beading or other embellishments since the vacuum can tear loose beads from old and fragile threads.

4. Hand washing

I wouldn't machine wash any vintage item produced before the 1980s. With the possible exception of very sturdy materials or deadstock items that I know will be able to handle it.

Do not wash the following fabrics:

  • Velvet (any velvet, just don't do it)

  • Brittle or powdering fabrics

  • Moiré (washing will make the pattern disappear)

  • Silk embroidery and printed silks (dye runs!)

  • Fabrics with flocking detail, glazing or other special finishes that could disappear in the wash

  • Sequins (washing can make vintage sequins melt)

  • Combination fabric items like a cotton and velvet dress or suits with horse hair construction

After making sure your item is good to go, Lacy Fay the Vintage Girl next door has a great video on how to wash vintage clothing.

After washing the items I lay them flat to dry and gently reshape them while damp if needed.

Materials I recommend washing by hand:

  • Pure silk

  • Pure wool

  • Pure Nylon (always air dry nylon and avoid heat)

  • Pure polyester (delicate items)

5. Machine washing

If you have any hesitation about whether your vintage piece can be machine washed, don't do it. Or at least opt for the gentlest program. Most washing machines have a "wool", "gentle" or "hand wash" setting, and make sure that the temperature is no higher than 30°C (86°F).

Materials that can be machine washed (always make your own judgement, and never machine wash very old or delicate items):

  • Pure Linen. I recommend hand washing light and delicate pieces, but other ones can stand a gentle machine wash.

  • Pure Cotton. Mostly sturdy and washable in warm water.

  • Pure Polyester (sturdier items)

6. Dry cleaning

Many believe that dry cleaning is the gentlest cleaning method for vintage items, and this could be the case with the right dry cleaner and the right garment, but it could also be the roughest treatment for your item and about 80% of the time, it doesn’t remove the stains.

Materials I recommend dry cleaning:

  • Pure acetate. The taffeta in 1950s taffeta or tulle gowns is usually acetate and recommended to be dry cleaned to keep its crisp structure

  • Sturdy wool

  • Crepe from the 1940s - present

  • Velvets

  • Sturdy manmade fibers from the 1970s - present (you could probably get away with items from the 60s too but I like to be careful)

7. Specialist cleaning

Some vintage clothing or accessories require specialist care. I have successfully cleaned a vintage leather jacket with soap water, gently dabbing the stains (never rub as this can stain the leather worse). But there is always a risk of making matters worse when attempting to DYI things.

Materials I recommend having a specialist clean:

  • Leather and suede

  • Fur

  • Items with painted surfaces or feather details


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