Washing Vintage Clothes – A Cautionary Tale and Some Tips

Earlier in the week I told you how I’d just taken a walk on the wild side and put my dry clean only jacket in the wash. Crazy biscuits. Well, it put me in mind of another daredevil clothes-washing stunt of mine – and one which didn’t end nearly as happily. I’m sharing it with you now as a cautionary tale to anyone thinking of washing vintage clothes – if  they don’t have care labels, step away from the soapflakes now.

Many older vintage clothes were made before labels were routinely sewn in. Many others were handmade from a patterns, whilst others have had the label cut off.  If you know what the material is, as I did with the jacket I washed last week, you can decide whether to wash at home,  but if you’re really unsure of the fabric of vintage garments, it would be a crazy person who’d risk them in the wash. And yes, that crazy person was me, and the dress I ruined was truly beautiful and now lives in the great vintage graveyard in the sky.

vintage beaded dress

Too lovely to wash, or dry clean. Sometimes with vintage, a bit of an airing is the only option.

 The Great Vintage Dress Disaster

The dress, the lovely dress, was a chiffony number in aquamarine, with gorgeous embroidery across the bust, falling into soft pleats to the knee and it cost me about a tenner in a vintage shop. I wish I had a photo to show you, but sadly, neither you nor I will ever see that dress again. It was way too big, but I adored the shape and fabric so bought it and spent a fair bit of money getting it adjusted to fit me for a friend’s wedding. On the day it looked great, but after four sweaty hours on the dance floor it was in real need of a clean and didn’t have a single care label. What to do?

After some humming and hawing I decided that handwashing would be the best option, filled the bathroom sink with some gentle soap flakes and got to work. Well! As I rinsed and squeezed a horrifying thing happened. I literally saw the dress start to shrink before my eyes, like something from a cartoon. With every second, another inch or more of the dress disappeared. Quickly I pulled the soaking dress on, thinking that if I could get it to mould to my body before it shrunk any more I might be able to stave off the worst of the damage. My boyfriend at the time was summoned to help try and pull the dress back to its original length. ‘Gently’ I shouted to him as he yanked hard. ‘I’m doing my best!’ he shouted back and then rrrrip! The delicate chiffon gave way and I was left standing in the middle of the bathroom floor in a wet dress, which was getting smaller by the minute, with a huge tear at the front. What a comedy of errors.

designer baby dress

By the time I’d finished, my once-glorious dress was the same size as this one of Baby Skint’s. . .

 Well, there was nothing to do but curse my stupidity, and make up my mind never to hand wash vintage clothes without care labels again. So, although I’m now a big fan of washing dry-clean only clothes I wouldn’t let water near anything that doesn’t have a care label. Instead, after the shrinking dress debacle I made it my mission to find other ways to get vintage clothes clean, and here they are: 

Tips on Caring for Vintage Clothes

  • Don’t clean them! It might sound a little scuzzy, but cleaning really weakens delicate vintage fabrics. Instead, air garments by turning them inside out and hanging them a coathanger on the window frame or on the line if you have one.
  • If the garment smells musty but can’t be washed, here’s a tip that a vintage shop owner gave me – sounds very bizarre but she swore it works . . . fill a spray bottle with cheap vodka, spray on the garment from a distance and let it dry in the open air. Apparently this trick kills the spores responsible for that musty odour without leaving behind any scent and doesn’t damage old clothes in the way that Febreeze does! Who’d have thunk it? 
  • Use a cloth when pressing items – a dry dishtowel or a baby’s muslin are both fine – to avoid wear and tear and shine marks on your garments. Again, turning items inside out prevents shine marks and is easier on old fabrics.
  • If you decide to try handwashing a vintage item do a test first by putting a drop of water on a hidden part of the garment eg under the arm. Watch to see if the fabric puckers – if so, it’s a good indication that the garment will shrink if washed.
  • I really like Oxfam’s vintage section and this page gives plenty more tips on caring for your vintage items. Happy reading!

So, do you have any clothes-care disasters that you’d like to share? Go on, make me feel better please . . . And if you try that vodka tip, do let me know  . . .

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About Skint in the City

Skint in the City provides stylish, practical tips and advice on how to live the high life on a shoestring budget.

3 thoughts on “Washing Vintage Clothes – A Cautionary Tale and Some Tips

  1. Good tips… I’ll be sure to pass these on to Mrs Scot :)

  2. Kay

    Agree never wash vintage clothes. Usually any embellishment such as pearls etc can be totally destroyed by any heat. I had a disaster with a beautiful velvet dress which I thought I would hand wash in cold water. It now belongs to a much smaller thinner friend! Even I knew i couldn’t have put on that weight or grown a foot in 24 hours.

    However there is a fantastic dry cleaners on Paisley Rd West close to Cessnock tube which will tackle vintage items and I have never been disappointed.

    The vodka tip also works for shoes not just to get rid of odours but also to stretch too tight shoes.

    • Top tips Kay – thanks a million! Intrigued by using vodka on shoes – go on, share it please! x

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