Library‎ > ‎

Caring for vintage

Here's my list of top tips for caring for vintage clothing:
  • Don't sweat.  Ever.
  • (Related to the above) don't do any kind of hard physical work or exercise.
  • Don't drink red wine.
  • Avoid babies and small children, and incontinent pets.
  • Treat zips with extreme care, open and close them slowly and never force them.
  • Don't launder or dry clean your vintage garments until you absolutely have to. 

These tips rise in importance the older the garment is, to the point where I would recommend that you don't wear very old and fragile garments at all, but simply display and admire them.  But then I've volunteered in museums for quite some time and that curatorial 'kid gloves' approach has rubbed off on me.  I'll try to be a bit more realistic.


Sweat - it really is a tough one to tackle.  Sweat and that awful stale BO fug - not to mention anti-perspirant/deodorant stains - are incredibly stubborn so its best to avoid creating them at all. 

Wear a 'buffer' between you and the vintage garment - a slip under a dress, a camisole under a blouse, a vest under a shirt  - which helps absorb some of the destructive oils and salts in sweat, and make sure its something you can throw into the washing machine without any worries. 

Personally, I avoid very tight armholes, and I'm super cautious about anti-perspirants and deodorants - most of the popular commercial brands are chemical compounds designed to block the skin's pores and aren't that healthy a proposition anyway.  Plus they can create underarm stains themselves.

In grandma's day, they used dress shields which were little fabric pads that you could tack into the armpits of garments and then remove for laundering.  These days you can buy disposable dress shields and they might be a shrewd investment for protecting your most precious clothes on those potentially sweaty occasions.

Of course, dress shields are only suitable for garments with sleeves, and I would be cautious about using them on delicate fabrics.

Honestly sweat is your deadliest enemy!  Its worth making some effort to defend your precious wardrobe against it.


Physical work and exercise - an obvious one really.  Wear appropriate gear, not your vintage treasures.


Red wine - switch to white.  You'll thank yourself in the morning.  You might still have a hangover, but at least you won't have a headache about red wine stains.


Babies and pets - don't wear your best vintage togs if you're going to be spending time with either of them.  Wear newish easily-washable gear, or stuff you don't care about, or heavy duty overalls.  Simple as that. 


Zips - Yes they can be replaced in theory, but how many of us actually get round to doing that?  And replacing zips is much more of a chore than replacing buttons - it takes me months to get round to sewing-buttons-back-on duties, and that's pretty easy. 

Replacing old zips is quite a skilled job, and that's assuming you can find a period-specific zip that matches your item's colour.  And is the right length.

In short, treat surviving zips with extreme caution!

Old metal zips that are a bit stiff can sometimes be eased by running a pencil along them - the graphite powder acts as a lubricant.  But if your zip's tape and/or garment is a pale colour exercise extreme caution.

Nylon or plastic zips that have stretched or snagged are completely unmendable.  Start searching for replacements and be prepared to look for a loooong time.














Wash day somewhere in Holland.

Laundering and dry cleaning - I know you will have to do it, and I'm certainly not proposing that you wear your vintage clothes until they can stand up on their own.

But its obvious that repeated washing, drying and ironing wears garments out pretty fast.  All that softening of fibres in hot water, the  friction against other items whilst in a softened state, the rapid and super heated rough-and-tumble in the dryer and the harsh attacks of the iron all contribute to the wearing and ageing of a piece.

Dry cleaning can be equally punishing to a garment since its thrown into a big rotating drum with lots of other items, only doused in chemical solvents rather than hot, soapy water.

Its worth noting that I have ruined more vintage garments by ill-advised or hasty laundering than by any other means.

No one is suggesting you drop your hygiene standards at all.  If it clearly needs cleaning then clean it!  But if you can get away with turning it inside out and airing it thoroughly, do that as much as possible. 
  • Treat stains immediately.  They get harder to shift the longer you leave them.
  • If you have to clean something, try to identify the fabric first and seek out advice online on the best methods for cleaning it.
  • The gentlest option is to hand wash the washable items in lukewarm to cool water using pure soap (flakes or liquid) and rinse well.
  • Turn the item inside out and do up all the fastenings, especially hooks and eyes which can snag.
  • Be aware that older dyes tend not to be colour fast so wash deep coloured items separately.  Also watch out for contrasting trims and piping - that black piping on a white blouse might bleed colour onto the paler fabric.  Incidentally, I've read that spraying contrasting trim with white vinegar before washing prevents colour bleed.
  • Check the buttons - fabric-covered buttons made of metal sometimes rust and create stubborn rust stains.  Its a drag, but its best to cut them off and re-sew them on after laundering.
  • Do any sewing or darning repairs before you launder, or they will become even bigger sewing or darning repair jobs afterwards.
  • Dry garments as gently as possible - pull them carefully into shape whilst damp and dry flat on racks with as few folds or bends as you can manage.  This lessens or even eliminates the need for ironing, if you're lucky.
  • If you're drying your washing outside on a line, hang the garments where they will not get strong direct sunlight - its surprising how quickly they will fade on a sunny day.  Unless its pure white cotton or linen, which is fine in the sunshine.
  • If you must iron, its often better to do it when the garment is still slightly damp.  Iron the item inside out or use a cotton or linen cloth (something like a clean tea towel is ideal) between the iron and the garment.
  • Be extra cautious with older synthetic fabrics such as rayon - start at a low temperature and increase the heat, if you must, gradually, testing carefully all the time.

Dry cleaning - not all dry cleaners are created equal!  Many of the high street chains have a very high staff turnover and pretty poor training.  I once had a pair of trousers cleaned that came back pressed with the crease at the sides

Ask around for recommendations:
  • Its worth enquiring at your friendly local vintage clothing shop where they get their stock cleaned.  If they trust an establishment, you should be able to as well.
  • Dry cleaners that specialise in treating stage costumes are often very skilled at dealing with old and 'difficult' garments, such as beaded or sequinned items.  Your local theatre should be able to tell you where they send their costumes.

Further reading

Mary Kincaid of Zuburbia wants to tell you about the Five Evils of Vintage Clothing!  Beware!

Marian's Vintage Vanities Clothing has some very useful guidance for dealing with persistent smells, rogue or missing shoulder pads and adjusting hems.

Next: some hints about storing vintage clothing.