Tackling Stains on Vintage Clothing & Linens

So you were delighted to find that vintage dress in the second-hand clothes shop…what you weren’t so delighted to find was that ugly stain across the back of the skirt. What can you do? Can you treat stains on vintage items? And if so, how?

Think Before You Grab the Stain Remover!

While you would expect vintage clothing to be more delicate and fragile, one thing to remember is that the fact they have managed to remain in fairly good condition means that they must be relatively durable and resistant. Having said that, take your time and don’t rush to wash the item or try to scrub the stain out – think carefully about what the properties and appearance of the fabric and what kinds of stain remover might be the most suitable (and do least damage).

Some vintage garments could be damaged even by plain water – remember, many older fabrics are not colour-fast, although dye fastness does improve with more modern garments. The best way to test this is to do a small spot test in an inconspicuous corner. Make sure you blot with a white cloth to test if there is any colour transfer.

In particular, if the garment is rare, valuable or antique, it is best not to do anything yourself but seek the advice of a specialist dry cleaner who has experience with vintage clothing.

The risks of cleaning vintage garments

Even if you are confident about cleaning the garment yourself, make sure that you always hand-wash everything – never put any vintage clothing in the washing machine or tumble dryer! It is also important to bear certain things in mind:

  • Many silks and wool fabrics will not wash well and might need professional treatment.
  • Trims on vintage garments are fragile and may collapse during a wash or shrink, thus pulling and distorting the edges and necklines of the garment.
  • Lace in particular does not wash well and will often lose its ‘crispness’
  • Glazed cottons will also often lose their ‘finish’ when washed.
  • Velvet is especially problematic – it is very important to use the correct treatment, so it is best to consult a specialist in such fabrics.
  • Be careful when handling garments made of ‘Crimplene’ – this is a high bulk polyester made in the 60’s and needs to be washed below 40 degrees Celsius and cold-rinsed to maintain its appearance.
  • Any vintage fabric that ‘rustles’ and is taffeta-like, such as rayon, silk or acetate mixes may shrink, lose body and colour after normal washing, so that end up with a garment so distorted, it looks little more than a limp rag! Some of such fabrics can even split and shred in water – so these fabrics are best dry-cleaned.

The general rule is if you are unsure or in doubt about anything, it is best to leave it to the professionals.

Safe Stain Removers for Vintage Garments

Fabrics such as cotton and linen and even some wools may be suitable for home laundering and stain removal, especially if they have been mixed with acrylics and nylon. Garments manufactured after 1940 can contain nylon whilst those made after 1950 can contain acrylic and after 1960 can contain polyester.

It is best to start with ‘natural’ stain removers such as lemon juice and vinegar and baking soda, for vintage items, before moving onto harsher chemicals – not only are these milder stain removes safer to use on your vintage fabrics but they are also better for the environment. No matter how bad the stain, chlorine bleach is not advised – if you must use some form of bleach, then hydrogen peroxide is a much less caustic product. Remember also that lemon juice and vinegar both have mild bleaching effects, as well as the sunlight itself (although be careful about exposing white vintage cottons and linens to direct sunlight as this can have a yellowing effect).

Common stains on vintage clothing that can be successfully treated by lemon juice or white vinegar include underarm stains, sweat stains and even rust stains. Blood stains respond well to a paste made of baking soda and water – this can also be used for perspiration stains. (Note, however, that unfortunately, sweat stains on silk and linen tend to be permanent). For a stained collar, try using a mild shampoo applied directly to the stain, left for a few minutes and then rinsed off thoroughly. In particular, shampoos especially designed for grey hair often work well to counteract the colour of yellow stains.

Mildew stains, unfortunately, are often permanent. In general, it is best not to purchase any vintage item if it is riddled with mildew stains. However, you can try tackling it with a solution of water mixed with lemon juice or vinegar, sprayed onto the affected area and putting the item out into the sunlight and fresh air will help get rid of the unpleasant odours

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *