How to Clean Your Vintage Clothes

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 There’s no denying the distinct smell of a cluttered second-hand store. Whether you love it and consider it the scent of history or hate it and think it smells like a morgue, there’s a good chance you don’t want to wear it as your perfume.

There is the popular misconception second hand clothing can be dirty. And while it is not true that second-hand clothes are unusable they might not be up to everyone’s cleaning standards straight off the rack.

Most charity shops, such as Cancer Research UK, will ask you to wash your clothing before you donate it, as many of the shops don’t have the facilities to clean clothes. You cannot always trust that the person who donated the clothes has in fact washed them and therefore you should always wash charity shop items right after you buy them.

Large vintage retailers, such as Rokit and Beyond Retro, wash and press all of their stock before selling in store and online. But they have had years of practice and know how to wash vintage fabrics. You might still need a few tips.

One of the challenges of some vintage clothing is that it comes without any tags, meaning no washing instructions or indicator of what types of fabrics it is made from. We’ve all been in a hurry and thrown a jumper in the washing machine saying to ourselves, “I’m sure it will be fine,” only to have it come out shrunken to toddler size.

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The golden rule is if you’re unsure whether an item can go in the machine - hand wash. If you’re kind of sure – hand wash. And if you’re 99% sure – still hand wash. It may be a bit more labour intensive but it ensures that a garment won’t get ruined and, as a bonus, it’s better for the environment.

“Vintage fabrics that are suitable to wash are cotton, linen and some wool usually when mixed with nylon and acrylics,” says Pauline Weston, creator of the blog Fashion Era, “As a guideline, nylon goods or mixtures will be made after the 40s, acrylics made after the 50s and polyester made after the 60s.”

If you are sure that a vintage item, such as a cotton t-shirt from the 90s, can go in the washing machine, still always set the machine on cold. This is better for the fabric and the environment, as switching a machine from 40 to 30 saves up to 60% of the energy consumption.

“An easy way to tell if an item can go in the washing machine is that if it was made before the 60s it is not machine washable,” says Weston. Technically, washing machines have been around for over 100 years, but they were mainly large basins that had to be turned by hand. The electric washing machine, as we know it today, was first made in the 60s and therefore is the starting point of when vintage garments might be okay for the washing machine.

“Pre 1900s garments were not intended to ever be washed,” says Georgia Mulvaney, exhibition researcher at the V&A, “This is what undergarments were created for, to protect expensive silks and velvets from ever touching the skin and being tainted with sweat.”

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If you really want to determine what material an item is made of you can preform a “burn test”. This is where you cut a small piece of fabric from the item’s inseam and take a match to it. If the fabric burns then melts, has the smell of burnt meat, then you know it is made of acrylic. You can find full burn charts online here (link).

For wool jumpers one tip is after hand-washing, rather than hanging to dry, which causes stretching because of the weight of the water running to the bottom, lay the jumper flat on a nylon net or flat on the top of your drying rack.

For vintage silk or velvet the best practise is usually to have the item dry cleaned. “Dry cleaning would add to the cost, but remember your time is money so weigh up whether trying for hours to improve the look of a garment would be better achieved by a professional cleaner,” says Weston,  “If it is a desirable designer item don't hesitate to have it dry cleaned if it would truly benefit the item.” 

Today people have been turning away from dry cleaners due to their use of perchloroethylene, or PERC.  PERC is a highly toxic air pollutant that is both bad for your health and the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists PERC as a toxin, meaning that it is, “known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects.” 

 Constantly breathing in toxic PERC as you wear your vintage piece through out the day seems a lot more gross than wearing an item from a charity shop.

With the realisation of the health risk of PERC,  “green dry who offer a safer alternative to PERC are beginning to pop up. Green dry cleaning involves the same process as regular dry cleaning but uses different solvents such as, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon, or silicon-based cleaners. Liquid carbon cleaning is the most environmentally friendly of the options, so always see if you can find a dry cleaner that offers this service first.

Blanc is a London plant-based dry cleaner that works with vintage companies such as The Resolution Store to ensure that your vintage garment is cleaned in a safe way and is never ruined.

“We suggest the wet cleaning process for vintage products,” says Asta Gallant, customer care representative at Blanc, “Anything with a dry cleaning label can be wet-cleaned and it’s an even gentler process that uses non-toxic detergents.”

“If you don’t bring it in for cleaning you should always try and use natural or eco-friendly detergent. They’re best for the environment and don’t damage products,” says Gallant.

Sometimes all an old garment need is a little fresh air and sunshine. There’s a good chance that a vintage piece went from the back of someone’s wardrobe straight into the second-hand store, without ever seeing a glimpse of daylight. The fresh air takes away the odour and the sunlight kills built up mildew.