Welcome to the latest installment in my series on caring for vintage, this time it's the ever-so glamorous topic of bad odors.
Sweat odors from way back, musty basements, great-aunt Martha's mothballs, and the fact that just about everyone smoked—all contribute to the smells you sometimes find in vintage.
The vintage care advice I've been posting is coming soon to my book, so I'd love your feedback if you agree, disagree, or have further recommendations. The care section of this book is the hardest for me, and I'm always learning new things...including from you!
In my experience, almost all odors can be removed from vintage clothing except sweat odor on older (pre-1950s) vintage. It can take a very long time to remove the smells of mothballs, cigarette smoke, and mustiness, but these may be removable, with patience.
Again the caveat for my book about getting started with vintage: Don’t begin your vintage-wearing career with something that has problems, including odors. Bad smells are often harder to put up with than holes or stains.
Sometimes you will end up with a vintage piece that develops an odor, even though it came to you fine. I know I have worked to eliminate odors that snuck back after some weeks of freshening up. Other times you’ve brought the odors on yourself (Friends who smoke? Puppy not house-trained?).
It's always good to start with the easiest, cheapest solution if you can: Air and sunlight freshen clothing, and sometimes a good airing out is all a mild odor needs to disappear. Of course, if you can wash the garment, that may be all that's needed.
For most odors (sweat, mildew, smoke, mothballs, someone else's perfume), my number one favorite product is Zero Odor spray. I have even been able to remove 1950s-era and newer vintage sweat odors with this product, and it while it starts with a mild tracer scent, it doesn’t leave any lingering perfume-y odors behind. The makers are—I assume purposefully—vague about how their product works (it “seeks out and bonds with odor molecules”) so I can’t say what other products might work similarly.* I’ve not found anything else like it. Before you try Zero Odor on any garment, test a little in an inconspicuous place to be sure it doesn’t cause dye bleed or water staining on your fabric. The same goes for any liquid stain or odor remover. Fabrics will react differently and it’s much better to be safe than sorry.
Other odor eaters
Many swear by using a spritz of undiluted white vinegar or vodka. Both can kill the bacteria that causes sweat odors, and also mold spores. Vodka (for this grab the cheapest and highest proof) is often recommended over vinegar because it really has no odor after a very short time, as well as evaporating rapidly. Make sure you use this technique only on items that are colorfast and can accept a little moisture. My own experience with vodka is that it is quite effective for new-ish sweat odors, but even multiple sprayings haven't produced results for me on older sweat odors.
Closing your offending item in a bag or box with an odor absorber can sometimes work for mothball smells. You can use activated charcoal, kitty litter that contains charcoal, baking soda, or even coffee beans. What I've done is sprinkle some of the odor absorber in the bottom of a garment bag with the garment. One of my experiments produced results on a strong mothball odor over the course of about three months, so patience may be needed.
For smoke from cigarettes or fires, I have successfully had batches of clothing deodorized with ozone treatment, available at some dry cleaners. It takes between a few hours and a few days, but it does oxidize and destroy smoke odor. I have even had this work on a collection of Victorian and Edwardian clothing and accessories that had been in a house of chain smokers for decades.
I hope this helps, and that your vintage always smells daisy fresh!
*Although there is a very helpful review of Zero Odor on Amazon.com (here), in which the reviewer explains what he has been able to figure out about its ingredients and how it works.
Next time: Wrinkle Removal Tips