In case you didn't catch the start of this series, I'm sharing a draft of one section of my upcoming book, piece-by-piece, in my blog. I'm hoping to encourage myself to fill in the gaps as I go, polish the rough edges, and—especially—get your feedback on what I've written.

This section of my book is about taking care of vintage, and even though I am constantly taking care of vintage clothing and accessories (and have for decades) I still learn new things all the time. As a matter of fact, the Virgo in me has been going back and checking details on this subject forever. I'm sure I will be continuing to research stain removal well up to publication, and beyond. Go ahead and surprise me with the world's best stain remover, or let me know if you've tried unsuccessfully with one of the methods I describe. I'd love your thoughts. 


Old stains are usually not very easy to budge. (Have I said it before? About starting out with vintage in excellent condition? I thought so.) 

That said, here is what I can at least conditionally recommend for common stains in washable vintage clothing. In my previous posts in this series, I covered the essentials of fabric identification, and washing/cleaning basics. Those are the first steps, stains are the next step. If you are anything like me, you need to have a few stain removal tricks up your sleeve (perhaps for the spots on your sleeve!).

If you have a fresh stain, treat it as quickly as possible. Lift off any of the stain from the surface of the fabric (say with a spoon or butter knife), then blot the stain with a dry cloth. Do not use an iron or a hot dryer on a stain, as you are likely to heat-set the stain and make it difficult or impossible to remove. 

Prevention: Bleached spots obviously cannot be reversed, so be very careful to contain any splashes and spills. With chlorine bleach, it’s ALL about prevention. Yes, bleach can be used to remove spots on certain fabrics (mainly sturdy white 100% cotton), but it must be used with caution around almost any other fabric. That said, as a last resort, a permanent marker of the closest possible color might be used to fill in a tiny light spot.

Blood and other protein stains
Prevention: Obviously, blood is not the sort of thing you can often prevent. It’s easiest to remove a blood stain when it’s still fresh—before it gets a chance to dry. As soon as you can, hold the stain under cold running water, which can sometimes get most of a fresh stain out.

The next step with any sufficiently sturdy washable item is to soak the garment in cold water with an enzyme product, which can be a detergent with enzymes, an oxygen bleach with enzymes, or a pre-treatment product. The enzyme protease (found in these products) is very effective at getting out protein stains. Hydrogen peroxide, in the 3% solution that you can find at any drug store, or as the key ingredient in oxygen bleach, is an excellent blood stain remover as well, even working on dried, older stains. Although not usually a problem with any sturdy, washable, and wearable vintage item, delicate washable pieces probably should not be soaked with an enzyme product or hydrogen peroxide. Do your dye-bleed test first. If you have any doubts, take the item to your (trusted) dry cleaner.

While blood and other protein stains (egg, dairy products, sweat, and urine are also in this category) are relatively easy to remove, they will be permanent if exposed to heat. Don’t expose a protein stain to warm water, iron, or dryer or you will set the stain in. In vintage fabric, you will find heat-set blood stains, and sadly, they are most likely there to stay.  

Dye bleed
Prevention: As I described in the previous post, check for the possibility of dye bleed before plunging anything into your wash water. Using cold or cool water and hand washing individual items separately are both helpful in preventing fabric dyes running. Color catchers are sheets that are manufactured to attract and form a chemical bond with loose dyes in water while washing. I have found these useful (but not flawless) for machine washing, and even for hand washing. 

Once a dye has bled, try using either RIT Dye Fixative (be careful not to confuse the fixative with dye remover), or a detergent such as Synthrapol. Both these products are designed to bind to loose dyes and remove them from the fabric.  

Prevention: Cap your pens before putting them in your bag or pocket; be sure to check pockets before washing.

Water-based ink stains can be soaked out with liquid laundry detergent. Ballpoint and felt tip pen marks sometimes respond to isopropyl alcohol alone, which you can apply to the stain with a cotton swab. For me, Carbona’s ink remover (Stain Devils #3) is a good purchase, even working to remove old ink marks in leather purses. Amodex Ink & Stain Remover is also frequently recommended. Remember that any liquid spot remover is likely to leave a ring unless you are able to wash the item after treating it.

Liquid ring marks (water, and liquid spot removers)
Prevention: The most frustrating of stains is the one you create while trying to remove a stain. If you are going to use a liquid spot remover, and can not wash the piece afterward, you may well end up with a liquid ring spot around your original stain. Use a liquid spot remover on a textured wool suit or coat between dry cleanings, but go very gingerly (and test on an inconspicuous area first!) before using one on anything else. 

Water rings can sometimes be lessened by rewetting the stained area with a damp cloth. Moisten the area enough to obscure the ring. Then use a dry cloth, a blow dryer, or an iron (on the setting appropriate for the fabric) on the edges of the dampened area first. What you are doing is dissipating the edge of the ring, then quickly drying the area so that there is not a new ring. I have been able to use this technique even on dry clean only items. Unfortunately, a liquid ring can sometimes be caused by something like rusty water, leaving a rust stain. 

Prevention: Roll your lipsticked lips in when pulling clothing over your head. Foundation, powder…all these tend to grab onto your neckline. If you have makeup on, take care to keep any fabric from touching your face. This takes a little practice but saves a lot of hassle. Another solution is a protector hood, which goes over your head (and don't worry, it's open mesh and still allows you to breathe!). This keeps your hair and makeup from getting mussed, as well as protecting your clothing. You can find these as unused vintage models as well as new. 

For new stains, if there is any of the product you can remove from your garment, do so first. Some powder makeup formulas can be at least partly removed with a lint roller, while the liquids, gels, and cream-type formulas can sometimes be scraped off. Try not to push the stain into the fabric. The two most common makeup stains one tends to see are those left by lipstick and those by foundation. Both usually contain an oil or wax component, and a color component. The oil/wax can be removable from a washable fabric with an enzyme stain pre-treatment or a pre-soak with detergent containing enzymes. Let the stain remover work for about 15 minutes, then wash the garment in the warmest water that is safe for it. The washing should help take out the color in the stain. I have had success removing older makeup stains with the same methods, although it usually takes more soaking, or repeated treatments.

This said, Fire Engine Red lipstick (so vintage chic!) can be difficult to remove. For such a pigmented stain, try applying a few drops of ammonia or vinegar with detergent in water, tamping it into the fabric with a spoon (the spoon coaxes the solution in gently), then blotting and flushing the stain. You can also try sponging the stain with alcohol. A few drops of acetone (tamped, blotted, and flushed) can work to remove that red, but you must be sure you are not applying acetone to acetate as it will dissolve the fabric! 

Mold and mildew
Prevention: Store clothes out of damp places. If your environment is always humid, keep a dehumidifier (more about this in a future post about storing vintage) closed in a space with your vintage clothing. Allow some breathing room between garments for air to circulate. Often mold and mildew damage in vintage clothing takes the form of tiny holes or staining from the former presence of the mold, even if it is no longer living. Be vigilant against any new mold, as it can do a lot of damage.

Especially if you are allergic or have significant amounts of mold and mildew to remove, take the clothing outside and brush off as much as you can. Living mold spores can continue to grow, so it's best to let them do so outside of your home! If you have living mold and mildew in washable clothing, you have several options for its removal:

  • One-half cup of borax which has been completely dissolved in hot water can be poured into your wash water to kill mold effectively.
  • Vinegar is another choice, killing most of the mold species that are likely to be found on clothes. You can soak clothing with half water/half vinegar, then rinse out the vinegar and wash the garment, or you can use vinegar in your wash water. Vinegar can leave its own odor behind (although it certainly beats the moldy smell it helps remove!), so thoroughly wash and rinse.
  • Use 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide 3%, and 1 teaspoon of oxygen-based bleach to sponge the mold and mildew before thoroughly rinsing and washing.
  • You can use chlorine bleach to kill the mold and remove its staining, but only on sturdy white cotton fabric.

Dry cleaning will kill mold, but in the case of vintage mold stains, this is certainly not guaranteed. The mold very slowly eats away at fabric, so you may end up with tiny holes even if you can get the mold spores and stains completely out. One of my next posts will be devoted to the subject of odor removal, where mold and mildew once again are problematic.

Mystery stains
If you didn’t cause a stain, you can sometimes sleuth out the source of the spot by where it is located and/or its color. Food stains are usually on the front or seat of a garment, perspiration is around the neckline, upper back, and underarms. Grease is often at car door levels, mud on the hem of a long skirt or trouser cuff, bleach spots tend to be around waist level. Rust stains might be inside the shoulders from metal hangers, around steel fasteners, and around covered buttons with the metal rusting through.

Brown stains are usually protein-based, gray stains are often in the oil or grease family. Rust-colored stains can be rust, but also, tea, coffee, or certain cosmetics.

If you still don’t know what sort of stain you have, start by soaking any washable garment in cold water for 30 minutes to see if the stain lightens. 

Next try working in a prewash stain remover and letting it sit for 15 minutes, then soaking with detergent and water.

If you haven’t made any headway, try oxygen bleach and tepid water. Allow the garment to soak for at least four hours, or overnight. I have left stains to soak for as many as four days (changing out the oxygen bleach and water every half day or so), seeing that the stains were improving slowly with time. 

Oil and grease
Prevention: Oil-based stains range from ointments to cooking oil to gasoline. Sometimes these are hard to see in fabric and can be set in with heat drying or ironing, so make sure you look any clothing over carefully before you wash it. Oil is particularly stubborn in polyester. Try to avoid deep-frying while wearing your favorite 60s mod polyester tunic top! 

Wash out any new oil stains in warm water with dishwashing liquid (which is designed to pull out grease) or laundry detergent, then wash the garment in the warmest water that is safe for it. Hang the item to dry, and do not use a dryer. Often an oil stain will seem to be gone when the item is still wet, so make sure not to use an iron or dryer on an oil-stained item until you are positive the stain is out. Sometimes you have to repeat the process. If a stain has an oily or waxy component and some other staining agent (such as coffee with cream or tomato sauce with olive oil in it) treat the oil stain first. 

Prevention: Use dress shields; avoid antiperspirants with aluminum-based compounds (the aluminum combined with your sweat causes the staining).

A trusted dry cleaner once leaned over the counter and whispered to me—presumably considering it a trade secret—that diluted ammonia is his first choice for soaking sweat-stained washable clothing. Some have success with mild agents such as a baking soda paste (mixed with water) or diluted white vinegar. 

My best solution for soaking out not-so-recent sweat stains has been an oxygen-based non-chlorine bleach, or hydrogen peroxide 3%. For me, these actually have worked to remove bleach-set, decades-old, angry yellow underarms stains in white cotton blouses. Specific products for sweat stains did not work better for me and are made of much more hazardous ingredients. Remember, if an oxygen bleach or peroxide seems to work a little, give it more time. Also, all caveats about washing fabric, such as dye bleed testing, should be observed.

About dyeing as a solution to an intractable stain: Unless you are really into DIY and don’t mind ruining a garment, don’t put a lot of stock in the possibility of dyeing your vintage to solve a stain issue. It doesn’t work well or easily without expertise, and you are likely to encounter trouble with the high temperature needed for a dye bath. I don’t know how the “just dye it!” mantra came into being, but it is simply not the panacea you might expect from the number of times you hear that recommendation.

Prevention: Do not use wire hangers. Remove covered buttons before soaking, change out any rusting fasteners. Watch out for rusty pipes that could drip on stored clothes. Avoid brushing against rusted surfaces. Both chlorine bleach and heat will set rust stains. 

You can sometimes win a rust stain battle by sprinkling salt on the stain, squeezing lemon juice on the salt, and then letting the garment sit in the sun to dry. It is possible to bleach colors out of fabric this way, but it can work wonders on some fabrics. 

You can try a commercial rust remover, which usually includes either oxalic or hydrofluoric acid. Rust removers are nasty stuff—toxic, poisonous, hazardous. Use them with discretion and great care. You must be sure to rinse the rust remover out thoroughly because it will break down fabric if left in. 

Wine, tea, coffee
Prevention: These are tannic stains, so easy to get while we are out enjoying ourselves in our vintage! Just try not to slosh, and you'll make your life easier.

Appropriately enough, a student in a summer program at the Department of Viticulture & Enology at the University of California, Davis did a test of fresh and dried wine stains in a variety of white fabrics, and the simplest and cheapest stain remover that worked best with many of the fabrics was one made of equal parts hydrogen peroxide 3% and dishwashing liquid. And by jove, I've been able to use this combination with success—I hope you can too! Cheers!



Next time: Odor Removal Tips