Care of Vintage: Wrinkle Removal Tips

In case you missed the beginning, I've been writing a series on caring for vintage, including washing, stain and odor removal. This time it's about getting out the wrinkles.

The vintage care advice I've been posting is coming soon to my book, so I'd love your feedback if you think I've forgotten something.

Let it all hang out

Start by hanging up your freshly washed clothing to avoid as many wrinkles as possible. Stuck on repeat: Never use wire hangers. They put a lot of strain on the shoulders of your garment and can even rip through delicate fabric, especially when it is wet. Then there is the potential rust… Knits and more delicate items are best dried flat to prevent stretching and other damage.


Press on

Photo by George Marks/Retrofile RF/Getty Images

Photo by George Marks/Retrofile RF/Getty Images

For vintage woven cottons and linens, an iron is going to create the crispest detail and smoothest finish. Your iron will have heat settings for various types of fabric, but don’t just set and go. Always start a little below the temperature you think you might need and see if it is sufficient. Do a little test on the inside of your fabric in an inconspicuous spot and make sure you aren’t seeing any press shine or melting. As a matter of fact, you might be better off doing all your ironing on the reverse of the vintage garment to protect the surface from any shine. I recommend using a press cloth for most of your iron-able pieces. Some people have an entire wardrobe of different fabric press cloths for protecting various materials while they iron; a basic press cloth is usually a piece of washed cotton muslin.

Things to never iron: Velvet, leather, vinyl, fur, faux fur, buttons, sequins, braid and other trims, the surface of iron-on transfers, embroidery, feathers. If the fabric is embossed or crepe-textured, you will flatten its texture with an iron. Go easy on seams, because the heat of the iron combined with the pressure over a seam can create press shine even if most of the fabric is tolerating the heat well.


Full steam ahead

I love my steamer. It is truly the number one most important vintage fashion-care investment I have ever made, and I get sad when I think about the years I spent without one. I do believe I would marry my steamer if it asked me.

OK, so I exaggerate…but not excessively. I have found that a steamer is the best thing for all wool and rayon items that you need to de-wrinkle at home. It doesn't cause any shine, and it fluffs up wool—in fact, it makes wool a bit springier and more lively. Instead of flattening fibers like an iron, steamers relax fibers.

A typical steamer consists of some sort of refillable water vessel that is heated to boiling, a hose that directs steam from the boiling water, and a wand for running over (or under) your garment’s surface.

It is usable on almost any fabric, and has only hurt one thing in my experience: Vinyl. I had a coat with faux leather trim, and the outer layer of the faux stuff literally peeled off in the steam. It probably wasn't going to make it anyway, but that did it in. Otherwise, it has a perfect record: No scorching, no press shine, no shrinkage, no melting.

As to how to use the steamer, start by letting it get thoroughly going. Some models tend to drip on the fabric if they are not warmed up and steaming like mad. Hang your garment near the steamer; some steamers even have racks for hanging your clothes. You can either steam on the surface or reach up and inside the garment, letting the weight of the garment help hold the fabric taut. You sweep the wand over the fabric, holding the wand right against the fabric. If you want to steam something like flowers on a hat, you can experiment with shaping it in the steam from the wand. You can also shape a hat veil, brim, or crown.

Jiffy steamers even come in pink!

Jiffy steamers even come in pink!

You can find hand-held travel steamers, but for regular home use, I would recommend a compact, personal model such as those made by Jiffy Steamer, the company that invented this most useful household appliance in 1940.

One caution: Until you get the hang of using a steamer, it’s quite easy to get a steam burn, or, depending upon the steamer, a burn from the wand or hose. You might want to test (quickly touch) to see which parts of the steamer get hot. Definitely steaming inside a garment is more likely to get you a steam burn than steaming on the outside. It takes a little practice to get used to, just as does an iron.



Next time: Storing Vintage



Care of Vintage: Odor Removal Tips

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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 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



Care of Vintage: Stain Removal Tips

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



Two recent Vintage Convergences

I'm working on the next post in my series on caring for vintage—working very hard to fill the gaps in my stain-removal knowledge. But while we wait for that to be completed, here are two recent Vintage Convergences. 

I call it a Vintage Convergence when I find a vintage ad, photo, or pattern with the same garment as one of my vintage finds. In the past year, none of these have surfaced—but in the past two days, I've found two.


The first came up as I researched a dress by the designer Chester Weinberg for listing in my Etsy shop. The dress is of outstanding quality, so I had to know as much as I could about it, and there it was, available in pattern form from the Etsy seller GransTreasures:


The second convergence appeared while I was reading the great Glamourdaze blog this morning, including a post featuring photos of 1950s fashions in Kodachrome. Here, in a photo of a group of ladies dressed for a formal occasion, is a gorgeous magenta and black strapless gown that I have in my Etsy shop. I love this 50s woman's black tulle wrap as an ethereal finishing touch! 


If you'd like to see more convergences, I share a Vintage Convergences Pinterest board with other vintage mavens.



Jackets are red, dresses are pink...

...and now they don't cost as much as you think!


Right now, and through February 7, all vintage fashion in red and pink is 20% off!

Click to shop the sale!


And because
get a free gift with every sale item purchased!


And apropos this holiday season, here's My Funny Valentines ...a compilation of vintage fashions + vintage Valentines + Frank Sinatra.



Care of Vintage: How to Clean Vintage Clothing

Continuing with my posts on caring for vintage, this one I hope should help answer the basic question of what and how to wash, and what (and how) to dry clean. Stain and odor removal, along with wrinkle removal, are topics for the next few posts.  In case you didn't catch the beginning of this series, I'm putting a draft chapter of my upcoming book out to you for comment in blog posts. The book is designed to welcome newcomers to vintage, although I hope it does something for those who have been around awhile as well.

In general, don’t throw vintage clothes in a washing machine for a regular wash. Clothes from the 1970s on may be labeled to show that they are washable, but if you would like to preserve the clothing longer, go the gentlest route, either a very gentle machine wash or hand wash. I can’t recommend using your dryer for anything vintage.

Choosing what to try washing:

Pure silk. If not a crepe-textured or knit fabric, or one that is loosely woven, you may try gently hand washing your item, with the caveat that you need to check for dye bleed first. Soak the garment in cool to tepid water with very mild soap or a gentle shampoo, rinse well in cold water, then add a small amount (several tablespoonsful in a 5-gallon bucket) of white vinegar to clean rinse water. The vinegar will help revive the silk’s luster and pull out any remaining soap. Rinse again to remove the odor of the vinegar, then roll up your item in a clean towel to remove excess liquid. Finally, lay any delicate item flat and hang any sturdy item to dry on a padded hanger.

Pure cotton. Mostly sturdy and washable in warm water with any detergent. Cotton may shrink, and its dyes and prints may fade. Some kinds of cotton have special finishes that may wash out, such as glazing or sizing. While many modern, synthetic finishes are permanent, vintage finishes made of glue, starch, resin, gelatin or paraffin may not be. Cotton often is best (crisper and smoother) when ironed, and easiest is ironing it while it is still slightly damp. Although you may use warm water for cotton, hot water and hot drying often shrink, fade and weaken cotton fibers.   

Chlorine bleach is hard on fabric, even sturdy cotton (it’s death to other fibers). It will weaken the fibers, fade the colors, and turn any synthetic component in the fabric yellow. A non-chlorine bleach such as Oxyclean or Biz may be used on cotton, but don’t use it to bathe silk or wool.

Pure wool. Gently wash unembellished knits in cool water and Eucalan, which is a gentle no-rinse wash. Always treat wool gently (so don’t wring or twist) when it is wet because it loses some strength in that state. Roll the knit in a clean towel to remove excess moisture and dry flat away from any direct heat after carefully shaping the piece. Woven wool is usually best dry cleaned to avoid shrinkage, and so often woven wool is made into tailored garments that benefit from professional pressing.

Show me a person who has never shrunk a wool sweater and I will show you a person who has never owned a wool sweater. Shrink happens, and although it may never return to its original state, you can at least try reshaping a mildly shrunken sweater by giving it a longish (30-60 minute) soak in cool water with a couple of tablespoons of liquid fabric softener or hair conditioner. Drain this out but don’t rinse, then gently lay the sweater out on a towel and carefully reshape it. Keep reshaping as the sweater dries. You might need to repeat the soak and reshaping to reach your goal.
If the sweater refuses to take your many gentle hints, my suggestion is to transform yourself into a diabolical sweater destroyer and hot wash and dry the sweater until it is heavily shrunken and felted. You can then cut it into shapes without it unraveling. Next year’s Christmas ornaments?

Pure linen. Dyed linen items can bleed color and unwashed linen can shrink, so some pieces are best washed in cool or cold water, otherwise, you can consider warm water. A very light and delicate linen piece should be treated to a gentle hand wash, other pieces can stand a gentle cycle-machine wash, but as always, hand washing is easiest on the item. Air dry the garment, and if you are going to iron it, do so while it is still slightly damp. Dry clean any linen garment with built-in structure, such as a tailored suit.

Pure rayon. Do not wash rayon with a crepe texture, or you will be donating said dress to a stylish little girl! In fact, I’d suggest dry cleaning any textured rayon fabric to avoid shrinkage. Plain weave rayons are, however, usually washable in cool water. Always test for the possibility of dye bleed before plunging your item into the drink. 

Pure nylon. Hand washing (not machine washing) in cool water will definitely help vintage nylon items last as long as possible. Always air dry nylon and avoid any high heat.

Pure polyester. Hand wash or gentle machine wash. Very often the care tags on polyester garments from the 1970s proudly boast that the item is machine wash- and dry-able, but you will extend the life of your garments by washing gently and avoiding the dryer altogether. All synthetic man-made materials can shrink, deform or even melt with heat, so hot dryers, hot water, and hot irons are all verboten.

Pure acetate. I tend to cold wash and drip dry 1970s acetate knits shirts and other newer items (in accordance with their care tags), and dry clean the acetates so often made into formal wear prior to the ‘70s. You know those poufy 1950s taffeta and tulle gowns? The taffeta in these dressy confections, usually acetate, is better dry cleaned to keep its crisp structure. I have seen washed acetate taffeta with tiny overall wrinkling and limpness from washing, which apparently comes from any heat at all…acetate is extremely heat sensitive. 

OK, maybe it’s the Virgo in me, but I believe in keeping notes on things that work so that I can—you know the old saying—lather, rinse, repeat. Notes on fabrics and what works to clean specific things are easy to forget, but almost as easy to note down and save. Examples of what to note:
·       The exact measurements of your favorite cashmere sweater, so you can reshape it perfectly (called blocking) while it’s still wet.
·       What items have bled dye when tested
·       How you got that Sriracha stain out of a washable silk dress
·       What finally removed ancient underarm yellowing from your favorite white vintage blouses


How to wash by hand

Hand washing can be done in a clean sink, a bathtub, or a bucket.

Always check for the possibilities of dye bleeding and shrinking by moistening a small spot of your garment’s fabric in an inconspicuous place, using the soap or detergent and water of the temperature in which you plan to wash. Let the liquid sit a moment, then blot the spot with a white towel. Embroidery and other embellishments should be checked too. If cold water doesn’t budge the dye, don’t assume that warm water won’t—always test with what you will be using for your wash water. If you see any color on your white towel, I would recommend dry cleaning. Allowing the test spot to dry you will see puckering if the fabric is inclined to shrink.

Always zip up zippers and fasten hooks to keep from having these catch on anything in washing.

Metal components can rust in wash water, including covered buttons (fabric on the outside, metal on the inside), which you would want to remove before soaking a garment.

There are washing machines that have “hand washing” cycles that may provide you a good substitute for true hand washing, but the genuine process has the added benefit of letting you monitor the situation. You can make certain there really is no dye running in the water, and you can check to see if your stains are coming out or need a bit more time to soak.

In about two gallons of water, wash using just a few drops of detergent or up to a couple tablespoons, depending upon whether your garment is lightly or heavily soiled. As the water discolors, change it out, adding detergent again, but less. Repeat until your wash water remains clear. Swirl the fabric in the water gently while washing, as fibers are weaker when wet.

Rinse very thoroughly, until the rinse water is suds-free—completely clear. Never wring or twist wet fabric to dry it, just gently press water out, then roll in a clean towel to absorb moisture. If the item is sturdy it may be drip dried, but dry your knits and fragile items flat. 

Before natural/manufactured fiber blends, it was a bit easier to try to decide how to clean your garment with no fabric content tag. If you try a thread-burn test and can’t figure out what fiber you have, it may well be a blend and will affect how you treat the fabric. A cotton and polyester blend shirt will be washable but will not take high-heat ironing…but it also won’t wrinkle as much as 100% cotton.

A special place in hell has been reserved for the persons involved in developing a certain double cloth with an inner synthetic knit layer that crumbles into powder over time. You find this fabric used mainly in the mid to late 1960s and into the ‘70s. Many vintage sellers I know call this “devil dust,” and it truly is a biohazard making the garment only fit to be disposed of. I have seen important pieces made with this crumbling fabric restored by museums, but it is not practical (or healthy) for most people to deal with. Check for it between the outer layer and the lining of a coat (it sometimes has clumped up inside the hem), and inside dresses, shoes and boots.

Dry clean only:

1.     Velvet

2.     Most garments with inner construction and/or lining, such as coats and suits

3.     Fabrics that tend to shrink such as those with crepe textures

4.     Fabrics or embellishments with dyes that run

5.     Fabrics that are embossed with a moiré or other pattern, with flocking detail, or with glazing or another special finish that could be washed out

If there are shoulder pads in a garment, I would not advise washing the item, even if the fabric seems washable, unless you are able to remove the pads and then tack them back in after washing. Their padding can irreversibly clump up or flatten; a couple more curses of washed shoulder pads are dye bleed and water rings from the pads’ coverings. Don’t ask me about my favorite 1940s novelty print dress (with shoulder pads) that I washed, unless you want to see a grown woman cry! At the same time, not all dry cleaners treat shoulder pads well either, so my recommendation is to remove and then re-tack shoulder pads of washable garments, and also find a dry cleaner you can really trust!

What to look for in a dry cleaner

You may think that dry cleaning is the gentlest thing you can do for a vintage item, and you may be right, depending upon the dry cleaner and the garment. In the wrong hands, it may be the roughest treatment for your clothes.

You might try asking for dry cleaners suggestions at any vintage clothing shops in your area. If you know anyone who wears vintage, ask if she has a recommendation. Search online and read reviews. Ask on Facebook or Twitter. When you find one you’d like to try, take something vintage (not your best dress!) to be cleaned. If you like the work done, try with a few more items. An ideal dry cleaner will pre-spot, wash vintage items in fresh cleaning fluid without crowding them, and press with a knowledge of the original items’ characteristics. They will cover or remove rhinestone buttons to protect them from losing their stones. You might ask about each of these things when you bring in your first item to be cleaned. Also, ask about their policy for ruined items. No dry cleaner is flawless, but you shouldn’t have to regularly lose your vintage finery because of an inept job of cleaning.

Special cases:

Leather, suede, and fur should go to a cleaner with expertise in these materials.

Hand-painted and glued embellishments should be approached with caution. You may do as well using cold hand washing as any other way, but first try dabbing each element of the fabric and embellishments with water to check for melting, dye bleed, etc.

Some things belong in the no wash/no clean category, and I can hear it now: What do you mean no wash/no clean!? There are items, mostly in the category of delicate antiques, that just can’t stand up to any sort of washing. In such cases, it is best to ever so gently vacuum the piece with a screen over your vacuum nozzle. Never wash any item with gelatin sequins, which were made in the 1930s (you can always tell them by the fact that they will get sticky and melt if you get them wet or too warm).


Next time: Stain removal tips




Care of Vintage: Fabrics 101

Are you a vintage virgin, or a vintage virtuoso? Perhaps somewhere in between? I have seen fabric unfamiliarity among vintage fashion enthusiasts at all levels. 

Continuing from yesterday, this is a draft of part of the care section of a book I'm working on. The book is aimed at newcomers to vintage fashion wearing, but I hope it also offers something to the more experienced types. Whatever level you consider yourself to be on, please let me know what you think! 

When it comes to fabric, I'm a bit of a nerd. I had to study up quite a bit to feel confident enough to write and compile the Vintage Fashion Guild's Fabric Resource. Actually, I thought my head was going to explode with information about long-chain polymers and jacquard weaving looms, silk moth cocoons and the retting of flax. 

I decided to include a primer on fabrics in this section of the book because I don't think it is possible to talk about the care of materials without some knowledge of the materials. Of course, knowing about fabrics helps immensely in choosing vintage items wisely in the first place.

Fabrics 101

The fiber is from what the fabric is made, while the fabric is the finished product. Fibers can be natural: mainly cotton, wool, silk, and linen, or manufactured: mainly rayon, acetate, acrylic, nylon, and polyester.

The fibers can be woven or knit into fabric. The most common weaves are plain, satin and twill.

If you see a fabric listed as silk taffeta, you are being told that the fiber is silk, and the fabric type is taffeta. Likewise, a rayon jersey is a jersey knit fabric made of rayon fiber.

If you have a piece of vintage clothing without a fabric content label and you’d like to know what the material is made of, try the most accessible test out there: A fiber-burn test. I described how to do this in detail for the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Fabric Resource. The basic process involves snipping a small piece of fabric from an inseam, carefully burning it with a lighter, then comparing how the fiber behaves (looks, smells, feels) while and after it is burned.

This takes a little practice, but I guarantee it can be learned. You can practice burning snippets of fabric that you already know to get the feel of how, say, silk burns.


How Fabrics Wear, Look and Feel


Cotton is a fiber obtained from the seed pods of the cotton plant. It is naturally fine, soft, fluffy and absorbent. Fabrics made from cotton can be crisp or soft; most are easy to care for, washable in warm water, cool and comfortable to wear. The wide variety of cotton fabrics range from sheer batiste to heavy denim, ribbed corduroy to the interlock knit used for t-shirts. 


Silk is obtained by reeling filaments from the cocoons of silk moths. The filaments from a single cocoon of one silkworm are on average a mile long, and are strong, glossy and resilient. Made into widely varying fabrics, silks are often very dressy and elegant. Find sheer and limp chiffon, sheer and crisp organza, lustrous satin, and textured shantung among many others.


Wool is a fiber obtained from the coats of sheep. It is spun into a yarn that is strong and flexible, an excellent insulator, naturally water repellent but also absorbent. The fibers are naturally crimped and springy, allowing them to bind together when spun. Wool is what makes heavy coat materials like melton and fleece, suit fabrics like gabardine, felt used for hats, light and drapable challis, and many knits.

Some of the related specialty fibers are angora (from the angora rabbit), camel’s hair (camel), cashmere (cashmere goat), and mohair (angora goat).


Linen is both the name of a fiber and the name of the finished fabric made from this fiber, which comes from the flax plant. Its natural fiber variations create slubs in the texture. Linen is famous for its use in making garments worn in hot climates—it is exceptionally absorbent and cool. Linen fabric is crisp and smooth when pressed, but also can wrinkle easily.


Made from cellulose, rayon was the first man-made fiber, dating back to the middle of the 19th century, and in commercial production during the first decade of the 20th century. The name rayon (“beam of light” in French) was first used in 1924 in the U.S., whereas viscose was used as the name of the most common process for making the fiber, and the cellulosic liquid from which the rayon was made. Viscose was adopted as the name of the fabric in Europe.

During manufacturing, viscose rayon can be blended with any other fiber, and the finished textile can be soft and silky or sturdy and strong.  It can have a dull or bright finish and can be silken, linen-like or even wool-like. Rayon’s clothing uses range from delicate lingerie to coats.


The second man-made fiber created from cellulose was acetate, patented in 1894. Both acetate and rayon were originally called artificial silk. Acetate was given a grouping separate from rayon by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 1953. Acetate is silk’s closest competitor for drape and sheen.


The first successful synthetic fiber, nylon dates from the 1930s. After women’s hosiery made of nylon was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, it became a raging success—the clamor for nylons (as they came to be called) was so great. Strong, elastic, quick-drying, insect- and rot-resistant, find nylon in blends with other fibers as well as on its own.


Invented in the ‘30s, improved in the ‘40s and finally commercially introduced in the 1950s, polyester is a synthetic manufactured fiber. Some may think of it as that somewhat-too-common and low-end fabric of the 1960s and ‘70s, but polyester’s uses and aesthetic qualities are wide-ranging. It is a strong and washable, relatively inexpensive fabric—one that is abrasion-, fade-, wrinkle-, insect- and mold-resistant. Its most significant drawbacks as a finished fabric are its lack of absorption, its tendency to hold onto oil-based stains, and the difficulty to remove its pilling.


First introduced to the public in the early 1950s, acrylic is a synthetic fiber manufactured to be used like wool, either on its own or in a blend. It can also be manufactured to imitate cotton. Acrylic adds strength in blends with wool, and on its own, it is washable in warm water. As compared to wool, acrylic holds its color and is resilient, but is not as soft and springy, nor as warm when wet.  


Something to keep in mind is that even though a fabric is characteristically made of a certain natural fiber, it may also be made from a blend of fibers, or a similar manufactured fiber. Let’s say you love the quality of silk and want to find a vintage evening skirt made of silk satin. Satin is not necessarily woven of silk, in fact, it is relatively uncommon to find this fabric made of costly 100% silk from a time after the introduction of acetate and rayon.

Another thing you may notice is the use of fabric trade names on labels, such as Dacron (polyester) and Acrilan (acrylic). Saying a polyester blouse is made of Dacron is like saying an adhesive bandage is a Band-aid, except in Band-aid’s case, the name (pardon the pun) stuck hard.

There is a lot to know about fabrics—consider this summary a mere snippet. You can explore fabrics in greater depth by looking through the Vintage Fashion Guild Fabric Resource, a project to which I am adding regularly, with a focus on the fabrics you most often find used for vintage fashions.


Next time: How to clean vintage



Taking Care of Wearable Vintage Clothing (your help please!)

When I started the book I'm working on (tentatively titled Getting Started with Vintage - A Modern Woman's Guide) I glossed over care of vintage. Or rather, I discussed a few things, sprinkling points throughout the text. Then something happened: I told a number of people about the book, and many of them told me they were excited about reading a chapter on caring for vintage.

Like, that was the thing that got people most excited.


Then, when I mentioned this subject to my editor, she thought a new care section might be something to seriously consider, among other additions. Fast forward (or perhaps slow forward!) to today, and I have a lot of the care section written. There are gaps which I hope to fill soon, and I plan to put some polish on what I've written.

Here is where you come in:

I have learned so much from putting ideas for my book out in my blog and reading your comments. Please let me know what you think—what is missing, wrong, right—anything. 

The gist of this care section is that I (who wasn't born into Martha Stewart's household!) have had to learn a lot of things, and I want to share just the best and simplest ways that I've found to care for vintage. My book is for the vintage fashion novice, although I hope it offers something to more experienced wearers as well. 

Here is the outline for the section Taking Care of Wearable Vintage Clothing:

  • Prevention
  • Fabrics 101
  • How Fabrics Wear, Look and Feel
  • How to Clean
  • Stain Removal Tips
  • Odor Removal Tips
  • How to Get Out the Wrinkles
  • Accessories Care
  • Basic Mending
  • Insects
  • Some Useful Tools
  • Storing Vintage
  • Mindset for Caring for Vintage

The order of these is still being jostled.


I harp on this a bit in the book because frankly, prevention of problems makes everything better and easier. 

I can’t say it enough: If you are just starting out with vintage, begin by choosing items that don’t have flaws, or with only minor flaws, then wear the clothing thoughtfully. Wear clothing that isn’t too tight (risking tears and seam breaks), take care not to spill while eating, and don’t overdo the fence climbing, Charleston dancing, corsage pinning, and puddle splashing. Hang your clothing up even if it is sweaty or dirty and you intend to clean it. Clean as soon as you can after wearing if needed.


I have many times felt like sending up a hallelujah for the dress shields I sometimes find sewn into vintage clothes. Dress shields are underarm liners that protect your blouse or dress from perspiration, and the stains you might get from deodorants. They can be attached to the garment or have bands that hold the shields on you, and/or your bra. You can find disposable shields, but we vintage people are into reusable, right? My favorites are by the same brand that I find in vintage dresses, Kleinert’s, which has been in the business since 1869.


Make sure you pin a brooch that has a very fine, sharp pin if you are going to poke it through any finer fabric. I like to test putting the pin through the fabric in an inconspicuous place to see how a pinhole looks.

I’ve seen a lot of dust, puddle stains, and heel tears at the hems of long dresses. Excessive length ought to be hemmed up, and a little lifting of trains and hems will help avoid damage.

Champagne and soda look so close to clear but the sugar in these drinks oxidizes, over time or with heat, to a brown stain. Make sure you wash or clean after spilling drinks. It isn’t coffee or tea that has done in many a wedding gown, but champagne.

Make sure the vintage item is likely to fit before putting it on in the first place (the book has a section on ease and another on alterations).


Next time: Fabrics 101 and How Fabrics Wear, Look and Feel



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Desert Island Vintage with Guest Liza Maltin Dolensky


Hello, and welcome to a new year of Desert Island Vintage, a blog series in which I ask vintage mavens the straightforward, yet ridiculously difficult question:


You can probably sense why committing to a mere eight items is a challenge. Not one of the vintage sellers, wearers, and bloggers I've interviewed has mentioned more than a couple of the famous vintage pieces in the world. Their answers, really more personal, have included much-worn items in their own closets, impossibly rare and obscure pieces, and fantasy items. Some have thought of how they would like to be wardrobed for an actual desert island. The variety has been incredible, but not surprising—it's one of the great things about vintage, just how many different directions you can go. 

The latest vintage aficionado to accept the Desert Island Vintage challenge is Liza Maltin Dolensky, the woman behind Better Dresses Vintage. The name of the website evokes the days of fine department stores and their best quality dresses shop— a glimpse into heaven, as Liza writes on her about page.

1920s black silk dress from denisebrain (Yay! I love seeing this again!) 1920s pink bead sautoir from Noble Vintage Clothier Late 1970s Capezio character shoes, from Liza's closet 1920s bag from eBay

1920s black silk dress from denisebrain (Yay! I love seeing this again!)
1920s pink bead sautoir from Noble Vintage Clothier
Late 1970s Capezio character shoes, from Liza's closet
1920s bag from eBay

With that 1950s better dresses department in mind, I thought her desert island picks would include mainly frothy 1950s numbers, but Liza is an eclectic soul. You are as likely to see her posting a photo of herself in 1920s (and earlier) garb as more recent vintage. She definitely accepts the challenge of dressing fully for period events, with gusto! Here she is on a tour of Swan House with her Atlanta Time Travelers: Vintage and Historic Clothing Enthusiasts Facebook group.


Liza's desert island choices might be summarized as eclectic, nostalgic—and longing. Get ready for mid-Victorian to disco, with stops all along the way!


Liza writes:

"In order from least to most coveted, are the eight items I'd need to take with me. True, it's closer to a wish list than a packing list, as the only things I'd really need on a desert island are my 30s beach pajamas and a mosquito net! Nonetheless...

8. "My own, beloved, Lee jean jacket. Cropped, form-fitting, well worn, and highly customized by me. And no, it's not the 'thick air' at Madison Square Garden that has me looking dazed. I had mono! The doctor said 'no way,' but I already had my Queen concert tickets and my parents relented. I was so exhausted, I sat through the entire show. But I got to see Freddie Mercury.


7. "An original 'over petticoat' for my mid-Victorian ensembles. I only have a chintzy modern reproduction. Intact originals tend to be very expensive. 


6. "A 1970s Whiting & Davis metal mesh halter top. Gold or silver, I'll gladly take either one! Both will coordinate perfectly with my black spandex pants—the ones I wore to see Van Halen (original lineup). They still fit. They're spandex, after all—very forgiving. In case there's a disco on the island.


5. "I suppose I'll need a fan to keep cool. Preferably one like this. I'd add a silk ribbon so it can dangle from my wrist. I do that with all my fans. No, really. I actually do. 

photo: Met Museum, late 1800s

photo: Met Museum, late 1800s


4. "I guess I'd need a swimsuit. I'm not feeling very fit these days and don't want to show more skin than my Gramma Bessie did at Coney Island in the early 1910s. In fact, were any of these ensembles made with long sleeves? 




3. "An original natural-form era (late 1870s-early 1880s) bustle dress. Incredibly flattering to the figure, lovely, and feminine, without any bizarre extremes. Here are some examples. Can't go wrong with stripes. Perhaps a pastel shade, though, for seaside wear. Have corset, will travel. 



2. "This antique chatelaine. It's 'the one that got away.' I lost the auction by about $2. So sad. It's not especially fine or fancy, but it's so sweet. Look at the little love birds and hearts! I'd load it up with sewing tools, so I can make repairs to my eclectic island wardrobe.


photo © Jumblelaya Vintage

photo © Jumblelaya Vintage

Then there's this dress, at the top of Liza's list:

1. "When I stumbled across the listing, it was already on layaway. Sob! I even contacted the buyer with an unsuccessful 'money is no object' attempt to pry it from her closet. This is my 'vintage holy grail.' Surely it can't have been the only one made? But I've never seen another quite like it. The label is Lauhala, 100% silk. The fabric! The color! The hip swag! Those sexy bodice seams! Swoon. And, being Made in Hawaii, entirely appropriate for a castaway. No? 


(This gives me a chance to remind you, and I'm sure Liza would agree: If you love something vintage, grab it while you can, because it may haunt you forever! Vintage has a way of doing that.)

"So, there you have it, Maggie. Perhaps a bit of an odd wardrobe for a desert island. But at least I'll be well dressed as I await rescue."

I forgot to mention, but I guess it's pretty obvious by now: Liza has a well-honed sense of humor! 

Check out the Better Dresses Vintage website and Liza's always interesting and beautifully-written From My Closet - The Better Dresses Vintage BlogBetter Dresses Vintage on Facebook, and @betterdressesvintage on Instagram.

BeFunky Collage2.jpg


I'm tempted to say, so I guess I will: From Freddie Mercury to Swan House...you've come a long way, baby! 

Many thanks to Liza for her fascinating assortment of favorite vintage! 


Are you up for the Desert Island Vintage challenge? What would you want if you could have just eight vintage fashion pieces? If you'd like to be featured here, let me know!

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Denisebrain best of 2017

It's time again for my annual round up of vintage that sold in the year just ending. I've been doing this year-end feature since I was selling on eBay and blogging on MySpace—Yes, that long!! 

Looking at these, I realize some I've chosen because the new owner was so pleased. I love a happy story, and I've heard quite a few good ones this year. What else made me choose these items as favorites? I see peplums, sweetheart necklines, hand embroidery, lace, luminous fabrics, soft knits, beautiful colors, unique prints, and wonderful style. In other words, I see why I love vintage, and why I get up every day wanting to do what I do. 

My year, personally, has had its ups and downs. I am still working on my health, including having a new right hip and psoriatic arthritis, which causes fatigue and pain. At the same time, I have been so fortunate to have great help. Honestly, why didn't I look for this help sooner? Read about all I have to be thankful for in this post. 

See all those silly grins on my face in these photos? They're real. I love what I do, and am lifted up every day by great colleagues and friends in the vintage world. I've been shown such amazing kindness this year. 

I hope you have found as many reasons to smile this year, and that 2018 brings you joy—and, of course, vintage! 

Here's to a New Year of love, health, happiness, and hope for us all! 


My very best to you, Maggie of denisebrain