How to Safely Clean Vintage Clothing – LifeSavvy

Anna Svetlova/

If you love vintage clothes, you’ve probably run into a major problem: figuring out how to clean those clothes safely. Fortunately, a few simple tips can help you find the right maintenance steps for your treasured vintage finds.

Cleaning vintage clothing can be a tricky process, especially if the items don’t come with care instructions or clear labels. There are two major issues in the process: figuring out if the clothes can be washed, and figuring out exactly how to wash them if the answer is yes. Let’s take a closer look at how to decipher the needs of your latest vintage finds.

How to determine if vintage clothes can be washed

A woman's hand washes clothes.

All vintage clothes can no longer be washed, at least not at home. Depending on the age of the garment, it may or may not be easy for you to figure out how to wash it yourself.

First, give a detailed overview of the items to see their overall condition. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is the fabric soft and supple, or dry and brittle?
  • Are there any obvious spots of damage, unraveling, or previous repairs?
  • Are elements, such as buttons or embellishments, missing somewhere?
  • If there are any closures like buttons or zippers, is there damage around them?

Next, start by checking the items to see if they have any tags or care labels. Newer vintage pieces – let’s call them “retro” instead – are more likely to have labels with more information. If they don’t, or have labels but no modern care instructions, you have a few options.

  • If they have tags or tags, you can try searching online to see if you can find a match for your clothes.
  • If they don’t have labels or you can’t find useful information online, you can search for a seamstress or vintage clothing store in your area who might have more knowledge.
  • If it’s a particularly intricate piece – with lots of embroidery or beading, or made from hard-to-clean materials like velvet or fur – skip it all and take it straight to professionals who have experience in cleaning vintage pieces.

Method 1: put in the freezer

A peach-colored sweater in a freezer-safe plastic bag
Amanda Prahl

While not a standalone cleaning method, the freezing method can definitely help give your vintage clothes a head start. Because most vintage clothing is not pre-cleaned by its sellers, especially if you buy it from a thrift or thrift store (rather than a private seller), there’s no way to know when they were last cleaned or what might be on their surfaces.

Whether it’s something as basic as a musty smell or something more unpleasant like mold or silverfish, it’s important to keep your newly acquired vintage pieces separate from your clean closet or dresser until they are thoroughly cleaned. One way to start tackling these problems – at least the pest problem – is to put them in a sealed, freezer-proof plastic bag and put them in the freezer for three to four days.

Method 2: Hand or machine wash

Laundry in mesh bags;  sweaters arranged on a mesh rack in a living room
BAGAIL/storage freak

If you’ve looked at the fabric type and assembly of the garment and determined that, given all of this, it’s safe to wash “traditionally,” you can hand wash or machine wash. Just be sure to take every possible precaution to be extremely careful – any vintage or retro item, by its very nature, is a bit more fragile than something you just bought today.

If you choose to machine wash, follow these steps:

  1. Place the garment in a mesh lingerie bag for better protection.
  2. Wash using mild laundry detergent, gentle cycle and coldest water setting.
  3. Let air dry. Lay the garment flat on a clotheshorse or other flat surface to prevent it from deforming from a hanger or its own weight.

If you wash by hand, the process is similar, just with these steps:

  1. Fill a sink or bathtub with cold water.
  2. Add a small amount of mild detergent.
  3. Submerge the garment and gently work the soapy water into the fabric.
  4. Empty the tank, fill it with fresh, clear water and rinse.
  5. Allow to air dry on a flat surface.

Method 3: Spray Bottle Wash

A person sprays an item of clothing using a spray bottle.

The “Wash” spray bottle is a favorite among many who deal with delicate or complicated pieces of clothing; this is a common method for theatrical costumes and similar pieces. This method primarily deals with odors, not stains or dirt, so keep that in mind if you choose to use it.

The idea, in general, is to help kill some of the odor-causing bacteria on clothes and evaporate some of those compounds as the spray evaporates. As you might notice, this doesn’t address other issues such as body oils, dirt, stains, etc., so consider this more of an “and” method rather than the “only” method of cleaning.

The first version uses rubbing alcohol and a few quick steps:

  1. Fill a spray bottle with a solution of half rubbing alcohol and half room temperature water.
  2. Spray onto the clothing in question, paying particular attention to areas that come into contact with particularly sweaty parts of the body.
  3. Let air dry.

The alternative is a solution using our old friend, white vinegar, and almost identical steps:

  1. Fill a spray bottle with a solution of one part white vinegar to two parts room temperature water.
  2. Spray onto the clothing in question, paying particular attention to areas that come into contact with particularly sweaty parts of the body.
  3. Let air dry.

As fun as finding amazing vintage clothes, keeping them clean can be a challenge. Armed with these tips, you’ll have a head start on how to care for these gorgeous retro finds.


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