How to wash vintage clothes and clean old retro items

How do I wash my vintage clothes?

This really varies depending on what era your vintage item is from. Most vintage garments dating back to before the 1960s were not really intended to be machine-washed, so hand-washing in warm water with a mild soap is usually best from experience. Since synthetics such as polyester, nylon etc came to popularity in the 1960s to make hand and machine washing easier, these are usually fine to be machine washed, but it is generally best to stick to 30-40 degrees to be on the safe side. This is not only more eco-friendly, but the low heat helps prevent the fabrics from going out of shape. What’s more, synthetics usually drip-dry and require less ironing than natural fibres such as cotton. Wash natural fibres such as cotton and wool from the 1940s-1980s as you would with modern-day garments.

Natural fibres from the 1940s and 1950s can usually be machine washed on a gentle setting at a low temperature. For very delicate items, the best thing to do is to not wash at all and to just air the garment. A squirt of stain-removal spray such as Vanish on a stubborn stain or deodorant marks underneath the arms will usually work fine. Remember to always test stain-removal sprays on an inconspicuous area first, such as on the underneath of a hem.

See ‘can I dry-clean vintage clothes?’ below for our recommendations on this topic.

Silk is often stated as being dry-clean only, but we usually find that a gentle hand wash also works fine, but if in doubt, and not feeling confident, or the garment is very old, take it to the dry-cleaners.

Garments from the 1920s and prior were rarely washed, (if ever), so washing is not recommended even now due to the delicacy of the fabrics, decoration and stitches, and definitely never dry-clean!

The vintage item is very delicate, I don’t want to wash it but I want to freshen it up

You will often find that vintage clothes have a typical ‘vintage smell’ just from being stored for so long, so more often than not, wearing the garment will cause the item to lose its smell fairly quickly. This can also be helped by airing the garment on a washing line on a breezy day. Smell-neutralising sprays such as Febreze can also be used on cottons, faux furs, wools and synthetics but never use on silk as this can stain. For garments pre-1930s, only an airing is recommended.

You can also use a solution of one part vodka to three parts water and put in a spray bottle and spray onto clothing (not silk). The alcohol will help neutralise any odours.

How do I get stubborn stains out of a vintage item?

A squirt of stain-removal spray such as Vanish on a stubborn stain or on deodorant marks underneath the arms will usually work fine. Remember to always test stain-removal sprays on an inconspicuous area first, such as on the underneath of a hem.

How should I store my vintage clothing?

Strong wooden or padded coat hangers should always be used since metal hangers can cause rust-spots or even cause the garment to stretch out of shape from their weight. Store in a well-ventilated, dark area which allows the fibres to breathe and which reduces the risk of moths. Never store in cellars or damp areas as there is a risk or mould and mildew. Store delicate items such as silk rolled up in acid-free tissue paper. Tissue paper containing acid will cause bleeding and colour-transfer.

Can I dry-clean vintage clothes?

Dry-cleaning can be used for vintage garments from the 1950s and prior however care must be taken since the chemicals involved in this method can cause delicate materials, linings and stitches to disintegrate. Many 1950s dresses have ‘pellon’ linings which is a papery-feel lining to add structure to the dress. This will most certainly disintegrate if dry-cleaned, so a quick dip in warm soapy water and then again in a water and fabric softener solution will usually suffice!

For this reason, we hand wash 1940s and 1950s vintage dresses (since these are usually natural fibres – for synthetics from the 1960s onwards, machine washing is usually enough). You must only dry-clean garments such as fake fur coats since the polyacrylic will become matted in water or the washing machine. Coats are generally washed less than most other items of clothing so usually retain the most dirt and odour, so always take faux fur to a dry-cleaner, and the same goes for wool coats, otherwise your beloved vintage buy will be ruined! Many vintage faux fur coats will state ‘furrier clean only’: this information is now out of date since furriers are more of a specialised area and are hard to come by, so do not be put off by this statement since everyday dry-cleaners can do this task just fine.

Many vintage items, faux fur coats in particular, often have faux leather/leatherette detailing which over time can start to break down, crack and feel a tad sticky. This is not dangerous, and the coat can be worn still, however dry-cleaning will get rid of this faux leather detailing, so you must ask yourself if just an airing would be better.

Never dry-clean antique garments, such as from the 1920s as the chemicals used in dry-cleaning will just dissolve any decoration and fibres. Sequins used to be made from animal gelatine and these will just dissolve in water, so you can imagine the damage dry-cleaning would do!

Why do I have to be careful washing vintage clothes?

Vintage means the garments is over 20 years old, so you may find a dress from the 1950s in excellent, fully wearable condition, but you need to remember that it will be sixty years old so will need to be treated carefully. Items from the 1950s and prior were never intended for the washing machine, so as long as you read our tips above, there should be no reason why you can’t get lots more wear out of your vintage garment!

For more tips head over to our Caring for Vintage Clothes page.