Washing vintage clothes: 7 top tips

washing vintage clothes

One really common question when buying vintage clothes is how to wash them. They frequently have that ‘charity shop’ smell and so I always find myself wanting to clean my vintage clothes as soon as I get them home. I’m quite lucky in that I normally buy vintage which dates from the 1960s and 1970s (lots of cotton, nylon and polyester) but I’m no expert on more tricky vintage fabrics, so if you’ve got some good tips to share let me know!

1. Wash by hand

It’s always safer to wash vintage clothes by hand, and one at a time. Washing machines destroy modern clothes (fairly slowly) but a lot of vintage clothes just won’t hold up to the abuse they’ll get from a washing machine. A lot of vintage clothes just need a gentle rinse to get rid of that charity shop smell, or a soak if they’re dirtier by don’t be rough with the clothes, they just won’t stand up to it.

More delicate vintage fabrics can be more difficult to deal with. You simply can’t wash velvet, silk, or rayon crepe or anything with too much embellishment. So look at steaming or vinegar treatment (below)

2. Keep it cool

If your fabric is suitable for hand washing make sure you wash in lukewarm water, this is about skin temperature, or even slightly cooler, especially if you haven’t washed the item before. This will help prevent colour running and shrinkage.

3. How to dry vintage clothes

If your clothes are made from strong cotton or rayon and without any delicate embellishment you should be fine to spin them on a slow spin in your washing machine and then let them dry on your washing line.

If the item is delicate (for example wool) dry by putting the item in a sieve or colander and let the excess water drain away. Press between 2 large bath towels if you need to dry it further and then let it air dry flat.

I would always avoid tumble drying vintage clothes!

4. Getting rid of that vintage smell

If you’re hand washing and the smell doesn’t go with the first wash, you can try washing again adding a few tablespoons of white vinegar along with your detergent. I’ve also heard about adding a few tablespoons of baking soda to the water instead of vinegar but I haven’t tried this.

5. The magic of vinegar

If you can’t wash the clothes hang in a room with a bowl of white vinegar for a few days, the vinegar should absorb any smells. I’ve also heard of spritzing with vinegar but I’m not sure about this as I haven’t tried it before

6. Steam it baby

Another technique is to hang your vintage item a steamy room (like a shower room) to help get rid of any smells. I guess you could also try cleaning your clothes with a steam-cleaner but I’ve never tried this.

7. Dry clean but with caution

I’m sure some dry cleaners are excellent at dealing with vintage fabrics, but the only experience I had of dry cleaning vintage was enough to put me off. I took a gorgeous 1960s jacket with chunky silver square buttons down the front and on the cuffs and they came back with all the silver taken off them. Because I hadn’t asked them NOT to ruin the buttons specifically I had no come back. I changed the buttons with some I bought but I couldn’t get anything as nice and the jacket was never as good as before.

I’m not naming any names but I certainly wouldn’t recommend Sketchley to anyone… 😉 If you do decide to dry clean try and find a specialist who knows what they’re doing with delicate vintage clothes.

Have you got any tips for washing vintage clothes? Or any questions I haven’t answered? Let me know!

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3 thoughts on “Washing vintage clothes: 7 top tips

  1. Miss Fairchild

    Great tips. I hand wash everything when I first get it to see how it reacts (well except the stuff that shouldn’t be washed) and then things like my cotton shirt dresses go in the wash after that in a large lingerie bag and the hang dried.

    The other tip I read about dry cleaning and buttons is to take the buttons off before dry cleaning. I almost put my new 60s wool coat in the be dry cleaned today and decided to take the beautiful wood buttons off first. After reading this I am so glad I did.

    • vilvintage Post author

      Great tip about removing the buttons. At the time I never even considered a dry cleaner would damage my clothes, but you live and learn eh? And once the damage is done there’s not much you can do about it!

  2. Melinda McBride

    30 years ago I had a similar problem with dry cleaning. A dress from the 50s which had beautiful small buttons down the front from collar bone to hem. When I picked up the dress they had been replaced. Apparently the original buttons melted. I too had no recourse.I never wore the dress again ending up giving it away years later. I remember reading since then that vintage plastic buttons should be removed before dry cleaning. An unlikely thing for me to manage.


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