Talking Dirty: Cleaning an Antique Blouse and Skirt

Let’s do some Laundry!

Buying vintage and antique clothes is exciting. Cleaning them is also exciting– mostly because it can be terrifying. Many antique garments are fragile and rip with the slightest tug.  They also use unknown dyes, some of which may bleed or fade if you let them soak too long or in the wrong cleaner. Linens such as napkins, white sheets, and doilies are easiest freshen. Most are white cotton and can be washed in hot water with various whiteners to brighten them right back up. Even really yellowed and rust-stained items can be restored with the right kind of care.

For smaller batches of linens and such, I like to use a large plasic cooler with a drain in the side instead of the large tub. Saves water and is easier to empty!

I’ve cleaned enough linens and whites to be moderately comfortable with the process. I’m madly in love with the wonderful effects of white vinegar! It’s magical to watch a dingy napkin emerge from the tub whiter and more crisp than before. It’s the same stuff that has been used for centuries to clean and brighten fabrics. Vinegar doesn’t get rid of rust or mildew stains (those are tough and I usual add a half dose of  White Brite to the second round. Walmart stocks it, so it’s easy to find), but it is gentle enough in a diluted solution to lift stains and refresh fabric. Vinegar will also neutralize bleaches and oxi cleaners which can destroy cloth if improperly mixed, so a first wash in vinegar solution is always smart!

Another washing method that I’ve used successfully for colored fabrics (especially musty ones) is vodka. The Laced Angel has an excellent article about the process of washing saris in it here:

“Getting Rid of the Funk”

Colored fabrics are tricky. In fact, they downright scare me if they are pre-1950. Usually vintage fabrics and even dresses from 1950 onward can be washed on the gentle cycle or in a big tub with regular detergent. Once they get over 50 years old, I will admit to some sleepless nights wondering if I should wash the thing or just let it stay in the state is is now for fear of ruining it. Take, for example, this dress I purchased from eBay a few weeks ago:

Upon receiving it, I noticed that, while there seemed to be vestiges of a lining in the bodice, it was now gone. The front buttons had been replaced and new button holes made haphazardly. After looking at it a while, I believe it is actually a 1930s stage costume made from either an old dress or pattern. Those problems I could contend with. The issue lay in the state of the fabric. It was dingy. It wasn’t disgusting or even stained, just tired looking, like someone had hiked through the dust in it. A little wear and dirt in a costume is great because it removes that too-perfect newness that can make a costume look, well, costumey.
However, this dress felt crunchy.
It needed to be washed. BUT, it was an old print cotton. Old printed cottons are risky; you don’t know the colorfastness of them. I decided to tempt fate by carefully soaking the dress in a very, very weak vinegar solution (2 cups 9% acidity white vinegar to 5 gallons of water).

I’m kicking myself for not taking any “before” pictures, but here’s an “in progress” shot that give you an idea about how crazy nasty the thing was:

I washed it 5 times. FIVE TIMES. And the water was still coming out the color of day-old coffee. Something was up. It had to be….the dye.

But how? From where? The dress started off faded past the point of any saturation and the color was washing off dark brown. True, there were brown stripes, but not this shade of brown. And I had even tested a swatch with no problem! Where was all that swampy brown coming from?!

The culprit!

My first hint was little strings and shreds of dark fabric I found floating in the 3rd wash. Upon close examination of the seams, I discovered that strips of dark brown lining were still embedded in the stitching and the deep brown fabric was literally dissolving away in the water. The outer print fabric of the dress and inner panels of cotton plaid were sound, but the crumbly lining remnants would turn to floury paste with the slightest pinch. I decided to see if I could wash the color out, but two more rinses in cold water did nothing and I was afraid to keep going for fear of weakening/staining the rest of the fabric.

Here’s a good sampling of what this dress is made of: Striped cotton with pink ombre and brown geometric designs, poorly-made button holes, and cotton tape trim. When I got the dress, the tape trimming was tan. It’s now much brighter, but if it wasn’t for that nasty brown lining, I’m sure the trim would have returned to its original white!

It all turned out well in the end, however. After hanging the skirt and bodice up to dry, they looked much better than before. There’s no fix for faded color prints, but the color that is left is much truer than before washing. Its lack of foundation lining and bones was actually an asset. If the bodice had been boned inside or had a real lining, I would have been even more hesitant to clean it myself.

There is a sort of lining in the bodice, however. The front panels are lined with cotton plaid. Originally, it looked navy and brown, but after washing, you could tell that it was actually white, blue, and yellow.

What did I learn from all this? Well, I’m still afraid of washing prints, but I feel much more comfortable with this dress now that I know its construction and content a little better. I also learned that I need to find a good dry cleaner for my more complex clothing. There is no shame in trusting a professional to care for your clothes!

4 thoughts on “Talking Dirty: Cleaning an Antique Blouse and Skirt

  1. Use a five gallon bucket and pour in a gallon of white vinegar with 2-3 gallons of hot water. Add two cups of salt and mix thoroughly. (You’ll want to set this bucket of vinegar either out on in the back yard or in the garage because it will smell pretty vinegary!) Then put the clothing in by batches – 4-5 t-shirts, dishtowels with wash cloths – use your own judgment. Just be sure there’s enough solution to thoroughly soak all of the stained items.

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