This Sucks: Cleaning an Antique Victorian Wool Dress

Wool is Hell to Clean
Cleaning the “Gabby” Dress

Wool is the most horribly impossible thing to clean because it will unfelt, especially in a modern washer. In fact, if you wash a wool coat in your washing machine, even on the delicate cycle with no soap, it will pill, felt up, and come out warped and stretched. DON’T DO IT. Wool gets exceptionally heavy when waterlogged.  The best you can hope for is a little spot cleaning or a trip to the dry cleaners. But here’s a secret: dry cleaning isn’t always so dry and gentle. For a sturdy garment that is lightly to moderately soiled, a good dry cleaner is your best friend. Seeing a 1970s beaded gown come back looking new even after you spilled shrimp alfredo sauce down the thigh is like welcoming home a lost child. There are some things, however much you love your dry cleaner, that you should never drop off (unless it is at a fabric restoration specialist). Antique wool garments are one of those things.

As I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to “sad” antiques, I purchased this dress off the ‘Bay, fully aware that this dress was going to “challenging.” The gown did not disappoint; when it arrived, it was in the saddest shape of almost any garment I have ever purchased.

The eBay pic of poor Gabby

It didn’t help that the box it arrived in was completely smashed in!

The state of the “Gabby” Dress:

Somewhere in it’s 100+ year life, it had not only been robbed of its buttons, but also of its nutritional value. Nutritional value? Well, if you are a small rodent or a moth, wool can be quite tasty. This dress must have made an excellent Thanksgiving feast because both the plaid fabric and sleeve had been gnawed right through in fist-sized chunks!

Originally, this dress was no ball gown. It was a utilitarian winter dress for a lower-middle class lady with long legs and a short torso. The lining is the gem of the set. It’s brilliant mauve and was probably originally even brighter. I’ve always wanted a sample of mauvine-esque material, so it was quite a treat to peek under the army-brown wool and find this flash of purple– in great shape to boot! The wool outside is structurally sound, save for those insect chomps.The waistband is shredded like cheese and cannot bear the skirt’s weight anymore. The plaid overlay, a woven plaid, was badly fuzzed and pilled. It was of mid-quality to begin with and probably had begun to fuzz up even during its first lifetime. It’s edged with wonderfully soft, good quality velvet ribbon in perfect condition along the points.

All of these fabrics require special care and are notoriously risky to clean yourself, but it can be done, even on a dress this crazy-bad! This method requires no water and no soap. It won’t clean set-in stains or exceptionally dirty pieces, but if you find a wool garment suffering from common storage conditions like mustiness, dust, stiffness, and set-in folds, this method can help perk it back up!

Step 1:
Lay out the garment as flat as possible on a clean surface.

I vacuumed the rug before laying out the skirt. You can see how huge it is: it fills the room!

Step 2:
Use an upholstry attachment, crevice attachment, or hand-held vacuum to gently suck up deep-set dust and grime.

When I was 5, I thought the vacuum was the Devil. How wrong I was! Don’t fear the vacuum. It’s a quick, museum-approved way to clean garments with surface dirt. It’s much easier to do this with a hand-held machine, but all I have right now is my giant K-Mart vacuum, which worked great once I removed the long tube and attached the upholstery brush. Use the “carpet” setting instead of the “floor” setting. Pull the vacuum slowly along the weave of the fabric, applying as little pressure as possible. If you can adjust the suction power of your machine, choose a low setting. Even over the rattiest of holes, the vacuum was gentle enough not to fray them further and it was magic to watch the fabric re-fluff and come away looking slightly lighter and brighter. The velvet especially benefited from the suction power!

The bodice was more difficult to vacuum just because of all the different shapes.  I just used my knee and hands to shape it as I went, getting into all the nooks under the capelet and underarms, but putting it on a mannequin might make it easier to maneuver around. DON’T vacuum a skirt hanging on a mannequin, though! It will stress the waist band and pull the fabric.

Optional Step:
Lint roller the heck out of the thing!

I have one black cat, one white cat, and one brown cat, guaranteeing me a mat of cat hair all over everything, no matter how much I vacuum. You can roller your piece after vacuuming or after the next step, airing it out, before storing it.

Step 3:
Air it out.

I was fortunate enough to catch a rare calm day to hang this poor old outfit out for a touch of fresh air. Since sunlight damages colored fabrics, I hung it in the shade of the apricot tree. Hang the skirt from the side, not the top or bottom. If the piece has gaping holes like this one, make sure the prominent ones are looped over the top so they aren’t being pulled by the weight. The bodice is hung from the bottom, like any delicate blouse. Hanging shirts by the shoulders just adds to the years of gravity pulling them downwards already.

I let this dress air for a full 24 hours: 8 on the outside line and the rest under the protective covering of the porch (it is possible for birds to poo on your fresh laundry, so don’t leave things out unattended for too long).

Optional Step:

I didn’t need to iron this piece because the folds had all hung out on the line, but for stubborn wrinkles and folds, use one setting below the “wool” setting on your hand iron to smooth everything out.

The “dry cleaning” vacuum method I’ve given here allows me to safely store the Gabby dress in a clean, proper place, carefully rolled up in climate-controlled storage– safe from water, mice, moths, and the postal service! It also works on other fabrics and dresses and is super handy for touching up a dress after walking around at an event all day. A little fabric care can save you from heartache and trouble down the road!

There is no denying that the Gabsters is in a much happier state of being than before. It’s not a miracle transformation, but subtle. I liken it to taking a shower after a long day: it’s not a drastic change–I don’t magically turn into Sophia Loren–but I look and feel much better.

There are still the holes everywhere in the dress to contend with, many of them in awkward places, but I’ve already begun piecing over them while strengthening the original fabric underneath. The waistband will need interfacing and some serious stitch work, and the bodice needs 10 new buttons, which I’d like to be contemporary to the rest of the dress if possible. It’s going be to be a lot of tedious, but enjoyable work.

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!