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.

The Costumer’s Code

Seven things I wish people had told me when I was first starting out

  • You are a costumer!

Do you wear clothes? Congratulations! You are a costumer. The role of costumes in our everyday lives may not be as exciting as, say, wearing a Civil War era ball gown, but being a costumer is more than just wearing historical clothing. “Costumes” as we know them were once boring everyday clothes to someone in the past. When you look at old portraits and photographs, you will notice that not everyone dressed the same across the board. Some people are better at accessorizing, some better at hair, and some make really neat pin tucks that everyone with a 100 mile radius is jealous of. There is bound to be some part of costuming you are good at. For example, I am terrible at patterning. Machine sewing scares me more than a midnight slasher flick when I’m home alone. However, I am the queen of thrifting. I can take a $6 dress from Goodwill and attach it to a curtain from Ross to make a 1915 dress. The key to costuming success is finding what your talents or interests are and using them.


  • You have to start somewhere and you can only get better.

My first “real” costume (outside of the theater) was less than ideal. That photo up there is a really bad picture of it taken in my mother’s bright yellow kitchen at after a long night of handing out Halloween candy. The Renaissance style outfit was a second-hand bargain buy from Ebay purchased three days before Halloween. When it arrived it turned out to be entirely the wrong shape and size (I am 5′ 6″ with 17 inch shoulders, which I thought were huge. Turns out this dress was made for someone about 5′ 3″ tall with 19 inch shoulders). I did some quick and dirty alterations, so the dress didn’t slip and slide everywhere, but it never fit quite right. Your first few costumes will probably have some flaws, too. Heck, even some of your later ones will still have hang-ups. Keep going! Switch up your methods, check YouTube DIY videos for help, or browse the myriad of blogs and websites dedicated to the art of costuming. Chances are someone had similar problems and found a fix. Costuming, like any part of life, is constant evolution. So long as you are learning and experimenting, you will get better.


  • It takes work.

Once you’ve found your costuming self, you need to exercise your costuming muscles! Have you ever had an event that required special clothes like a date, a dinner party, or most notoriously, a wedding? Recall how much thought and time went into making sure every little piece of your outfit was just right. All that fussing can be exhausting! Developing your costuming muscles takes work. Unless you are a costuming prodigy and were born with an innate knowledge of all time periods, sewing techniques, accessory styles, and wherewithal, you will have to do research, learn basic skills, and develop you own set of tricks. It’s like being in school all over again! If you plan on doing historical reenactments, you will have to go to the library or Google late into night to find what you need. If you want to do events, theater work, or attend conventions, you will need to network, make plans, and work with deadlines. You will get frustrated. You will hit walls. You will remake the collar six times and it still won’t lay right. No one said costuming was easy! Nonetheless, it is great fun and can be very rewarding. There’s nothing more satisfying than showing off your hard work to others who appreciate everything you’ve done to get there.


  • People are judgmental. Don’t let them faze you!

There’s one in every crowd, every group, even lurking within ourselves: the Critics and the Experts. No matter how hard you work on a costume, someone might rain on your parade. Critics are opinionated and enjoy finding what’s wrong with something rather than applauding what’s right. They will point out a lopsided seam or laugh at your choice of colors. They may not even now what era you chose or why you are all dressed up.

Experts, other other hand, will point out your use of a hoop skirt instead of a crinoline or your use of “damask” instead of “brocade” when describing that lovely upholstery fabric you used to make your “Victorian” dress (which, BTW, has polyester content and is sooooo not period correct. Didn’t you know they used natural fibers and didn’t have zippers?). Critiques can be good. They can help you evolve and you will costume all the better for it. If you are trying to be more historically accurate and someone points out that metal eyelets don’t belong on your Georgian corset, you can use that info to make your costume better next time. Criticism, on the other hand, is unsolicited condescending or unhelpful commentary. A well-meaning bit of education is robbed of all value if given without consent or gentility…and boy, can it sting! Keep in mind that many critical experts have been exercising their costuming selves a bit longer or differently than you—for example you costume part-time for community theater and they’re working the museum circuit—and may have developed a deep sense of orthodoxy. If you encounter someone being unduly domineering and judgemental about your creations, it is okay to be upset. You are a human, not a mannequin, after all! Just remember that they may be on a different costuming path than you. Don’t let one bad review smash your dreams flat!

On the flip side, the hardest criticism to put up with is often your own. The clothes look great laying out on the bed, but then you put it on and it’s just all….wrong! Ugh! Everyone else’s looks soooo awesome, but mine is sooooo gross!
Turn your self-criticism into critiques instead. You can fix your mistakes the next go-round. Remember that no one is perfect straight out of the gate or even later on, so stop worrying so much about what’s “wrong” with your costume and enjoy what you did “right.” In that same vein, keep in mind that other folks in costumes– no matter your opinion on their particular outfit– are also humans on their own journeys. Always remember that the difference between a critique and a criticism is consent and tone. If asked, give advice kindly. Respect, positivity, and goodwill are the best tools for helping everyone grow and flourish!



  • No costume is a failure.

Okay, so I might argue with this one sometimes. I mean, seriously? Sexy pirate costume with bright pink arm… kidney… thingies…

But, in reality, if you’re going to a club party, a pink sexy pirate will fit in much better than a genuine 17th century pirate. The point of being a sexy pirate isn’t to re-live the past, anyway. No matter how much we try, we are living in the now and our costumes are made to  be enjoyed in the present in many different situations. My first “real” costume that fit all wrong was not a failure. I handed out candy to tons of little kids that night who thought my costume was awesome and a few parents even complimented it. The truth is, all your costumes are valuable. They can teach you things, set you apart, and make people happy.



  • Design and wear costumes that make you happy.

If you like yards of soft, plushy green velvet, use soft, plushy green velvet. Making a swiss dot dress from every decade since 1820 your fantasy? Do it. Want to add buckles to your corset instead of a boring busk? Heck yes! Costumes and clothes in general are an extension of who you are. If you look in the mirror and don’t wink at yourself, something’s wrong. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so don’t exclude something just because at first glance it looks hideous. A garish orange plaid might make an extraordinary 1840s dress. I saw a woman in a period perfect Tudor dress made from hot pink and blue tie-dye! She was the most beautiful Tatiana at the faire. When you have to costume for an event, on commission, or for a group, you will have to work to meet other people’s needs and tastes, yet there should always be something in it that makes you proud. Dip into your imagination and find ways to meld what needs to get done with what you want to get done. You are limited only by your means, and even then there are ways to sneak around obstacles to create an outfit you love!


  • Keep learning! Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Fresh ideas and experimentation are the key to becoming a great costumer. It sounds so easy, but it can be so hard! Living under the dark “gotta be first!” cloud is no fun, then again, neither is making the same thing over and over. Escape from both by trying new things in small doses or bash all expectations to bits by going in a radical new direction. Sometimes new doesn’t necessarily mean you have to invent something no one’s ever done before. What’s important is that you’ve never done it before. Never used a buttonhole attachment on your sewing machine? Never made rouge from an 18th century recipe? Never heard of dieselpunk? Never seen a 14th century Vietnamese dress? Never tried making a bonnet from a cereal box? Knock those atrocious “Nevers” into oblivion as much as possible. You’ll be amazed at how much fun you’ll have and what you discover!

Happy Costuming!

Inspired by “Twelve Things You Were Not Taught in School About Creative Thinking” by Michael Michalko

For more information on how to handle criticism and bullying in the reenactment community, check out “Ask A Reenactor: Bullying in the Hobby” by Kelsey at Historically Speaking and Nina Brand’s article “Historical Re-enactments” which discusses women in military re-enacting circles.

For more information about historical accuracy issues in costuming, visit Jennifer’s Historical Sewing articles, “Why You Can’t be 100% Historically Accurate” and (for a little pick-me-up) “Costuming Keeps Us Dreaming.”