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.