Monday, July 25, 2011

making your vintage last: fabric care

A lot of vintage clothing no longer has the original tags, or if it does there aren't any washing instructions included, so it can be a bit of a guessing game knowing how to care for it. You can easily ruin a vintage piece if you aren't sure what the fabric is, or how to wash it - unfortunately I know this from experience and it is heartbreaking!

Below are some of the most common vintage fabrics I have come across in children's clothing. I'll go over how to recognize fabric types by giving a definition and showing a picture of an example, and then tell you the recommended way to wash them so you can be confident your vintage will last.  

Cotton - a natural fiber made from the cotton plant. It is a soft, breathable fabric that wrinkles and shrinks easily (although most likely your piece has already been washed and shrunk).

How to clean - vintage cotton can be hand-washed, or machine-washed on a delicate cycle in cold water. Keep in mind the age and condition of your item when making this decision. Very old clothing will not hold up to the stress of a washing machine, so hand-washing is the safest option of the two. Lay flat to dry. Iron as needed.

Polyester - a synthetic fiber that is strong and keeps its shape, therefore making it wrinkle-resistant and shrink-free. It can melt with high temperatures, and is not breathable. 

How to clean - vintage polyester is quite durable and can usually be safely machine-washed and dried on low heat. You may want to turn it inside-out to prevent snags. Cool iron if needed.

Poly/Cotton Blend - a blend of cotton and polyester threads made to mix the softness of cotton, with the wrinkle-resistant property of polyester. Usually it is a blend of 65% polyester and 35% cotton.   

How to wash - a blended fabric will take on the properties of the materials it is made from. Since most poly/cotton blends have a higher percentage of polyester they are fine to be washed and dried in a machine. If cotton is the higher percentage, you may want to lay flat to dry to prevent possible shrinking. Cool iron if needed.

Nylon - a synthetic fiber made to mimic silk. It is sheer, lightweight, strong, holds shape well, and is water-resistant.

How to clean - vintage nylon can be machine-washed on a delicate cycle in cold water. It shouldn't be mixed in a batch with other types of fabric. Lay flat to dry. Cool iron if needed.

Taffeta - a smooth, lustrous fabric with a slight sheen made from various fabrics such as silk, rayon, or nylon.

How to clean - vintage taffeta is most likely silk taffeta (rather than synthetic) and should never be washed in water - always dry clean! Otherwise it will shrink significantly, and when wrinkled in water it is very difficult to iron out. If you do need to iron taffeta, always iron on the wrong side of the fabric using a cool setting. Use light, circular motions and avoid leaving it in one spot too long as the fabric easily scorches.

Velveteen - a soft, thick fabric that resembles velvet with a short pile surface and smooth back. It is usually made from cotton.

How to clean - vintage velveteen should be dry cleaned since it has a tendency to dry misshaped and lose it's luster when washed. Never iron velveteen, instead put it in a steamy bathroom or over a pot of boiling water.

Acrylic - a synthetic fiber made to mimic wool. It is a soft lightweight knit that retains its shape well, but can easily pill.

How to wash - vintage acrylic can be machine-washed in cool water on a delicate cycle. Reshape and lay flat to dry. The more gentle it is handled, the less it will pill.

Other tips and tricks:
- If there is any ornamentation on your clothing such as delicate embroidery or lace work, patches, bead work, etc. always hand-wash and lay flat to dry.
- Test for color-fastness by running a little warm water over a small spot, if it runs then make sure to wash it separately.
- Never twist or wring dry vintage clothes as the fabric is in a weakened state when wet. Instead carefully roll it in a towel to press excess water out if needed.
- Put delicate items in a mesh bag, this can be a good idea to prevent dress ties from tangling together.
- Check for loose buttons before you wash an item to prevent loss.
- Make any necessary seam repairs before washing to avoid the holes getting bigger with agitation.

Did I forget anything? Add your own tips/tricks in the comments!

Coming soon - making your vintage last: stain removal.


  1. this is awesome.
    i never know how to properly clean my vintage finds.
    this is seriously just what i needed!
    thank you!!!


  2. nice pics on vintage clothing.. the pics given here are so lovely.. i love floral dresses.. thanks for showing this..

  3. thanks for this, i've just picked up a whole stack of clothes from my childhood for my baby girl to wear and it's good to know how to clean them properly.