How to Clean and Press Vintage Clothing

How to Clean and Press Cotton, Linen and Rayon fashions is something that every vintage lover should master. Ironing was a skill most young girls learned as late as the 1980's, but once casual wear, polyester and Lycra fabrics dominated the wardrobe,this technique became unnecessary.

The following suggestions should help anyone wash, iron or press their fashions, along with some tips for wear. Please note that no technique is fool proof. Some fabrics and garments may appear washable, such as the blue 1950's dress above, but are not. It is important to learn how to identify delicate garments. Even so, some fashions will 'fail' when cleaned, and may not be salvageable. Select garments carefully, and learn how to work with vintage. It is worth the effort!

Vintage fashions can become very wrinkled after washing or wearing. Knowing how to keep those wrinkles under control can help maintain the garment's good looks.

Garments with tailoring or delicate details should be dry cleaned, but simple dresses are often washable. Test a bit of fabric first. Avoid washing dark colors or shiny rayons (these tips are for the linen-looking rayons). Also avoid washing garments with loose or raveling seam allowances inside the garment. It is also important to identify the lining, and may be easier to send lined garments to be dry cleaned.

Whites were traditionally washed, and were often called 'wash dresses' in the early decades of the 20th century. Some vintage garments are not color fast, and contrast details such as bias trim, braid, ribbons and stitching may run or bleed into the main fabric. Avoid washing these, and use dry cleaning instead.

Cold water and baby shampoo will make a good wash for natural fabrics. Rinse out the soap after hand washing, and hang the wet garment up to drip dry (try your shower head as a hanging 'rack'). You may find it easiest to wash in a bowl or bucket in your bath tub, then hand the dripping wet dress there.

If using a washing machine, select a gentle cycle and cold water. You may want to test your machine first with a simple garment to be certain that the agitation is not too rough on the fabric and seams. You also may want to pull it out before the spin cycle, as that can wring it with many tight wrinkles. If you want a damp garment, try rolling it in a big beach towel and pressing out the water.

Press natural fibers while they are damp. This might be towards the end of the hang dry period. If that is not possible, use a spray bottle with water to completely dampen the fabric again. The skirt on the brown print Mad Men era dress above was pressed from the inside for a smooth look.

Spray bottle:
Dampen the entire garment and let is sit to absorb the water. You can also use the spray bottle to dampen specific areas that need pressing. To start, press from the inside of the garment first. This will prevent shiny areas of the good side of the outfit at hems and facings.

Flip to the good side of the garment for details such as collars, bows and tucks. You may want to 'spritz' the fabric damp again before pressing these areas. Prevent shine by using a press cloth.

Press cloth:
A linen tea towel or heavy linen handkerchief is a good press cloth. This is usually placed over the area before pressing, to prevent the iron from touching the fashion fabric. The 1950's cotton plaid dress above used a press cloth to keep it clean while we pressed. Press cloths can be soaked in water and laid damp over a stubborn area. When applying the iron, clouds of hot steam may occur, which can burn if you aren't careful. Damp press cloths will be best on thick areas as well.

When the garment has been pressed, it may still be damp. Hang on a padded hanger to dry completely. A regular hanger with a towel folded over the top like a shawl makes a great padded hanger for damp garments. If you have a shaded area outside, that may help the drying process. Keep colored fabrics out of direct sunlight (try hanging from under a patio umbrella).

Body heat can wrinkle these fabrics very easily. It is recommended that a full length slip be worn as a layer between the dress and body. If a linen garment is tightly fitting, traditional foundation garments are important. Correct under garments are very crucial when wearing fashions designed before about 1965. Getting a close fit will require a girdle (or Spanks) and a sleek fitting bra or bustier. Wearing these under garments will prevent most waistline and hip wrinkles.

Hang your dress immediately after wearing. It used to be common to hang a dress outside the closet overnight, before re-hanging in a closed closet. A padded hanger will keep many stress wrinkles from developing. Very special dresses may do well on a shaped 1/2 body used for displays. This female form has only the front half of the body, but the shoulder and bustline shaping help soft dresses keep their shape. The navy 1940's style dress above would be a good style to hang on a padded hanger or form.

Keep your storage dark, dry, cool (think: Egyptian pyramids).
Prevent: moths and bugs, dust, mildew, and other weather problems.

Flat: some items will store better flat, than hung. Sure, you may have to iron before wearing, but keeping shoulders and bodices from stretching is worth the effort.

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