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Cleaning and restoring vintage garments: What you need to know

By: Stu Bloom

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What you need to know before you acquire a vintage garment and before you wear it for the first time

What you need to know before you acquire a vintage garment and before you wear it for the first time

Vintage is hot.

So much so that many fashionistas have added selected, high quality vintage garments to their contemporary wardrobes. Some have even rifled through the closets of close friends and relatives known for their eye for style and quality to find long-forgotten gems. 

The problem with buying vintage

Pat Sandler 1960's vintage dress: Before and after restoration

The problem typically faced by vintage garment aficionados is not the purchase from a dealer or the retrieval from friend or relative’s closet.

Rather, it’s cleaning and restoring the garment to as close to original condition as possibleso that it can be worn with confidence.

If you purchased the garment from a dealer, you need to understand that very few dealers actually clean their garments prior to resale. And the prior owners of those garments may not have cleaned them in years, if ever. The same issue probably applies to any garments retrieved from that friend or relative’s closet.

In addition to not being cleaned, it’s highly likely that the garment — whether purchased from a vintage dealer or retrieved from a friend or relative’s closet —  was improperly stored over the years. 

The dual likelihood that the garment has not been properly cleaned and properly stored over the years has consequences:

  • The garment may smell musty and dank.
  • The garment may smell of cedar, naphthalene or paradichlorobenze (the 2 primary ingredients used to make moth balls), or potpourri.
  • The garment may be visibly stained in numerous places with soil, water-based stains (perspiration, soda, juice, beer, wine, etc.) and oil-based stains (food fats, food oils, creams, lotions, cosmetics, etc.).  
  • The garment may be invisibly stained in numerous places with sugar-based stains (any clear beverage containing sugar) that might have dried but are not yet visible.
  • The garment may have lost fiber strength in numerous places.
  • All the above.

Given these consequences, you ought to consider all the possible issues you could encounter in a vintage garment prior to purchasing and/or wearing that garment.

The specific issues you should consider

Christian Dior 1980's vintage coat: Before and after restoration

Here are some of the issues you ought to consider:

Fabric issues

  • What type of fabrics (exterior and interior) have been used in the construction of the garment?
  • What is the overall condition of the fabrics (exterior and interior) used in the construction of the garment?
  • Is the exterior fabric splitting or tearing in places if you gently tugged the fabric in opposite directions with both hands?
  • Do the seams, particularly the underarm, side and seat seams, show any evidence of splitting or tearing?
  • Do the areas of folding or creasing (hemlines, pleats, collars, cuffs, etc.) show any evidence of splitting or tearing?
  • Are any areas of the fabric pilled, scuffed or frayed in any manner?
  • Does the fabric show evidence of yarn slippage (distortion in the symmetry of the horizontal and vertical threads) in any areas, particularly in the underarm area?
  • If the garment construction includes natural fibers (such as wool or silk), do you see any evidence of insect damage such as actual holes (fabric that is completely eaten through as a result of insects feasting through the fabric) or near holes (fabric that is partially eaten through as a result of insects feasting on the surface of the fabric)?
  • Are any areas of the fabric faded, particularly in the shoulder and sleeve areas, due to exposure to artificial or natural light?

Odor issues

  • Does the garment smell musty and dank as a result of having been stored in a humid or damp environment for many years?
  • Does the garment smell of cedar, naphthalene or paradichlorobenze (the 2 primary ingredients to make moth balls), or potpourri as a result of having been stored in a “sealed environment” (a no-no)? 
  • Does the garment have the rank smell of aged perspiration and/or body oils as a result of never having been cleaned or never having been properly cleaned?
  • Does the garment smell of fragrance or vodka (often used by vintage garment dealers to temporarily mask the rank smell of aged perspiration and/or body oils)?

Stains

  • Is there any evidence of water-based stains (perspiration, soda, juice, beer, wine, etc.) on the garment?
  • Is there any evidence of oil-based stains (food fats, food oils, creams, lotions, cosmetics, etc.) on the garment?
  • Is there any evidence of old yellow or brownish stains on the fabric (might indicate difficult-to-remove oxidized oil stains or caramelized sugar stains)?
  • Is there any evidence of dark gray or black stains on the fabric (might indicate mold or mildew stains)?
  • Is there any evidence of dye bleed if the garment has 2 or more colors? What about dye bleed in the underarm areas?
  • Is there any evidence of rust stains from metal components such as buttons, hooks, eyes, zippers, trims and embellishments, etc. (might indicate that the fabric under the rust stains is weak)?

Trims and embellishments

  • Are there any trims or embellishments (beads, sequins, pearls, rhinestones, lace, bows, buckles, embroidery, appliques, etc.) on the garments?
  • Are the trims or embellishments sewn on or glued on?
  • If the trims or embellishments are sewn on, are they tightly sewn on or are there loose or broken threads?
  • If the trims or embellishments are sewn on, is each piece individually sewn on or is it sewn on using a chain stitch (a single thread, that if broken, will cause all the trim such as breads or sequins to unravel or “run”)?
  • If the trims or embellishments are glued on, are any of the trims or embellishments loose, are they falling off or can they be easily pried off (might indicate that the glues have dried out over time as a result of improper cleaning and/or storage)?
  • Is the color of the trims and embellishments intense or have those colors faded or delustered over time?

Summary

Custom-made vintage coat: Before and after restoration

These are a few of the issues you should consider prior to purchasing that vintage garment or retrieving one from the far reaches of a friend or relative’s closet and/or prior to cleaning and/or restoring the garment.

Given all the issues associated with a vintage garment, the cleaning and restoration of a vintage garment is not project that a typical value, ordinary or wannabe cleaner is equipped to handle.

At RAVE FabriCARE, we understand the delicate nature of vintage garments. 

We also understand that cleaning a vintage garment is a skillful process that involves great thought and care at every stage of the cleaning and finishing process.

The guiding principle should always be “Do No Harm”.

At RAVE FabriCARE, our strength is our personalized advisory service. When you bring in or send in a vintage garment to us, a knowledgeable Fabricare Consultant will:

  • Examine the piece carefully
  • Identify the challenges presented by the piece
  • Discuss the areas of risk
  • Explain our recommended restoration and/or cleaning process
  • Identify the results that we believe you can and cannot expect from our work.

Specifically, we will discuss the problems and/or conditions of use, storage or manufacture that may limit whether such items can be safely cleaned and yield satisfactory results.

At RAVE FabriCARE, we clean and restore hundreds of vintage garments every year for clients across the USA and Canada. These clients include private individuals, vintage dealers, educational institutions, historical societies and museums.

How can we help you?

 

Are you a collector of vintage garments? What factors do you consider prior to purchasing a vintage garment? How do you care for your vintage garments before you wear them for the first time? How to you store your vintage garments so as to protect the integrity of those garments over the short or long term? Please share your comments below.

 

Photo credit: stocksnap.io/Dietmar Becker

 

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Filed Under:

Garment Restoration,Vintage Garments

Author

Stu Bloom

Stu Bloom is Founder and President of RAVE FabriCARE. RAVE FabriCARE, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, cares for fine garments, household textiles and accessories and serves clients throughout the USA and Canada. Stu is the author of various ebooks on these subjects, all of which are available from www.ravefabricare.com/freestuff. He is an evangelist for true quality cleaning and is a contributor to and editor of True Quality Cleaning, RAVE FabriCARE’s blog. You can find Stu on Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Additional Resources:

http://ravefabricare.com/services/vintage-garments/

http://ravefabricare.com/services/specialty-garments/

http://ravefabricare.com/services/garment-restoration/

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