Cleaning & Storing
I'm beginning my collection of antique clothing...What's the
safest way to clean it? And what's the best way to store it???
I receive frequent emails from collectors - old-timers as
well as novices - asking how to clean and store their antique and
vintage textiles. But boy, those are loaded questions and difficult to
answer in a short letter! There are lots of "what if's" to consider, and
some varying opinions on how to go about things, but presented here are
my years of personal experience in what works, what is safe, and what
museums recommend. The information provided here is based on the more
detailed info given in my book
Collector's Guide To Vintage Fashions
How to Clean, Store, & Display Antique & Vintage Fashions.
Before you bring any "new" old textiles
into your home, it's an excellent idea to check them over carefully for
any sign of bug infestation. If you discover any sign of bugs, or need
to know what the signs of bugs are, please consult
How to Clean, Store, & Display Antique & Vintage Fashions.
Once you're certain the item pest free, consider whether or not it
needs cleaning. Most items purchased from a clothing dealer have already
been cleaned; it's important not to over-clean old textiles, since this
only makes them more fragile. I try to ask whomever I've acquired a new
piece from whether or not it's already been cleaned.
If the garment looks clean, but smells musty or smoky, a good
way to freshen it up is simply to put it (temporarily) on a padded
hanger and take a clothing steamer to it. An inexpensive ($20-30)
steamer will work wonders if you are thorough. Definitely do not use
products like Fabreeze on old textiles. Also, when it comes time to
display or photograph a piece, steaming is always preferable to ironing
(which might burn the fabric, cause permanent creases, or cause shiny
spots. If you must iron an old textile, iron on the wrong side of the
cloth, on the lowest setting, and preferably with a white dishcloth
inbetween the iron and the garment.)
If you see debris on a garment, an easy and safe way to clean it
is to cover the head of a hand-held vacuum with cheesecloth and vacuum
the dirt away. (If there are no beads, lace, hooks and eyes, etc. that
might get caught in the vac, you can dispense with the cheesecloth -
just be sure the vac doesn't have enough suction to suck up part of the
garment. Never use the hose attachment on your regular vacuum.)
If there is obvious dirt, you might consider washing the item.
You will need to be certain the fabric is actually washable and that the
colors won't run. (To do this, find a small, inconspicuous spot and test
it with water and a little of your cleaning agent.) Cotton and linen are
usually safe to wash. Wool, silk, and blends usually are not. Some
rayons may be washable, but many shrink when washed.
To wash a piece of antique or vintage clothing, do the following,
but first be forewarned that some old rayons will shrink:
1. For small pieces, line the bottom of a sink with a white pillowcase.
For larger pieces, you may need to line the bathtub with a white sheet.
2. Fill the basin with lukewarm water and your cleaning agent. (I use
Neutrogena face soap - the "original" formula. It's what the Smithsonian
recommends, it's easy to come by, and it's quite safe. Dissolve about
1/8 of a 3.5 oz bar into the water. Never use Woolight or similar
supermarket cleaners; they are much too harsh for old textiles.)
3. Place the garment in the water and gently agitate. Do not twist or
wring the fabric, since this weakens it.
4. Allow the garment to soak for at least 20 minutes, but no more than a
half hour. (If you let it soak too long, the fabric will reabsorb the
5. Drain the basin and carefully lift two sides of the pillowcase or
sheet away from the drain. By using the sheet or pillowcase to support
the fabric in this process, you ensure that the old textile isn't
weakened; wet fabric is heavy and easily torn or thinned.
6. Place the wet garment on a white towel, fold the towel over the
garment, and gently press the water from the piece. Do not wring or
twist. Change towels as necessary.
7. Dry the garment flat, either on a fresh towel, or on
a mesh rack designed for drying sweaters. It's preferable to dry the
garment away from direct sunlight, which fades colors and weakens
fabrics (but you also don't want it sitting around wet for more than a
day, or mildew may appear). Try to get the garment under enough cover
animals won't disturb it and leaves won't fall onto it. Do not dry the
garment by hanging it up somewhere, since this puts a great deal of
strain on the shoulder and waistline area, and will weaken the fabric
If the fabric isn't washable, you might consider dry cleaning.
I'm very hesitant to dry clean anything because I've known some
collectors and dealers who've had old garments fall to pieces
(literally!) in the process. It's also important to realize that dry
cleaning will often put yellow spots on old textiles of a light color
and always advances the brittleness of the fabric. However, if you've
vacuumed a garment and still feel dry cleaning is the only way to get it
clean, follow these steps:
1. Choose a dry cleaner who either works with old textiles (get a
recommendation from a local museum or antique textile dealer), or who
specialized in delicate garments.
2. Ask the dry cleaner to only clean the garment when they have just
placed fresh solvent in the machinery.
3. Make certain all buttons, and anything else that might "catch," are
properly covered. Ask your dry cleaner how they prefer to do this.
4. Place the garment between two white sheets; baste through the layers
of the sheets, following the outline of the garment and creating a bag.
If you can't sew at all, place the garment in a white cotton garment
5. When you get the garment home, immediately remove it from the dry
cleaner's plastic bag. Textiles need to breathe in order to stay
The #1 rule for storing antique and vintage clothing is that
hangers are - literally - death by hanging. Sometimes very light weight
items (like lingerie blouses or rayon undies from the 1920s) may be hung
on padded hangers for a short time, but it's best to fold everything,
since hanging puts a great deal of stress on both the shoulder and
waistline of old garments, causing the fabric to thin and tear.
The second thing to remember is that textiles should never be
stored in plastic bags or boxes. Plastic doesn't allow fabric to breathe
(which it needs to be able to do in order to stay mold and mildew free),
and there's some evidence showing that the chemicals plastic emits into
the air may speed along textile deterioration.
With that in mind, here are some easy tips toward safely storing
1. Use archival, acid-free boxes, if you can afford them. They are
available through archival supply companies (see the
2. When you can't use acid-free boxes, line any cardboard or wooden
boxes you use, so your collection is protected from acids that cause
yellow spotting and deterioration. My favorite way to do this is to
first line quilt batting (available at craft and fabric stores) along
the bottom and sides of the box or drawer, and then, with thumb tacks,
secure white sheets (or washed, unbleached muslin cloth) over the
batting. For best results, you should replace the batting every two
years or so, and thoroughly wash the sheets once a year.
3. Even metal boxes and drawers should be padded and lined, since this
will help prevent sharp edges from catching on and ripping textiles.
4. Most piece will need to be folded, but use as few folds as possible.
Pad every fold with acid-free tissue paper (available at art supply
stores and archival supply companies) to prevent folds from becoming
permanent and leaving crease marks.
5. Place at least one sheet of acid-free tissue between each garment.
6. Put the heaviest garments on the bottom, the lightest garments on
7. Wrap all accessories carefully with acid-free tissue before placing
them in a box with any garments. In fact, it's preferable to store
accessories in their own boxes. For tips on storing parasols, shoes,
hats, bags, and other accessories, please see
Collector's Guide To Vintage Clothing.
This website is (c) 2005, 2012. All Right