Cleaning & Storing Antique Clothing

Q: 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???

A: I get 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.



     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. You'd be surprised how many items you buy at shops and shows are infected, so look everything over carefully! If you discover any sign of bugs, or need to know what the signs of bugs are, please read "Pestered by Pests" from our last issue (see our archives).
     Once you're certain the item is free of pests, consider whether or not it needs cleaning. Most items you buy from a clothing dealer have already been cleaned, and its 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. 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 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 in-between 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 are obvious dirt splotches, you might consider washing the item. You will need to be certain, however, that the fabric is 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; consult the section on washing rayon in Collector's Guide To Vintage Fashions.
     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 other detergents marketed as "gentle" and found in the supermarket; they are much too harsh for old textiles.)

3. Place the garment into 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 dirt.)

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, which may cause mildew). Try to get the garment under enough cover than 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 considerably.

Dry Cleaning
    If the fabric isn't washable, you might consider dry cleaning. I'm very hesitatant 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 bag.

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 healthy!


    The number one 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 period of 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 your collection:

1. Use archival, acid-free boxes, if you can afford them. They are available through archival supply companies (see the links page).

2. When you can't use acid-free boxes, line any cardboard or wooden boxes you use, so that 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 top.

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.



(c) Copyright 1995, 2001 by Kristina Harris






HOME        Archived Article Index