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How to Wash, Wear, and Repair Your Vintage Clothes


Mary Kate Olsen in a vintage organza gown at the MET Gala, 2011.
Kevin Mazur / Contributor / WireImage / Getty Images
Vintage pieces sometimes travel decades to get to your wardrobe. Often these pieces have lasted because their owners have handled, stored, and washed them strategically. In figuring out how to care for any particular vintage garment, the best place to start is with your retailer. Vintage retailers tend to be obsessive about their merchandise; often downright ritualistic in how they choose, care for, and sell their booty.

Even so, each and every vintage piece is unique. That uniqueness extends to care. So it follows that each and every piece will have its own care regimen. In the end, YOU will have the final say on what that regimen is. That said, here's a basic, universally applicable list of the Do's and Don'ts.

DON'T wear your garment with tears, rips, or holes, no matter how small. And no, you cannot pin the small hole in your new (but slightly flawed) vintage dress and wear it just this once. Of course, you're chomping at the bit to wear your garment, but if you'd like it to last another 50 years, repair it good as new before wearing it.

DON'T throw your vintage pieces in the hamper after wearing.

DO hang your garment inside out after wearing and before washing. Fresh air will keep away mold and pests, and diffuse any strange smells.

DO ask your neighborhood (or nearest) vintage retailer to recommend you a great tailor. Many (though not all) vintage sellers repair pieces before selling them and they wouldn't entrust their merchandise to anyone who didn't know better. Not every tailor knows how to work with older cuts, styles, and fabrics, so it's best to get recommendations.

DON'T leave home without a small sewing repair kit, just in case. If your outfit gets a snag while you're on the road, you want the option to repair right away.

DON'T store your vintage pieces in plastic garment bags, cardboard boxes, or chests in attics, or basements. Vintage materials are prone to mold, moths, rust, yellowing and any number of the other perils of antiquing. As stated above, vintage clothing needs to breathe. Alternatively, wrap your vintage pieces in clean pillow cases or sheets first if you absolutely must store them away.

DO use padded or wooden hangers in place of wire hangers, especially for heavy fabrics. Weak wire hangers put stress on old or worn fabrics, making them more vulnerable to rips and tears.

DON'T machine wash as a first option. Ask your retailer for advice on how to wash any particular garment. If there are washing instructions on the label, follow those. Depending on how old or delicate the piece is, it may not matter what the label says, one of the more cautious options below are probably best.

DO question your local dry cleaner before handing over your clothes. It's easy to assume that every dry cleaner worth their salt has seen it all, but vintage pieces are unique. So instead of just dropping the garment off and hoping for the best, ask you dry cleaner questions about the care of specific garments.

DO ask questions like:
What do you suggest?
Have you worked with this material before?
Is this dry cleaning process safe for my garment?

DON'T be shy. If after all is said and done, your dry cleaner is not confident she/he can care for your garment safely, don't hesitate to take it back home with you and hand wash. Trust that your dry cleaner does not want to risk ruining your clothes anymore than you want to risk them being ruined.

DO hand wash! Beaded garments, for example, require a super light touch. So imagine you've worn it, and made sure to leave it hanging inside out in a place where it can get lots of air. Then fill the sink (or a bucket, your choice) with cool to warm water and one cap full of a very gentle liquid detergent. Still inside out, dunk your garment in the solution once or twice.

NEVER wring a vintage garment out. Lay it on a flat surface, between two clean towels, for example, and let it dry. You can use this technique with any delicate garment that doesn't require intense cleaning.

DO iron your pieces inside out. Time can make vintage fabrics vulnerable to heat. Certainly don't go out wrinkled, but you must take every precaution when ironing. A great trick is to lay your garment on the ironing board, cover it with an old (but clean!) cotton fabric and iron through that. This way your garment's exposure to heat is minimal.

DO buy a hand steamer. We're not talking about the big stand up contraptions on wheels that are used to keep merchandise crisp in shops. There are convenient, portable, and affordable options available. You'll be a lot less likely to damage your garment using a hand steamer than an iron. Try the Jiffy Steamer 0601ESTEAM Travel Steamer on Amazon.

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