July 18, 2011

To Wash Or Not To Wash?

When it comes to the clothing you wear every day, the answer to this question is obvious. But when talking vintage clothing, and especially antique garments, the answer is not often so clear.

We at Vintage Vixen include recommended washing instructions for all the vintage goodies in our catalog. These instructions are what we'd do to wash and/or care for the item. While you could read instructions item by item and learn our standards of care via the catalog, I thought a good overview of how we wash, dry, press & steam clothing would also be helpful, so you can decide how to best protect your vintage clothes.

I've divided the basic cleaning processes into various stress levels in the table below. The table outlines the kinds of washing processes, drying processes and wrinkle treatments you commonly use in clothing care, and it's sorted from most stressful to least. This addresses the question of "should this garment be washed?" based on its fragility, fiber and age. The question of whether a fiber is washable or dry cleanable (without considering its age) is addressed in our daily care tips .

Most StressfulDry CleaningMachine DryHard IroningDurable dry-clean only fabricsMany items, primarily 1940s and later

Machine WashMachine DryIron or Hard PressDurable washable fabrics, post-1940s
Many items, primarily 1940s and

Gentle Machine WashDrip DryPressingDurable silk & rayon, some cottons, linens, woolsMost wearable vintage clothing in washable fibers

Hand WashDry FlatSteamingAntique cotton and linen, some silks & rayons, many types of knitsItems that are being conserved (with dual goals of display and preservation)
Least Stressful No WashingN/ANoneAntique silk, most clothing pre-1890 or
"Retired" clothing; items that must be preserved

Please note that you could certainly combine a more "stressful" machine
wash with a flat drying and no pressing or steaming, for instance. Also note that this chart uses generalizations. For example, most antique cottons hold up to hand washing, not all. Most silks handle dry cleaning well, but some must be hand-washed. Many synthetics of the 1960s & 70s need no pressing or steaming, though they'd withstand the process. Myriad factors determine washability & other treatments, including the fabric's weave, the possibility of running dyes, the fragility & prior use/abuse of the fabric, etc., and each garment has to be assessed as the individual it is.

That being said, we can still make some good use of these generalizations. Let's start with the washing process. I've placed dry cleaning as more stressful than machine washing only because the dry cleaning attendant is not likely
to be as observant as you are toward your own clothes. Cleaners should look for garments that potentially damageable (or damaging to other items cleaned in the same load).

However, leaving a prized vintage garment in their hands is only advisable if you trust them already. If not, you should assume machine dry cleaning is acceptable only for very sturdy garments that are not rare or antique. Dry cleaning by hand (essentially an all-over spot cleaning) is also possible. We do this here, but it's rare to find a professional dry cleaner who will provide this service.

A dry cleaning machine is actually quite similar to the clothes washer you're already familiar with. The major difference is that its solvent is dry cleaning fluid instead of soap & water (dry cleaning isn't actually a
"dry" process at all).

Regular machine washing is separate from the gentle cycle because the latter is indeed kinder to clothes - there are generally fewer and lower agitations in a gentle cycle. The gentle cycle is distinctly different than hand washing, however, and the gap between the two is pretty large, although the latest generation of washing machines is changing that, as some now offer both a gentle cycle and a "hand wash" in the machine.

In a traditional hand wash, not only can you work the garment as slowly as you like, but you can also observe it much more closely than in any washing machine. It's much easier to start a washing machine and forget about a garment than if it's in your hands. A hand wash will allow you to see dyes runnings, and perceive fabric tearing or wool shrinking as it occurs, so you can minimize damage or avoid it altogether. Also, the regular agitation of a machine can contribute to pilling, while hand washing does not.

If you prefer to use the gentle machine cycle over hand-washing, to alleviate the additional stress you can encase the item in a net bag or pillowcase to buffer its movements. For those considering traditional hand-washing, it can actually be quite meditative, if this helps persuade those averse to spending the time!

The one exception to not cleaning is when the garment has some known stain that would attract pests. While dirt alone does not attract pests (because it's not a food source), something like oil or starch would.

It seems pretty obvious that the least stressful way to wash something is not to wash it. Some antique clothing
should, in my opinion, not be washed or worn. If respect for its age outweighs the thrill of the wear, then it should likely not be washed, except for necessary spot-cleaning under careful and well-prepared hands (see Wearability
). Antique garments in archival storage are not washed, as the stress of cleaning far outweighs any helpfulness obtained by removing dirt or dust. A sound archive will keep dust, pests, and other "enemies" out by prevention rather than cleaning.

Next, we're on to drying processes. The same agitation rules apply here - machine drying rolls clothes around (i.e. it stresses them), and the dry cleaner's machines are quite similar to home dryers. We often recommend that busy people who don't want to hand wash should at least drip dry/dry flat their knits, to reduce pilling and that worn, fuzzy-surface look that acrylic & cotton knits get. Drip-drying is more helpful for thick garments that need even exposure to all surfaces, while drying flat is better for knits and other items that might pull out of shape on a hanger. Make sure to use a molded, thick hanger that supports the garment if you drip dry.

How you remove wrinkles can make a huge change in the lifespan of your vintage clothes. I'll touch on fiber types as they relate to this subject, but I want to focus on the wear factor of ironing versus pressing & steaming. Some fabrics, like cotton and linen, need a hard ironing and/or pressing to make them look really great. Many wools, cotton blends & linen blends will need a gentler version of the same. Although you must press or iron
to make your garment wrinkle-free, the friction and pressure of ironing is stressful to the fabric. Try to press instead of actually ironing; a vintage garment should be pampered in this department. Use a press-cloth (just a piece of plain unbleached medium-weight fabric) between your garment and the iron to shield against friction and unwanted shine marks.

What's the difference between pressing
& ironing? Pressing is a drop-down & pick-up movement
with the iron, while ironing is a back-and-forth movement of iron
gliding over fabric. Ironing is faster, but it can stretch or distort fabric, while pressing cannot.

The next gentlest method of removing wrinkles is via a garment steamer. This equipment is one of the handiest tools in clothing care; it's definitely not a gimmick product though we suggest buying quality. A steamer boils water in its reservoir, then the steam arrives at the end of a handy wand that you apply at (or near) the fabric. The steam allows you to quickly remove wrinkles from fabrics that don't accept ironing or pressing well. It's very efficient and much less harsh than an iron, as it omits the friction & pressure factors.

Many garments we sell are wash and wear, as people's lifestyles dictated easy-care fashion in later decades of last century. Earlier decades largely went without the luxuries of synthetic blends and technologies like permanent press, so these clothes often need additional attention for this reason. Likewise, the greater the age, the more respect the item deserves.

When in doubt, go easy on the fabrics you care for. A careful choice at laundry time can mean a world of difference to the life of your clothing!

--- April Ainsworth


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  2. I am intrigued to know what type of fabric you use and the steamer you tested for it. I think steamers are a great tool and can do the job better in comparison to ironing, in my honest opinion.

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