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More on Rejuvenating Vintage Garments

by Catherine Owsianiecki
an Online Extra to Threads #132, pp. 30-33

Garments from different time periods offer different challenges. Here is a handy checklist, courtesy of Melody Fortier, TangerineBoutique.com, for evaluating a garment’s condition:

Checklist: How does this vintage garment measure up?

Victorian, Edwardian, and earlier

• Check cottons for dry rot and silks for shattering.

• Look for weakness at underarms, shoulders, and waist seams.

• Inspect lace, netting, and linings. They tend to be in poor condition while the rest of the garment may be strong.


• Look for heavy metals. Silks were often “weighted,” or treated with tin or lead to give the fabric sheen and a fluid drape. The metals eventually deteriorate the fabric and cause shattering.

Note: Weighted silks should never be worn and are best preserved for study.

• Identify dry rot, which can be a problem with 1920s cottons.

1930s to 1940s

• Check bias cuts. Dress seams often split because of the flexibility of bias cuts. If the fabric is still strong, simply sew the seams again with new thread.

1950s to present

• Inspect the underarms. Fabrics in decent condition should be durable; however, if the fabric has been subjected to perspiration and subsequently cleaned, it will be weakened and may rip or shred easily.

Note about vintage fur

• Look for shedding. Avoid furs that shed. In particular, check the shoulders, across the back, and under the arms.

• Inspect for tears. If the skins are splitting, do not purchase.

Maintenance tips for vintage clothes
Once you have waved your magic sewing needle over a tattered flea market find and transformed it into a top-drawer fashion confection, take steps to ensure a long and lovely life.

Wearing to prevent repairing
(Tips courtesy of April Ainsworth of VintageVixen.com)

• Mindful movement. In our everyday lives, we? re used to wearing relatively disposable clothing made of super-strong synthetic fabrics. But with vintage, be mindful of the garment? s age and delicacy, and use small movements.

• Recommended frequency. A Victorian silk dress should only be worn for limited periods. A 1950s cotton sundress can brave a normal day’s activities. And a 1970s polyester pantsuit could probably be worn for weeks on end without showing a wrinkle!

• Mind the gap. Frequent wear of vintage clothing most often results in short gaps (less than an inch) in the seams. These gaps are usually caused by the breakdown of cotton thread and occur at points of stress, i.e., under the arms or at the waist. Luckily, they? re easily mended with reinforcement stitching.

Cautious cleaning
(Tips courtesy of April Ainsworth of VintageVixen.com)

• Vacuum (yes, vacuum). Short of not cleaning them at all, the best way to protect vintage garments while cleaning is to vacuum them with a fine screen or a stocking between the suction and cloth. This removes surface dust and debris.

• Wash by hand. If you need to launder the garment to wear it again, and it isn? t a rare collector? s item, wash it by hand. Tip: Better washing machines on the market today will also “hand wash” garments very well.

• Dry clean by hand. The spot-cleaning process simply involves dry cleaning fluid instead of water. Most dry cleaners don’t actually hand clean garments; that’s usually the territory of textile conservationists.

• Easy-does-it ironing. Ironing won? t cause most vintage garments to fall apart, but ironing is pressure on fabric, and pressure is stress. The best course of action is to iron gently and to do so only when absolutely necessary.

Safer storage
(Tips courtesy of Pamela Browne of VintageBaubles.com)

• Fold and re-fold. Don’t store delicate vintage garments? especially heavy beaded garments? on hangers. Instead, fold them in acid-free tissue paper. Re-fold every few months to prevent creasing.

• Eschew plastic. Don’t store vintage clothing in plastic. To keep dust off, cover them with cotton garment bags or old sheets.

• Hang belts on hooks. To prevent creases and to allow the leather to breathe, hang vintage belts on a belt hanger or a hook.

• Clean immediately. Clean stained or soiled clothing as soon as a mishap occurs. Storing soiled clothing will cause the stains to set in, and they will become much harder to remove.

• Fasten up. Be sure to fasten buttons, snaps, and zippers when you hang a vintage item. This will help the garment to hang properly, and prevent creasing and stretching.

• Avoid sunlight. Don’t store vintage clothing in sunlight. Even short-term exposure to the sun can bleach colors and destroy fabrics.

• Control temperature and humidity. The ideal temperature for storage is 65 degrees Fahrenheit with 50 percent humidity. If you live in a dry climate, consider placing a humidifier in the closet in which you store your vintage clothing.

• Repel moths naturally. Don’t use mothballs. They leave a permanent odor in garments. Instead, use an herbal moth repellant, such as MothAway (www.mothaway.com).

For more on the restoration of vintage clothing, see “Rejuvenate Your Beloved Garments” in the August/September 2007 issue of Threads (#132).


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  1. 10KSteps | | #1

    Maybe 15 years ago a lovely article in Threads featured a sewer who redesigned/updated existing garments. I particularly recall that coats were refashioned. I would love to read this article again, but I cannot find it. Does anyone else recall this article? I would appreciate help in locating it. Thanks.

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