Thrifting 101, Part 7: Cleaning Vintage (and Thrifted) Clothing

I have been blessed with the lovely combination of poor body awareness and an extremely short attention span. It's not unusual for me to bear the mark of a collision with my refrigerator, or nurse a head wound obtained when I forgot to close the cabinet door and wacked my skull against it. I've stubbed my toe of the corner of my bed so often that I'm surprised that foot can bear weight. Fortunately, I have no problem admitting that I'm a klutz. There, I said it. I'm Elissa and I'm a klutz (hi Elissa.) This poor body awareness also means that I spill things. A lot. In addition I mindlessly wipe my dirty hands on the back of my jeans, forget to wipe spills of my counters, and frequently walk around with leftover smudges of foundation and lipstick on my hands which naturally end up on my brand new white (insert-item-of-clothing-here.)

It was while mopping up yet another deluge of half-and-half off my counter (the result of missing contact with my coffee mug, because there was something so interesting on the teevee that I just had to see, something about a dog rescue or the weather or Charlie Sheen, you know how that goes) that it occurred to me I hadn't yet discussed how to clean thrifted and vintage clothes. If not for this sage advice I would be mistaken for a slovenly hobo most of the time. So today we're going to get clean.

Up to this point, Thrifting 101 has focused on tips for newbies and those dealing with the squick factor, advice regarding how to shop at a thrift store, thrifting for the clothing snob, recommendations for finding the best thrift and consignment stores, and a post about determining what days are the best for thrifting.

Vintage clothing goes through a lot before ending up on the racks at your favorite store. There are a lot of options in caring for clothing today, but not all of them may be right for your thrifted and vintage things. Before breaking out the Woolite or dropping things off at the dry cleaner,
  1. Check the label. Many vintage items do not have tags with washing instructions, so do not be surprised if your clothing doesn't either. However, if the item has a clear "DRY CLEAN ONLY" tag, do not attempt to throw it in your washing machine or even wash it  by hand. Bring it to a professional.
  2. Zip all zippers and fasten all buttons. You want to make sure the garment is properly fastened before washing.
Here are some options regarding cleaning your thrifted and/or vintage item:
  • Wash by Hand: The gentlest way to clean vintage clothing is to wash it by hand. It's very likely that hand washing was the original means of cleaning for your vintage item and it is often more effective than you may think. There are many gentle, do-it-yourself methods of removing stains that will not inflict the same amount of damage as a modern chemical based stain remover might. Here's a short list of cleaning methods by stain type (your mileage may vary depending on how long the stain has been on the garment):


    1. Makeup: Rub a slice of white bread over the stain (this really works!)
    2. Ring around the collar: Rub a mild shampoo into the stain, let stand for a few minutes, and rinse well. Bluing shampoos for gray hair like Shimmer Lights can also help counteract the yellow color of the stain. 
    3. Ballpoint Pen Ink: Place an absorbent towel under the item and saturate the fabric with an alcohol-based hairspray. The alcohol content will break up the ink. Blot the stain with a rag, and re-saturate and blot until the ink is removed.
    4. Perspiration stains: Apply a paste of 1 tbsp. cream of tartar, 3 crushed aspirins and  warm water. Leave on the stain for 20 minutes and rinse well when through.
    5. Coffee/tea: Soak the item in cold water. Mix a solution of 1 tbsp ammonia and 2 cups of water. Using a paper towel, blot the solution onto the spot until it is removed.
    6. Unknown stain: Rub with diluted hydrogen peroxide and rinse well.You can also try rubbing a mixture of diluted ammonia and glycerin into stain, rinse well when you're through.


          Cottons, nylons, and most polyesters are usually safe to hand wash. Hand washing in Woolite, Dr Bronner's Liquid Soap (thanks to Carrie of La Rizada for this tip!) or soap flakes is a smart first step in washing a vintage piece, keeping in mind that if it is not enough you can step things up by trying the methods above.


      • Removing Odors: It's more rare to find a thrifted item that doesn't smell than one that does. You could find the most pristine dead stock vintage item and still have it stick to high heaven from all those years of storage. However, it’s simple (and inexpensive) to resolve this problem with the most common of household items…vinegar! Just follow these steps: 

        1. Fill a bathtub half way with the hottest water possible. 
        2. Add 1 cup of distilled white vinegar to the hot water (if the odor is particularly strong, more vinegar can be used. 
        3. Hang the smelly clothing above the tub, as close to the water as possible without actually touching the water.
        4. Shut the bathroom door and leave overnight! When the clothing dries the odors will be substantially improved, if not gone forever. As an added bonus, any wrinkles will be gone right along with the odors.

      • Dry Cleaning: Vintage clothing will likely not have a “Dry clean only” tag, or any care instructions attached like our clothes do today. For certain types of fabric or an especially valuable piece, a professional cleaner may be necessary. If the item is made from two different types of fabric (e.g., a lining or facing,) contains metallic threads or is beaded, embroidered, sequined, or appliqu├ęd, it should most likely be dry-cleaned. Wool, velvet, and silk items should always be dry-cleaned too.

      Hopefully these tips will help keep your recently acquired thrifted and vintage purchases in tip-top shape. Leave a comment and let me know if you have other cleaning tricks for your clothing and accessories!


      1. Congrats on being born again! That's awesome. I'm non-demoninational, too, but I went to my parents Presbyterian church to experience the Ash Wed. service. It's funny because everyone talks about it like it's Catholic, but it's actually a Christian tradition with Biblical roots, but I've noticed that Catholics also practice it. Next year you should totally do it! It was so amazing.

      2. Oh gosh, so nice to finally meet a fellow clutz ;-) Hi my name's Ana and I'm a clutz too.
        Your series of posts on thrifting are immensely informative.

      3. I am a klutz too! Glad I'm not alone :)

        Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

      4. Think I'll have to try the vinegar trick on my thrifted cashmere sweater ($3). Took it to the dry cleaner since I wasn't sure on washing - got it back smelling like moth balls! Yuck. Thanks for the tips.


      I love my readers! Comments are welcomed and appreciated.