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How to Clean Vintage Clothing Safely

A sweater hangs on a rack outside with an arrow that reads vintage hung over top.
Anna Svetlova/Shutterstock.com

If you love vintage clothing, you’ve probably run into one major problem: figuring out how to safely clean those garments. Fortunately, a few simple tips can put you on the path to finding the right care steps for your treasured vintage finds.

Cleaning vintage clothing can be a tricky process, especially if the items don’t come with clear care instructions or labels. There are two major issues in the process: figuring out whether the clothes can be washed at all, and figuring out how exactly to wash them if the answer is yes. Let’s take a closer look at how you can decipher the needs of your latest vintage finds.

How to Determine If Vintage Clothing Can Be Washed

A woman hand washes clothing.

Not all vintage clothing can be washed anymore, at least not by at-home methods. Depending on how old the clothing is, it may or may not be easy for you to determine how to wash it on your own.

First, give the items a close overview to see their general state. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Does the fabric feel soft and flexible, or dry and brittle?
  • Are there any obvious points of damage, unraveling, or previous mending?
  • Are any elements, like buttons or embellishments, missing anywhere?
  • If there are fastenings like buttons or zippers, is there any damage around them?

Next, start by checking the items to see if they have tags or care labels. Newer vintage pieces—let’s call them “retro” instead—are more likely to have tags with more information. If they don’t, or if they have tags but without modern care instructions, you have a few options.

  • If they have any tags or labels at all, you can try researching online to see if you can find a match for your garments.
  • If they don’t have labels or you can’t find helpful information online, you can look for a seamstress or vintage clothing shop in your area that might have more knowledge.
  • If it’s a particularly complex piece—with lots of embroidery or beading, or made from hard-to-clean materials like velvet or fur—skip all this and take it straight to professionals who have experience with cleaning vintage pieces.

Method 1: Put in the Freezer

A peach-colored sweater in a plastic bag going into the freezer
Amanda Prahl / LifeSavvy

While not a standalone cleaning method, the freezing method can definitely help to give your vintage clothing a head start. Because most vintage clothes aren’t pre-cleaned by their sellers, especially if you’re buying them from a secondhand or thrift shop (rather than a private seller), there’s no way to tell when they were last cleaned or what might be on their surfaces.

Whether it’s something as basic as a musty smell or something more unpleasant, like mold or silverfish, it’s important to keep your newly-acquired vintage pieces separate from your clean closet or dresser until they’re thoroughly cleaned. One way to start tackling these issues—at least the pest problem—is to pop them in a sealed, freezer-safe plastic bag and put in the freezer for three to four days.

Ziploc Two Gallon Food Storage Freezer Bags

These extra-large food-storage bags can store most items of clothing.

Method 2: Hand or Machine Wash

Laundry in mesh bags; sweaters laid out on a mesh drying rack in a living room
BAGAIL/Storage Maniac

If you’ve looked into the garment’s fabric type and assembly and have determined that, taking all that into consideration, it’s safe to wash “traditionally,” then you can wash by hand or by machine. Just be sure to take all possible precautions to be super-careful—any vintage or retro item, by its very nature, is a little more fragile than something you just bought today.

If you choose to machine wash, follow these steps:

  1. Place the garment in a mesh lingerie bag for better protection.
  2. Wash using a gentle laundry detergent, on the gentlest cycle and coldest water setting.
  3. Let air dry. Lay the garment flat on a drying rack or other flat surface to avoid it becoming misshapen from a hanger or from its own weight.

BAGAIL Set of 5 Mesh Laundry Bags

Protect vintage items during the wash cycle.

STORAGE MANIAC Sweater Drying Rack

Let air circulate around garments for faster air-drying.

If you’re washing by hand, the process is similar, just with these steps:

  1. Fill a sink or tub with cool water.
  2. Add a small amount of gentle laundry detergent.
  3. Submerge the garment and gently work the soapy water into the fabric.
  4. Empty the tub, refill with cool, clear water, and rinse.
  5. Let air dry on a flat surface.

Seventh Generation Concentrated Laundry Detergent

Gentle and scent-free for cleaning without leaving residue.

Method 3: Spray Bottle Wash

A person sprays a piece of clothing using a spray bottle.

The spray bottle “wash” is a favorite among many people who deal with delicate or complicated clothing pieces; it’s a common method for theater costumes and similar pieces. This method primarily deals with odors, not stains or dirt, so keep that in mind if you choose to use it.

The idea, in general, is to help kill some of the odor-causing bacteria on the clothes and evaporate away some of those compounds when the spray evaporates. As you might notice, this doesn’t deal with other issues like body oils, dirt, stains, and so on, so consider this more of an “and” method rather than the “only” cleaning method.

The first version uses rubbing alcohol and a few quick steps:

  1. Fill a spray bottle with a solution of half rubbing alcohol, half room-temperature water.
  2. Spritz over the clothes in question, paying particular attention to areas that come into contact with particularly sweaty parts of the body.
  3. Let air dry.

Sally's Organics Empty Clear Glass Spray Bottles

Environmentally friendly and easy to clean and reuse.

Dealmed Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol 70%

Helps disinfect and carry odors away with evaporation.

The alternative is a solution using our old friend, white vinegar, and almost identical steps:

  1. Fill a spray bottle with a solution of one part white vinegar to two parts room-temperature water.
  2. Spritz over the clothes in question, paying particular attention to areas that come into contact with particularly sweaty parts of the body.
  3. Let air dry.

Lucy's Family Owned Natural Distilled White Vinegar

Get rid of odors without damaging fabric.

As much fun as it is to find incredible vintage clothing, keeping it clean can be a challenge. Armed with these tips, you’ll have a head start on knowing just how to care for those gorgeous retro finds.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to LifeSavvy. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Her articles have appeared on HowlRound, Slate, Bustle, BroadwayWorld, and ThoughtCo, among others. Read Full Bio »
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