5 tips for cleaning antique clothing

July 28, 2015

Cleaning antique clothing is an exercise in avoiding modern conveniences, which are generally too harsh for fragile fabrics. This is easy-does-it handwork.

5 tips for cleaning antique clothing

1. Start with a sponge bath

  • But before you start, fix any tears in the fabric — otherwise the stress of cleaning will make matters worse.
  • Then mix a squirt of mild detergent in 4 litres (4 quarts) of water and dab the solution on gently with a sponge.
  • Rinse by sponging on clean water.
  • Try not to get the garment sopping wet.

2. To remove browning or stubborn stains

  • Treat stains that don't respond to a sponge bath, treat them by soaking in a dilute solution of hydrogen peroxide until the stain disappears.
  • You can also dissolve 10 ml (2 tsp) of borax in 1.5 litres (6 cups) of hot water, and soak the garment in the solution until clean.
  • Then rinse with fresh water until the rinse water comes clean.
  • If your tap water is hard, use distilled water for rinsing instead so that minerals won't discolour the fabric.

3. Drying an antique garment

  • This is a delicate operation: Never wring antique fabric. Lay it flat to dry if at all possible.
  • Be careful when moving a wet garment, especially lace or other fragile fabrics. Just the weight of the water can tear the fibres.
  • To move the garment, lay it on a bed sheet and carry the sheet.

4. Storing a fragile garment

  • This also requires special care.
  • Don't starch an antique garment before storing it. Starch attracts insects and stresses the fabric along folds.
  • If possible, store the garment spread out flat.
  • If space doesn't permit flat storage, roll it up. Rolling the garment around an object isn't necessary, but if you use wood or a cardboard tube, beware — they could brown the fabric.
  • Protect the cloth from any such material (wood drawers and cardboard boxes, for example) with sheets of acid-free tissue paper (available from specialty paper shops, scrapbooking suppliers, bridal dry cleaners and specialty suppliers of library or conservation materials).
  • Don't store your garment in a plastic bag — it needs to breathe.

5. Caution

  • Don't take articles of antique clothing to a regular dry cleaner. The chemicals that dry cleaners use are too harsh, and their pressing techniques may stress the fabric too much.
  • If you really need professional help, find a dry cleaner that specialises in old fabrics, or contact a textile conservator in a major city museum.
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