Experience, the Best Teacher

A kind reader asked for a post on caring for old clothes and I referred her/him to a series Maggie at Denisebrain has been writing. There’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel here, as Maggie is in the process of laying it all out, care-wise. But I thought I would share with you some of the mistakes I have made or heard about, and so now you will never have to make them.

1. Never take a sequin for granted. At times in the past, mainly the 1930s and early 40s, sequins were made from gelatin. When exposed to heat or moisture, the gelatin sequins tended to melt. If immersed in water, they turn into a slimy clump of gel. Never put an old sequined dress in water without first testing for melting. Snip off a sequin to sacrifice to the water gods, and if after ten minutes or so you still have a sequin, then it is made of metal or a newer plastic substance and is probably safe for washing.

2.  All white cotton fabrics can’t be bleached with chlorine. For some reason exposure to chlorine will turn some cottons purple. Always do a tiny test spot before using bleach on any fabric, or be smart and stay away from bleach entirely. And if anyone knows the why of this purple phenomenon, I’ve love to know it.

3.  Never put a knit on a hanger. I knew this, but apparently a major fashion collection did not and when they inherited a slew of Rudi Gernreich knits from the 1960s and 70s, all the clothes were neatly hung and promptly forgotten. Several years later a new-to-the-museum worker stumbled across the collection hidden away in a closet or corner, and she was struck by how long all the clothes were. The first thought was that the donor was a very tall woman, but no, these actually came from the Gernreich archive. Over the course of just a few years the clothes had grown over a foot.

4. Keep your nice clothing in the dark. I have been to house sales where a rack of clothing was stored in a room with a window. The dresses on the ends of the rack would be completely trashed – brittle and faded – due to exposure to light. The others would be in pristine condition except for the line of extreme fading at the shoulders where the light could hit the dresses. Adding to the degradation was that these are usually stored on nasty wire hangers.

5.  Back in the 1980s when rayon became fashionable again, my mother warned us not to buy it. She had a friend in school (1940s) who bought a new rayon dress and the first time she wore it she was caught in a downpour. As the dress started to dry the wearer watched as the dress crept up her leg, getting shorter and shorter. She barely made it home with her dignity intact.  Not all rayons will shrink in this way, but rayon crepe is notorious for it.

6.  You cannot save a silk that has started to shatter. Period.

7. Likewise, if a fabric has a dark stain accompanied by little scattered holes, there is no hope for that stain. And even if there was hope, you’d be left with those pesky little holes.

8. Using an iron on any old textile is very risky. Old synthetics are not as stable as the modern fabric we are used to, so unless you like melted nylon or permanent iron prints on the rayon, invest in a steamer. For some reason, old navy dyes love to change to a deep reddish purple.

Since I don’t wear most of the old clothes in my possession, I’m not very aggressive about stains and small amounts of damage. I will do repairs, using only materials that can safely be removed in case a later owner wants to change my method of repair. This pretty much means I repair only with a needle and thread.  I also will restore an object if later alterations have made a big difference in the way the object would need to be displayed. Again, I only do things that could be reversed, and I document the changes in my records.

Does anyone have a good textile disaster story they’d like to share?


Filed under Collecting, Viewpoint

16 responses to “Experience, the Best Teacher

  1. I have stored folded clothes in an old cedar chest and ended up with stains along the fold lines…. Not good. And, if you are tempted to use moth balls… read https://envisioningtheamericandream.com/2018/05/01/memories-coming-out-of-mothballs/ — some are flammable, others carcinogenic….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amanda

    If a dress has an attached lining … do not wash it. Either the lining or the material in the dress itself may shrink. Ruined a good one that way. GREAT post Lizzie – am going to share at the Vintage Fashion Guild Forum.


  3. All good points. I think most of us have learned the hard way when it comes to caring for our vintage pieces, I know a lot mentioned above has happened with some of the items I tried to salvage.

    Never keep your garments in plastic, the fabrics cannot breathe. A cotton sheet or cotton garment bag works best.


  4. Amy

    Completely second Mary Jane Enros’s comment and underscore that storage in a plastic bag, dry-cleaning bag or otherwise, is a definite no-no for leather and suede goods. I’d love – and appreciate – if you might give a description of what it means when silk “shatters” . . . I could Google it however it’s more interesting to lean on your authority first! 🙂


    • In the 1920s and earlier, lightweight silks were often soaked in a mineral solution to give then “weight”. These minerals often cut through the fibers of the silk, leading to a general deterioration called shattering. It’s evil.


      • Christina

        I have seen that explanation for shattering but have always understood that shattering is a result of a combination of the dyestuffs, environmental conditions, storage etc. Not one specific cause. Do you have any information about the mineral solution used for silks other than what is described in Wikipedia? I would appreciate the information.


        • Ill email you some pages from a 1923 book, Textiles and Clothing that has a good explanation. People were already experiencing problems with silk splitting even as the practice of weighting it with iron nitrate and tin continued. It was a major consumer problem of the time.


  5. Thank you for pointing your readers to my blog series on vintage care Lizzie, and for your own astute thoughts on the subject. I have never had that purple from bleach + white cotton experience…the horror!


  6. I knit my wedding dress, it was two pieces, a blouse and a skirt. Cotton. After 7 hours of wear the skirt had grown 6 inches. Luckiy, it started out short tea length so it only made it to my ankle bones!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Such a great article and such fabulous tips from everyone. I’ve learned never to allow a red garment, whether hanging or folded, to be in direct contact with another garment, even when it’s supposed to be color-fast.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gail

      That must be why I had strange red stains on a white blouse. Fortunately, it wasn’t vintage or expensive, but from now on I will keep my red clothes away from everything else. And r ed is my favorite color.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. kickshawproductions

    FABULOUS pic of the women in their boudoir caps!


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