09 April, 2010

Dry-cleaning versus handwashing - avoiding disasters

I know this sounds strange, but I love handwashing my vintage clothes. I find it therapeautic for some reason (obviously I need to get out more!).  I also try to avoid dry cleaning, which is bad for the environment and can also fade clothes over time (I had a friend who dry cleaned a jacket that was part of a suit and handwashed the matching skirt - yes I know you're not supposed to do that - and the jacket faded a lot over several dry cleans). I also had a bad experience recently with a dry cleaner who damaged some buttons on a 1950's jacket - not good!

However, and this is a big however, you do need to be careful when hand-washing. I have had very fortunate luck with my handwashing over the years and cannot recall any disasters, but I had a very near-miss diaster earlier this week when I handwashed this lovely navy vintage capelet:

Because it wasn't lined and didn't 'look' like it needed to be dry-cleaned (there are no labels on it) and it looked and felt as if it was made of wool, I handwashed it in lukewarm water with some Lux flakes. However, the colour ran like crazy and the capelet kind of gave off a very strong wool odour (as if it was trying to tell me, don't wash me you idiot!). I got it out quick smart, rinsed it and dried it in the shade laying flat and it seemed to be OK, then when it was dry I took it to my local dry-cleaner. I realised in hindsight and by comparing it to other clothes in my wardrobe (plus a few mad google searches!) that it is wool crepe which should not be washed (colour runs, it is liable to shrink). Fortunately the capelet doesn't seem damaged at all by my negligent washing so in the end it was all OK, but thought I would pass on my experience to you all so you can avoid such disasters.

I have done a little more research into this so I can be more informed and careful in future hand-washing escapades and found some good resources on line. Nicole Jenkin's Love Vintage book (see this link for where to buy it) has a good laundering section including a chart of recommended care instructions and tips such as using cold water and handwashing liquid for clothes that run (see pp 218-225). I would also recommend the following internet pages:

From what I understand, you basically have to be careful with handwashing silk (colour can run), rayon (as it is made partly of wood pulp so can break in water) and wool crepe (see above!). I think everyone has to take their own approach to what cleaning they use on their vintage, as some people are better than dating clothes than I am. But my personal approach to these three delicate fabrics is to dry-clean them and handwash (in lukewarm water with a mild detergent) everything else. The only other thing that needs dry cleaning are of course suits, which can't be handwashed.

By the way, a good way of testing the colour fastness of a garment is to lightly press a slightly damp (not wet) cotton bud/cotton wool pad on an inconspicuous part of the garment (eg inside seam or hem) and see if any colour transfers on to it.  I actually did this with my capelet (after the near miss disaster and it was dry cleaned) and the cotton bud got navy colour on it straightaway so had I used this technique at the start I could have avoided the colour run in the first place!

Happy washing and please let me know any of your laundering disasters or tips!


  1. thank you so much for this post and great links! So many vintage lovers buy it, wear it and then go "oh, no! How do I wash this thing?!" I'm like you, I LOVE to hand wash my clothes! Back in my hippie fashion days, I had a lot of hand wash only skirts and blouses from India and I loves my weekly washing in my bath tub! I live in a townhouse now but I cant wait to buy a house with a yard so I can hang a clothes line!

  2. Thanks Brittany, yes nothing nicer than clothes that have that lovely 'line dry' fresh smell and feel. Thanks for reading, Maria

  3. Hand washed a 40s crepe dress, shrank into teeny tiny dress which I then put on while still wet to get back to my size... kinda worked, ripped the seams though :< argh! It's never gonna be the same! I love to handwash things too!

  4. Phew!! Lucky that your capelet survived. It is lovely. Yes it is always a dilemma whether to wash or dry clean vintage?? I for one dry clean rayon, crepe, silk and anything delicate. Everything else I wash and either dry inside or late in the afternoon if I need to get something dried quickly so the dye does not run.
    I have lost many vintage garments over the years through trial and error and some I have cried over that I have ruined. Its a gamble isn't it.
    I am lucky I have a good dry cleaner and have had 20 odd years of working it out.
    BTW patch testing is often a good idea.

  5. It's been a learning curve for us too. We think the nicest thing to do is include washing instructions for every item we sell. Takes the guesswork out of laundry day!