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The Vintage Clothing Restoration Expert: ‘Stains give you a glimpse into the life of the individual who owned that item’

Read Thursday, 12 Sep 2019

By day, Clare* works in the fast-paced world of digital media in Los Angeles. By night, she restores vintage and antique clothing items to their former glory. She spoke with Clem Bastow about finding stories in stains, and how cleaning can be revolutionary.

Illustration of a Fels-Naptha-style soap bar with a label that reads 'BROWN STAIN / STRESS SWEATS, WORN CUFFS, PEN MARKS / GROSS, I KNOW, BUT HERE WE ARE'
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When did you first develop an interest in cleaning and reviving vintage clothing?

Five years ago I began seriously investing in vintage pieces. In this gradual acquisition, I ended up purchasing articles that were stained, discoloured, or in need of historical-technique mending. But this ‘damage’ didn’t faze me. I grew up with a mother who wielded a bar of soap she lovingly called ‘the stone’ (it’s Fels-Naptha) that took out nearly every stain, in every type of fabric. This miracle bar meant that, as a child, I looked at clothing with an ‘I can clean anything!’ mindset.

What’s the hardest thing to remove from clothing?

Wax. Anyone who’s spilt hot wax on their clothing can attest to the brutal staying power of oil and dye! When you encounter a decades-old stain like this, you’re in a whole new echelon of cleaning treatments. I’m talking Smithsonian conservation restoration level.  

Do you have any nightmare stories from your early trial-and-error cleaning sessions?

I once watched salt water dissolve vintage silk in my hands. Watching the fibres dissolve through my fingers was not unlike the Avengers looking on with shock and despair as their friends disappeared ever so gently into a million pieces.

Are stains and wear part of the ‘narrative’ of an item of clothing?

Absolutely! In many ways, stains and wear give you a glimpse into the life of the individual who owned that item. In my early days of cleaning self-education, I bought clothing from the Goodwill store for the sole purpose of testing out cleaning methods and solutions. Once, I found this early-eighties wedding dress. Polyester, machine lace, huge brown stain down the back of it. I loved this stain. It was so clearly in a position where, at some point during the reception, a guest failed at hugging the bride with their beverage in their right hand. I think it was champagne, as the tulle showed no oxidisation – likely because it was blotted away quickly and the sweat from the bride’s skin helped lift it right off. Gross, I know, but here we are.

I pray at the altar of white vinegar. Oh, holy base solution, protect our linens now and at the hour of our rinse cycles, Amen.

How do those narratives change according to the vintage of the piece of clothing?

For the most part we dress ourselves for the activities of the day in clothing made to best perform that activity. This is why you’ll encounter the same types of wear on some, and not all, vintage clothing. A work blouse commonly sports armpit stains (stress sweats) and worn cuffs. On party dresses, you’ll see non-descript beverage stains. Pen marks in jacket pockets tell of an owner whose mind is very busy elsewhere. Buttonholes worn where the body strains against the fabric signal an ill-fit and a stubborn personality. Now, I love finding mid-2000s jeans with back pockets that are worn perfectly into the shape of a cellphone. An early tech adopter was here.

In what way do you think cleaning is linked to mending and fixing; notions that have become endangered in a ‘fast fashion’ world?

Cleaning is one part of the clothing care trifecta: Cleaning, Mending, Preservation. Master all three and it’s likely your clothes will outlast your lifetime. The caveat to this trifecta is that fabric quality plays a major role in how well it can withstand these processes. Luxury, couture and boutique garments tend to consist of high-quality, impeccably engineered proprietary fabrics made to stand the test of time.

Much of today’s ‘fast fashion’ won’t last more than ten washes. If you’re thinking of donating a fast-fashion item to a second-hand shop, consider first: could it be used as a cleaning rag instead? A lot of donated fast-fashion textiles never make it back on the rack.

Fast fashion is a huge issue, but how has cleaning technology affected our ability (or desire) to maintain and restore our clothing?

The advent of smarter washing machines and detergents has done away with needing to know the many ways to clean your clothing. The irony is these very inventions are rough on modern clothing. If you want your clothing – new or vintage – to last, you need to hand wash … I’m all for having a variety of detergents for different clothing. I have different solutions mixes for cotton, delicates and poly-blends and linen.

What are the broader environmental benefits of cleaning and restoring vintage clothing?

When you purchase existing fashion (vintage, antique, second-hand) you opt out of perpetuating the ‘fast fashion’ cycle. The textile industry is a major global pollutant. There’s more clothing on this planet now than in all of history combined. A good portion of that includes clothing made post-industrial revolution and pre-Reagan. That clothing still exists! Some of it you can still wear right now!

Do you have a dream (or ‘final boss’) restoration challenge?

If you mess up a quilt, you can brace yourself for years of bad luck from its maker. (Doesn’t matter if they’re alive or dead, they’ll haunt your ass).

Quilts. The ultimate do-not-clean item. They’re handmade, bulky, labour-intensive and – most likely – heavily guarded by magic. If you mess up a quilt, you can brace yourself for years of bad luck from its maker. (Doesn’t matter if they’re alive or dead, they’ll haunt your ass). I’ve recently inherited a quilt my grandmother handmade for a church silent auction. Sadly, none of the fabric was pre-washed before my Nana made it, and in many areas the fabric is bleeding. It came with two pillow cases that I’m currently test-treating … but I’m a very long way away from touching the queen-sized quilt.

Have you any secret cleaning solution recipes you’re willing to share?

I pray at the altar of white vinegar. Oh, holy base solution, protect our linens now and at the hour of our rinse cycles, Amen. This is an excellent cleaning solution for sweat stains or removing oxidised yellowing in cottons and linens: Soak the discoloured area in white vinegar for about 20 minutes. Remove garment from vinegar. If you can, leave it in direct sun as you prepare the next step. Using a mild soap, create a toothpaste-like mixture with baking soda. Using a toothbrush (or your finger), massage that into the stained already. Rinse out mixture using 50% hydrogen peroxide, 50% water. I dilute the peroxide because it does weaken fibres at full strength.

Finally, there is sweat all over my (bright pink polyester chiffon) Year 12 formal dress. The underarm region is now a murky grey, waxy zone that makes me sad in my heart. Is there any hope for it, and by ‘it’, I mean ‘me’?

Good news! Polyester is quite durable, and this stain is an oil base that can be treated head-on due to the type of fabric. I recommend a short bath in warm (not hot!) water with white vinegar (about one cup) followed by a hand wash sudsing with an oxygen-detergent – anything with sodium perborate, sodium percarbonate, or hydrogen peroxide as ingredients. Then lay flat on a towel and gently roll the towel up, soaking up the water. Unroll, and hang on a drying rack or on a flat surface. 

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