Winters Past

20th Century Fashion from Deco to Disco

Laundry Day

Buying and selling vintage clothing means I do a whole lot of laundry.

I wash most things in the bathtub, hang them up to dry, then steam them. Usually, that does the trick.

However, when clothing has been stored for decades, washing can get a little more complex. Lately, I’ve come across laundry issues that I’ve been able to remedy with concoctions of non toxic household products.

Here are a few tips for the intrepid.

This is  a good way to get rid of yellow underarms on vintage dresses and blouses: I make a paste with crushed aspirin and cream of tartar and rub it into the offending area. Sometimes I have to do this twice before the old stains melt away, but the success rate has been 100%.

vintage laundry

Two vintage laundry essentials

I had a few mens hats that needed cleaning beyond my usual steaming. I put the hat in a grocery bag and sprinkled in a good amount of cornstarch, then brushed it off with a wire brush. Et voila! Good as new.

vintage laundry

Corn starch and a wire brush for cleaning hats.

Have you ever come across clothing that isn’t colorfast? I’ve had some cotton dresses with colors that ran when I washed them. I had a fabulous dress with big white flowers on a yellow background. When I washed it, the yellow ran into the white, causing me to franticly google for a remedy. The cure was table salt, lots of it, and it worked, saving the white-and-yellow dress. Crisis averted!

Here is a re-post of a previous piece about doing laundry, vintage style:

Today, laundry tips and a few thoughts about laundry. I promise this is more interesting than it sounds.

When Peggy Lee asked Is that all there is? was she talking about laundry?

When Peggy Lee asked, Is that all there is? was she talking about laundry?

My mother, Phyllis, who is 92 years old, is a bookish sort. One of my earliest memories is watching her make coffee in a stovetop percolator and settle into a kitchen chair with a hefty book. There was no June Cleaver vacuuming in pearls and heels in our house; Phyllis was pretty detached housekeeper. When it came to laundry, she didn’t sort, she didn’t use any special products; she just threw it all in together on hot and hoped for the best. Clothing had to be tough if it wanted to survive in our house. Needless to say, Phyllis took the phrase “permanent press” at it’s word, meaning I never saw anyone iron my entire childhood. From her, I learned the joy of ignoring the mess and getting absorbed in a book.


My friend Frances’ mom was the complete opposite. First of all, her mother, Teresa, looked and dressed a bit like a young Sophia Loren. She smoked, teased her hair and wore eyeliner while doing housework. Watching laundry day at her house was an amazing sight. Teresa had a whole lot of complicated pile separation criteria. Her process involved some Fels Naptha laundry soap, which came in a bar and was used with an actual washboard to get out stains. And, almost unbelievably, she used a hand crank wringer-washer. Of course, there were clotheslines, wooden pins and woven baskets, which all seemed very old world and exotic to me.

If you get dressed up to do the laundry, when do you wash that dress?

If you get dressed up to do the laundry, when do you wash that dress?

I had a few things to figure out when I grew up, and laundry wasn’t high on the list, though I did get the basic sorting and temperature thing down pretty quickly. Lately, though, my own laundry situation has been complicated by my need to wash lots and lots of vintage clothes for the shop.

Here are a few of the things I’m learning by trial and error:

I always soak the garment in plain cool water to rejuvenate the fibers before using any products or even soap.    Sometimes there is residual detergent, fabric softener or starch that you don’t want to battle in the stain removal process. Change the water until it runs clear.

To get rid of a musty smell, I soak the garment in water with a heathy splash of vinegar, and rinse well. After I soak it,  put it out in the sun for a couple of hours. Fresh air and sunlight will freshen vintage textiles.

Wearing a pinafore is an important part of the process

Wearing a pinafore is an important part of the process

I sometimes pre-treat tough stains with club soda or carbonated water. There is something about the carbonation that helps loosen stains. Just drizzle the sparking water right on it. The water will fizz up; let it sit for a while. While you wait, you can drink the rest of the carbonated water and read a good book. Then  apply stain remover and rub gently. Wait a bit, rinse, then repeat if you need to.

My favorite product by far is Oxiclean. I use the powder, which I dissolve it in very hot water before adding cool water and the clothing. Make sure Oxiclean is dissolved before adding to delicate fabrics such as silk because a small granule sitting on the fabric can eat it away.

For yellowing age-stains in cotton I mix a solution of half Oxiclean and half dishwasher detergent in hot water. I use  1  Tbs. of each cleaner in a gallon of hot water and soak overnight.

Oxiclean will eat rayon and metallic threads, both of which were often used in vintage clothes. In this case, mix and dissolve powdered Biz and Dreft 50/50 in water as hot as you think your dress or blouse can stand, add the garment and let soak for a few hour or a few days. If the water gets dirty, rinse and start over. Some stains may take a week, but they eventually just ‘release’.

Sorting laundry as a bonding experience

Sorting laundry as a bonding experience

See, laundry isn’t so bad! Of course, if you tease your hair, apply some eyeliner and read a book while you do all of this, you’ll have the best of all worlds.

Author: Winters Past

I am a vintage clothing shop owner living and working in rural north Florida. I believe in adding a little vinegar and molasses to my greens, having my coffee outside whenever possible, and mixing something vintage into every room and every outfit.

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