How to Clean Vintage Clothes!

Dominique de Merteuil By Dominique de Merteuil8 min read

January 7, 2020

Last Updated on August 10, 2023 by Dominique de Merteuil

Home » Vintage Fashion Tips » How to Clean Vintage Clothes!

How to Clean Vintage Clothes-Beginner’s Guide

In this article, I will show you how to clean vintage clothes and get rid of yellow stains, as well as red wine spots, from your precious vintage garments.

You will also learn what vintage fabrics can and can’t be hand-washed and what detergent to use for vintage delicates.

I will share my tips on how to clean vintage clothes without causing any damage to the fabric.

If you are new to the It’s Beyond My Control blog, welcome!

Most of my clothes (about 95%) are from the 1930s to the late 1950s and need special care when it comes to cleaning and storing. You can, of course, apply all tips presented in this article to clothes made much later.

how to date vintage clothes


If you are not sure about the age of your vintage garment, and there are no care tags attached, take a look at the in-depth article I wrote pertaining to dating vintage clothes.

Most Frequently Asked Questions About Washing Vintage Clothes

Can I hand wash all vintage clothes?

No! There are vintage fabrics that should never come into contact with water because of a high possibility of shrinkage or fabric bleed. If you hand wash a crepe-textured vintage garment or wool, it might survive the bath but it will only fit a child. Same with Cashmere. However, the latter can be reshaped with a soak in cold water and a few tablespoons of hair conditioner. I managed to reshape the 1940s CC41 rayon dress with the help of a cheap drugstore hair conditioner. CC41 Utility Clothing Scheme. Vintage fashion blog.

Is it 100% safe to send vintage clothes to the dry cleaner?

The simple answer is, no. You should only use a dry cleaner experienced in handling vintage and antique clothes. And even that’s not a guarantee that your vintage garment won’t be damaged in the process. Antique and vintage silk might shatter or deteriorate over time. It might be because of the quality of the fabric, dry rot or bad storage practices.
Victorian mourning cape

The Right & Wrong Way of Caring For Vintage Clothes

Caring for vintage clothing can be a rather daunting and nerve-wracking experience. In particular the washing part, but it doesn’t have to be.

Not so long ago, I wrote an in-depth article about “How to store vintage clothing like a pro”.

How to store vintage clothes the right way.

For the purpose of giving my readers the best advice on storing vintage, I interviewed a textile conservator with over twenty-five years of experience in handling antique textiles in museums.

I hope that the article will help answer all your questions regarding the dos and don’ts when it comes to storing vintage clothes the proper way.

Proceed with Caution when Washing Vintage Clothes

Before you jump to my exciting article about storing vintage clothes like a pro, let’s talk about cleaning first. After all, that’s why you are here!

How to clean vintage clothes

Proceed With Caution When Washing Vintage Clothes

Please, be very careful when implementing any of the tips provided in this article.

If you are not 100% sure about the content of the fabric in your garment, speak to an experienced dry cleaner.

Machine Washing Vintage Clothes

If your garment is from the 1970s or later it will definitely have a care label unless it fell off.

Vintage fabrics from the 70s and the 80s that can be machine-washed on a delicate wash cycle are;

How to clean vintage clothes like a pro.

Cotton-the print on the fabric might fade though and there is always the risk of shrinkage.

Pure Vintage polyester (my most hated fabric!) can be machine-washed.

Pure vintage linen- you can try machine washing on a very delicate cycle but as is the case with cotton, shrinkage may occur.

Picture from Google Arts & Culture. ‘American Housewife’ Life magazine, 1941.


I strongly advise that you always choose to hand wash your vintage clothes over machine washing, even if the latter is acceptable. Why risk accidental damage? You will prolong the life of your precious clothes by caring for them the proper way.

I always place the new to me vintage garments made of wool in the freezer for at least 24 hours to avoid the risk of a moth infestation!

Rules for Hand Washing Vintage Clothes

Not all vintage garments can be hand washed!

Fabric shrinkage and bleeding are the two main catastrophes that may occur when washing & drying vintage clothes the wrong way.

•Never use water on vintage velvet, moire pattern, crepe or sequins ( especially if they are made of gelatine), because they will melt! Sequins can also be damaged during dry-cleaning so my advice would be NOT to clean any garment embellished with sequins. Spot cleaning is the only option.

•Use a wet Q-tip and rub the colours you want to test for bleed. If the colour transfer occurs do NOT immerse the garment in the water!

Hand Wash One Vintage Item at a Time!

I’m always extremely careful when hand-washing vintage but mistakes happen, even to me.

Once, I didn’t think to do a test on the label attached to my 1950s dress and of course, a bleed occurred.  Luckily, only the inner side of the white collar suffered from the red tag attack.

I took a close-up picture of the damage to show you what happens when you don’t ‘think pink’ when washing white clothes with a red tag.

how to clean vintage clothing

1. Before you immerse vintage clothes in water, always follow my recommendation for checking for colour bleed (instruction above) and possible shrinkage.

2. You should always hand-wash vintage clothes in a clean sink because you don’t want dirt or possible grease to transfer onto your clothes.

Never Wash Vintage Clothes in Hot Water

how to hand wash vintage clothes

3. Remember, only ever wash delicate vintage garments in tepid water. And for the love of all vintage, fill the sink with water before you put your clothes in it. I can’t stress this enough, don’t risk placing your vintage garment under running water or you may cause damage to the fabric!

Vintage fabrics that can be hand-washed are; cotton, rayon, pure silk and pure wool, although I always send my woollen garments to the dry cleaner.

4. Metal can rust in water and some of the vintage sellers I know do as far as removing the zipper beforehand. I don’t go to that extreme but be aware that this may happen.

5. Consider removing buttons.

DISCLOSURE; As of October 2021 (one year after I published this article), I’m part of an affiliate program and I get a commission for purchases made through some of the links in this post. When you buy a product via the link in my post, you are helping to keep my website alive for which I’m very grateful!

Best Detergent for Handwashing Vintage Clothes

My personal favourite laundry detergent for washing vintage clothes!

Someone asked me recently about the type of detergent I use on vintage clothes that can be hand-washed, such as cotton. I love and can wholeheartedly recommend Eucalan Wrapture (Jasmine) or Lavender. The detergent smells divine and doesn’t require a rinse! I also use it to wash all my precious vintage and contemporary lingerie.

*Tip for making your clothes smell fresh!

I put a tiny amount of Eucalan into a travel-size spray bottle, mix it with water, and gently spray all my clothes hanging in the wardrobe. I avoid spraying it on clothes made of silk because of the danger of a water ring.


How to wash vintage clothes

How to Wash Vintage Lingerie

Take a look at an article I wrote with step-by-step instructions on how to wash delicate vintage and contemporary lingerie.

best detergent for delicates
How to wash vintage clothes! Best natural detergent for delicates.

How to Clean Vintage Clothes

Best Stain Removal for Vintage Clothes!

Retro Clean is a little miracle worker that works wonders on yellow stains. It’s a very gentle cleaning product for all washable fabrics.

•Before you soak the garment in Retro Clean, wash it in Eucalan detergent or any other product you like and trust.
•Dissolve three tablespoons of Retro Clean in one gallon of warm but not hot water.
•Soak the garment in the water for anything from a few hours to 48 hours.
•Check the progress every now and again.

Best product for removing yellow stains from white clothes.
Retro Clean stain remover for all washable fabrics.

how to remove yellow stains from clothes and linens
Retro Clean removed all the yellow stains from my bedspread.

How to Remove Stains from Vintage Clothes

Time needed: 5 minutes

Tips on How to Clean & Wash Vintage Clothes

  1. Prevent your vintage clothes from getting dirty! I always wear a Kleinert’s dress shield under a vintage garment.

    It’s easy to wash and I never have to worry about perspiration stains.

    taking care of vintage clothes

  2. The dry cleaner comes to the rescue when you are unsure how to clean vintage clothes.

    I urge anyone new to the world of vintage clothing, to get a recommendation from a well-established local vintage seller, as to the best dry-cleaners, experienced in handling antique and vintage garments!

    I dry clean all my 1940s and 1950s skirt suits made of wool. The only exception is the 1952 Handmacher suit with a decorative collar.
    1950s Handmacher suit

  3. Stain removal tips.

    The long-anticipated book, Wear Vintage Now! by Margaret Wilds is finally out! And it’s filled with handy tips on removing different types of spots, odours and wrinkles from vintage clothes. It’s a must-read for all the ladies who are starting their adventure in wearing vintage!How to clean vintage clothes.

  4. How to remove oil and grease spots.

    Brilliant advice from the Wear Vintage Now! book I wholeheartedly recommend to all of you.
    how to remove grease from vintage

  5. How to remove wine and coffee stains.

    It depends on how fresh the stain is but as Margaret pointed out in her book, any stain remover will do. I sprinkled fresh wine spots on a pillow cover and upholstered sofa with salt and it worked like a charm but I wouldn’t recommend doing it on a vintage garment as the salt could damage the fabric. Perhaps it’s best to stay away from red beverages when wearing precious vintage. 😉how to remove wine spots from clothes

  6. How to clean vintage clothes! The miracle worker for fresh red wine stains!

    Carbona Stain Devils Coffee Tea & Juice stain remover saved my 1950s blouse. I don’t have a ‘before’ picture to show you, but trust me when I say it worked like a charm!how to clean vintage clothes

How to Get Rid of Odour in Vintage Clothes

I find that the best way to freshen up a vintage or antique velvet gown or cape is to hang it in a steamed bathroom. I always place a bowl filled with vinegar under the garment (I make sure that the clothing is not touching the liquid!) to get rid of the bad odour.

It’s not always with a 100% success rate but it definitely helps. This method is good for any type of fabric as long as it’s not in direct contact with vinegar. Baking soda is another little miracle worker in getting rid of unpleasant smells.

Some people advocate spraying clothes with vodka in order to get rid of bad odour. I’ve recently heard that in the long run, it can cause damage to the fabric. I will definitely update this information when I gather more reliable data.

how to clean vintage clothes

For now, I shall keep vodka for my Cosmopolitan!

Find extra tips on caring for vintage in my article “How to take care of vintage clothes”


If you enjoy reading my posts and would like to support the It’s Beyond My Control Blog, please consider donating to my book fund. Thank you!

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  • Michelle
    September 3, 2023

    Hello! I’m new to the world of vintage, so I’m reading up on how to care for these garments to keep them in good condition and make them last. I really have enjoyed reading your blog and have already bought both some Eucalan and Retro Wash. I was wondering what you recommend for lubricating an old zipper on vintage clothes.

    • Dominique de Merteuil
      September 4, 2023

      Hello and welcome to the vintage fashion world! It’s great to hear that you enjoy reading my blog and I hope you’ll love Eucalan and Retro Wash as much as I do. Out of curiosity, which scent did you choose? If you’re dealing with a stubborn old zipper, a simple trick is to use candle wax. Just run the candle along the teeth of the zipper and it should work wonders. This technique has been passed down from my mom for 40 years, and I’ve found it to be very effective. If there’s any wax residue left, you can easily clean it off with an old toothbrush. By the way, some people use bar soap or graphite, but I recommend avoiding graphite as it can stain your fabric if not used carefully.

      • Michelle
        September 5, 2023

        Hello Dominique,
        Thanks for responding to my question. I bought the lavendar eucalan abd have already soaked some vintage clothes in it. It smells divine!

        • Dominique de Merteuil
          September 6, 2023

          I’m not entirely sure why, but I tend to use Eucalan jasmine in spring and summer and lavender in autumn and winter! Both smell divine!

  • Throwback Vault
    April 20, 2023

    I absolutely love reading your blogs!

  • Alison Cloonan
    October 4, 2022

    A great post on a hard topic of cleaning vintage clothes which I have found very useful. Will definitely look at that retro clean.

  • Sam
    May 25, 2022

    Thank you for recommending the Retro Clean detergent. How did I not know about it?! I was about to throw away my white cotton dress covered in yellow spots but the detergent helped.

  • Priscilla Garcia
    April 16, 2022

    Hi, Dominique, Thank you for the article, but I have a question. I brought a vintage black slip with tulle lining, and I soaked it in Delicate Woolite two times. The problem is that it leaves a yellow color still even after the two soaks. I read that the clothing is clean once the water is clear. Am I damaging the slip, and what can I do? Sorry I am still learning how to care for vintage items properly,

    • Dominique de Merteuil
      April 16, 2022

      Hi Priscilla,
      Firstly, please be very careful when cleaning your precious vintage garments. Oh, the horror stories I could tell you about what happens with vintage lingerie when not handled properly! I’m not going to get into any great details, but once, I foolishly placed 1940s rayon knickers under running water, which you should NEVER do. I was in such a hurry, I wasn’t thinking straight, and suffice to say, I paid the price. The rayon disintegrated within seconds. πŸ™

      Secondly, sometimes it takes more than two soaks before the water is clean. I have a 1940s dress that had to be soaked six times! If your slip has yellow spots, although I’m not sure how you could see them on a black fabric, use my favourite cleaning product, Retro Clean. I don’t know how I could have forgotten to include the product in the article!

      Last but not least, I have a couple of vintage dresses, that even though I soaked for more than a day, still leave a yellow colour. I didn’t want to risk damaging the dresses so I decided that a 24-hour soak, with changing the water three times, was enough. What can I tell you, the dresses are clean, and they smell lovely.

      You can try another soak in Woolite, use Retro Clean or leave it as it is. If the slip is very precious to you and the tulle trim delicate, perhaps it’s not worth the risk.


      • Priscilla
        April 21, 2022

        Hi Dominique

        I brought some retro clean, soaked the slip for a day, and then soaked it again. Then I washed it in Laundress Delicate Wash, and Now I have a spotless clean slip. I would definitely recommend the Retro Clean and laundress. Thank you for the recommendation.


        • Dominique de Merteuil
          April 21, 2022

          Hi Priscilla,
          I’m so happy to hear that it worked for you! Retro Clean never disappoint. I used it a couple of days ago on an antique bed throw, and after one soak, it turned from cream colour to white. πŸ™‚

  • Marissa
    March 9, 2022

    Ah! I’m so glad I found your blog! Feel like I’m going to be lost in all your posts for the next few hours. πŸ™‚

    Purchasing some of that soap from your link now. The spray bottle tip is amazing, thank you for all this information!

  • Dorinda Kay Grandbois
    January 9, 2022

    I just purchased a heavy velvet Victorian cloak with a metal neck frame from a Vintage clothing shop. The fabric is in excellent condition, but it soaked up the mustiness from the surrounding area. If I use vinegar, will it absorb that smell? How would I use the baking soda you mentioned?

    • Dominique de Merteuil
      January 9, 2022

      Lucky you! I LOVE Victorian cloaks and capes. Yes, place a bowl filled with vinegar under the cloak and leave it in the bathroom for a day. That should absorb the smell.

      Baking soda is known for removing odour in the fridge, and the same goes for the musty smell of clothes. In case of bad smells in the fridge, you open a box of soda and leave it inside the fridge for as long as it’s needed. When it comes to clothes, you are supposed to pour a little bit of baking soda in a plastic bag that will fit the garment, tight it up and leave for the night.

      I DON”T like to place antique or vintage garments inside a plastic bag, or even near a plastic bag, so I do the fridge trick of pouring a lot of baking soda in a bowl placed under the garment and I leave it for a day or two.

      If you are curious why I’m so averse to plastic when it comes to vintage clothes, please take a look at my; How to Store Vintage Clothes Like a Pro! article.

  • julia ramos
    August 5, 2020

    i just bought a beautiful evening gown would love info on it the year?

  • karen
    April 2, 2020

    The blogs you produce incurs the much to my knowledge. The skills that are established strongly on the knowledge are very much in demand. I would like to add that your writings adds knowledge to my skills.

  • Thomas Michel
    January 21, 2020

    The blogs you produce incurs the much to my knowledge. The skills that are established strongly on the knowledge are very much in demand. I would like to add that your writings adds knowledge to my skills.

  • Gata Collins
    January 9, 2020

    Your blog is everything needed for a vintage lover! Great!

  • Sophie
    January 7, 2020

    Love all the tips you share on the blog!!!

    I’ve used vodka to get rid of bad odour from clothes many times and it worked every time. I’m a little bit worried about what you said though… That it might cause damage to the fabric?
    Curious what your “investigation” will show.

    • Dominique de Merteuil
      January 7, 2020

      Thank you!!!

      I will update the article as soon as I have enough data to prove or disprove the claim that vodka might cause damage to the fabric.

    • Anisa
      July 31, 2023

      Love your style and looking forward to more of your articles and blogs!!