clothes maintenance

The Most Eco Friendly Way to Wash Your Vintage

It is time to follow vintage vendors’ example and stop over-washing our (vintage) clothes. Less washing, more lifetime!
The Most Eco Friendly Way to Wash Your Vintage

It feels like not washing your clothes has been trending lately.

Fashion designer Stella McCartney has stated she is not a fan of washing her clothes. “Basically, in life, rule of thumb: if you don’t absolutely have to clean anything, don’t clean it. I wouldn’t change my bra every day and I don’t just chuck stuff into a washing machine because it’s been worn. I am incredibly hygienic myself, but I’m not a fan of dry cleaning or any cleaning, really”, she commented in an interview for The Guardian.

The most ecological thing you can do is to give your garment a long life: it means less washing, prompt stain removal, airing in between the wears, and hand-washing in cold water.

Most clothes aren’t dirty when we wash them. Washing the clothes too often is bad for the clothes and the environment.

“Any time a garment is washed it will cause the fibers to degrade a bit, thus decreasing its lifespan”, explains Allyson Hillerby of Birthday Life Vintage.

According to the Fast Company, washing machines account for 17% of our home water usage, and a quarter of a garment’s carbon footprint over the course of its lifetime comes from cleaning it.

What is too often then? Of course you should wash your garments every time they get soiled, dirty, or sweaty. But vintage clothes don't like to get washed every after use.

Vintage fans and collectors are trendsetters in this regard. They tend to wash infrequently and only when truly needed.

“I think people who collect older vintage garments are more likely to understand conservation. There are many older garments that are difficult to safely clean—for example, older silks. As such, knowledgeable collectors of these items are likely to be very mindful of how they clean their vintage clothing. But I'm sure there are people who wash their vintage clothing too often or wash their clothing in ways that cause more damage than they realize”, comments Stephanie Snyder, the owner of Blue Fennel Vintage.

Not-washing clothing often comes naturally to vintage collectors. “I’ve been wearing vintage so long that when I met my partner, I honestly didn’t realize that there were people who washed their day clothes after every wear, and was mildly horrified”, says Julie Bergmans of Fabgabs Vintage.

The number one rule in clothes maintenance is prevention and spot treating in between washes. Air your clothes after every use on a hanger; preferably outdoors to let the sun and fresh air do their magic.

Slips and old-school sweat guards will act as barriers between your body and your precious vintage dress.

Julie Bergmans recommends Kleinerts underarm guards which have been around for a hundred years! Of course you can make reusable guards yourself, too.

When the garment is clearly dirty and soiled it is time to get in action.

All the vintage vendors interviewed for this story agree that hand-washing is the most ecological way of doing the vintage laundry.

“Machine washing definitely loses this race - it’s just too harsh on clothing!”, says Allyson Hillerby.

“Soaking items before washing them and drying them outside is not only relatively gentle on clothing but it is ecologically friendly, too", reminds Stephanie Snyder, the founder of Blue Fennel Vintage.

And talking about soaking, you cannot rush the process but you also should not let clothes soak for hours.

“I’ve set things to soak in a bucket, only to remember several hours or a day later and find the color has bled...EVERYWHERE. I now set timers for myself so that I’m checking up on the fabric every 10, 15, or 30 minutes”, says Hillerby.

Doing laundry takes its time and this is a fact you better accept if you want to wear your clothes for many years to come.

“Sometimes I try to cut down on laundry time and wash items together and that almost always leads to some dye transfer fiasco. Always reminding myself to take the slow, careful approach”, Lily Greig of Love Charles vintage explains.

Cold water is a friend of almost all vintage fabrics. It helps to prevent color bleed, color fade, and shrinkage.

“No garment requires a warm wash. Some cleaners need to be dissolved or activated by warmer water, but once fully dissolved you can cool the water. Washing as cold as you can stand will always be the best route, as you can minimize the risk of bleeding and shrinkage”, Julie Bergmans emphasizes.

But water, cold or warm, can destroy some materials too.

“The absolute worst mistake I have ever done was more than ten years ago, and it still horrifies me. I tried to wash a 20s dress covered in gelatin sequins, which promptly dissolved in water. It was heartbreaking”, Bergman remembers.

Some materials like rayon are prone to tearing when wet. “Never stretch fabrics while wet (unless you are re-blocking knits) as the fibers are temporarily weakened by the water; just be patient and wait to use a steamer when it’s fully dry”, reminds Hillerby.

Gem Story image

But which detergent to choose for handwashing? Dawn dish soap seems to be vintage vendors’ favorite. “It's pretty gentle, doesn't have a fragrance, and is efficient for a quick hand wash. I don’t have to use very much of it and I can buy the large containers of it to cut down on plastic consumption”, says Greig.

According to Snyder, some items, such as velvets or structured wool coats, need to be professionally dry-cleanedsay.

"Try to choose an eco-friendly dry cleaner and make sure they are familiar with vintage", reminds Hillerby. “Few things hurt more in the vintage restoration game than misplaced trust in a dry cleaner.”

If you are uncertain how to wash your vintage gem, ask for a professional’s help. The least ecological thing you can do is to ruin your garment and toss it.

“If you ruin the garment, you are causing waste, and not only damaging vintage but also adding a piece to the landfill”, says Julie Bergmans.

Store owners interviewed for the story:
Stephanie Snyder, Blue Fennel Vintage
Allyson Hillerby, Birthday Life Vintage
Lily Graig, Love Charles Vintage
Julie Bergmans, Fabgabs Vintage