In my head, this was going to be the easiest part of this project – just dunk my garment in water, and all my problems would dissolve away! I’ve had to clean stains out of modern garments, and I know how pernicious they can be – there are endless websites devoted to sorting out everything from blood to grass stains. So I don’t know why I decided that removing completely unknown stains as well as general soiling from a 160+ year old garment would be a snap! Here I am now, though; older and wiser.
An acquaintance who is an expert in garment conservation advised that the best tactic is to start with the most gentle option first and move up from there. I’m quite experienced in hand-washing clothes — when I had to wear business clothes for my last job I hand-washed everything instead of dry-cleaning, and I hand-wash all my lolita dresses/blouses and other Japanese fashion garments. However, my normal hand-washing bin isn’t large enough for this nightgown, so first I had to clean the heck out of my bathtub.
I want to be clear that I scrub my tub every week, but in order to hand-wash in it I had to clean it without chemicals that might linger and cause problems. I broke out the trusty Bon Ami and went to work. Twenty minutes later the tub was cleaner than it’s been in ages (and my arms were tired), and I was ready to go. I poured a bath of cold water, added a small amount of fragrance-free Unicorn Wash, and gently saturated the nightgown. (My go-to for normal hand-washing is Delicate Wash from The Laundress, but it’s scented and sometimes scent additives can play havoc with antique textiles. So I went with the Unicorn Wash instead!) I left it for 20 minutes, and there was almost no change when I rinsed it out so I repeated the process only with a larger pour of Unicorn Wash.
There were slight improvements this time, but not nearly enough, so I upgraded to the next weapon in my arsenal – The Laundress’s All-Purpose Bleach Alternative. I add this to all my loads of normal laundry, and know that it’s very gentle. I activated it in a container of hot water, then poured the mixture into yet another cold water bath with the nightgown, and let it sit for another 20 minutes. (Why all the cold water, you may ask? There are quite a few categories of stain that will set permanently if exposed to heat. Therefore it’s better to start with cold water when you’re uncertain of the exact nature of the staining.)
At the end of this cycle, there were definite improvements. Overall the color was lighter, stains had faded, and particularly the collar was cleaner which I was very pleased to see. I found four new (or possibly previously-unseen) damages to the fabric – one tear on the hem, one vertical split in one of the lower gathers, one horizontal split on one of the upper pintucks, and some damage to the lace on the collar. I decided to call it a day, let it dry out (flat on towels on my plastic work table, then hung up in the morning to remove the last bit of dampness), and contemplated my next steps.
Some research turned up that my problem is not unique – naturally, many collectors and sellers of vintage and antique clothes face the issue of unwanted stains. After weighing my options and reading some reviews, I decided to try the highly-rated Vintage Textile Soak for another round of cleaning. It’s specifically formulated for vintage and antique textiles suffering from the precise issues my nightgown is: overall yellowing due to age, and brown spots due to the manner of its storage.
I want to take a moment to mention that to even reference the way in which this garment was previously stored is loaded, and I absolutely am not placing any judgement on anyone who owned this garment before me for its condition other than to be incredibly grateful for the fabulous shape it’s in considering its age. It’s almost impossible for an antique garment to not incur some damage/staining, especially past the century mark! Additionally, until I acquired it, I had no idea myself about proper storage procedures for antique clothing and would have certainly not stored it “properly.” I have a lot of clothes in plastic bins is what I’m saying! 🙂 Abby Cox, whom I adore, even says “Storing antique clothing at home will never surpass quality museum care.” My home has a heat pump and furnace, and great air quality and humidity/temperature control, but it’s still not anywhere near the climate control that a museum could offer. The best I can do is restore what I can, and store as best I can, and enjoy the incredible opportunity I’ve been given to do so!
That said, I mended the small rips that I’d discovered during the first round of cleaning, and ordered a package of Vintage Textile Soak. So join me next time as I try one more round of cleaning and see what comes of it!
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