According to some museum-oriented textile conservation resources, anything more than the most basic cleaning should only be done by a professional conservation expert. According to Mary Fahey, the Chief Conservator at the Henry Ford, “Vacuuming is the only cleaning procedure that is recommended for the non-specialist. Caution should be used even when attempting to vacuum fragile and degraded textiles.” (Source) However, for the individual collectors and small budgets for whom this site is intended, bringing in a professional conservator to clean an entire textile collection is simply not a viable option. Therefore, here are some basic guidelines for cleaning antique textiles, relatively safely.

  • Try to determine the fiber content and any risk factors of a textile before cleaning it. Different materials need to be cleaned in different ways.
  • Pre-1930 garments should never be machine-washed or machine dry-cleaned.
  • Most conservation resources state that for washing antique textiles, detergents should not be used, that soap is preferable, and the most often recommended substance is Orvus WA Paste, available through conservation supply stores and some quilting stores. There seems to be some confusion in some of these sources, because Orvus WA Paste is a detergent, not a soap, though it is formulated very differently from the harsh detergents available for everyday use. Some sources also suggest that Ivory Liquid and Woolite are acceptable. Do not use regular detergent or chlorine bleach.
  • Vintage textile care sources often recommend Woolite, Ivory, or Orvus WA paste, though opinions vary. They also recommend the use of an oxygen bleach such as Biz or OxiClean, used in diluted form in a pre-wash soak. This process is detailed in After a Fashion by Frances Grimble. More information, with varying reliability, can be found on the vintage enthusiasts’ forum The Fedora Lounge and on the mid-19th century specializing forum The Sewing Academy.
  • Avoid agitation or rough handling while cleaning textiles, especially while they are wet. Often, antique textiles should be washed laying flat, gently pressing the water and suds through the material and rinsing repeatedly but very gently.
  • Only have textiles dry cleaned by a specialist (ask a museum, conservator, or vintage clothing dealer for a recommendation), and only by hand for delicate or pre-1930 items. Do not dry clean items that will be damaged by dry cleaning, such as items with certain types of beads or sequins. Do your research first.
  • Take as many precautions as reasonably possible before cleaning an antique textile and while cleaning it. Do your research, do tests if necessary, secure anything fragile or loose, remove basted on trim that was intended to be removed during cleaning, and handle with care.

For detailed information on cleaning textiles, consult one or more (preferably more) of these sources:

Next in the section on Textile Conservation Basics: Repairing Antique Textiles

HomeIndexTextile Conservation Basics


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