Garment Care Tips from the Wardrobe and Theatre Department
By Emily Jansson, Nancy’s Notions guest blogger
Nowadays, when it comes to sewing, you can find instructions for just about anything you need online. Want to know how to bind that edge? Turn up a hem? Move a dart? Check.
But what about after your project is finished—when it’s all over and done with—how do you take care of your hard work? For wearables, especially, it can be difficult to know what to do. Cleaning such treasured pieces can become a daunting task. I’m here to tell you, there’s no need to be intimidated.
I spent many years working wardrobe and costuming in professional theatre. Laundry and cleanliness rules are strict and thoroughly enforced. Costumes are built to last—they are couture-quality items made to withstand 1–2 performances per day, 6 days per week. They must be cleaned in ways that prolong their life to the fullest extent.
Here are tips that will help you to take care of your own “couture” items—and regular laundry, too! I’m going to assume here that you’ve prewashed/pre-shrunk your fabrics before sewing them into something lovely.
1. Wash anything that isn’t a towel or a sheet in cold water (this is called the “bright colors” cycle on some washing machines). Cold water helps stains to let go—stray particles like dye or dirt are released more easily. Alternately, hot water opens the fibers in many fabrics, rendering them susceptible to absorbing unwanted particles (but it does a great job of killing bacteria, so use it for your sheets and towels).
2. Ideally, anything with a zipper (pants, jackets, hoodies) should be washed in a separate load from other items. Zip all zippers closed before tossing in the machine, and make sure items are turned wrong side-out. If you’ve ever noticed those fancy constellations of holes in your favorite T-shirts and wondered where they came from, this is how that happens. Somebody (and I’m not naming names here) left a zipper unzipped.
3. Unbutton all of your regular buttons. When your buttoned shirt comes out, you’ll notice that either a button or two will be lost, or you’ll be sporting that comical “bursting button” look—even if you haven’t gained an ounce since the last time you wore it. This is because when a buttoned shirt goes through the wash, the fabric is pulled and whipped around the agitator of your washer, putting a strain on the points where your item is buttoned. It’s not flattering, any way you look at it.
Special note: Rivets on waistbands (jeans, etc.) are better left buttoned—they’ll help the zipper stay up.
4. Do launder fine fabrics by hand-washing. It’s a cinch, really. Lingerie, wools, fine silks, and any other fragile lovelies should be given a little extra care. Keep a separate hamper for these items and do them all at once. In a basin full of cold water, use a bit of detergent or even original Dawn dish soap for the extra fine pieces (a little dab’ll do ya). Swish your delicates around a few times, back and forth. Then grab an end of the piece and pull it out of the water and back in a few times—up and down, up and down—just like the laundry maids in old movies.
When you’ve given it due time in the soapy water, transfer to a basin with clean, cold water to rinse. Swish around and then up and down, up and down, a few more times. Once they’re free of soap residue, squeeze them out gently (don’t wring or twist!) and lay them on a large bath towel. When the towel is full of items, lay another towel on top and roll the whole thing up like sushi. Lean on the roll to press any water out. The idea is to stay as gentle as possible. Remove your items and dry flat on a fresh bath towel.
- A quick section on stain removal:
- Blood: Saliva has enzymes that break down blood. If it’s your own blood, your own saliva will work best. Chew on a piece of scrap cotton (like muslin) until it’s saturated. Use this to work the stain as soon as possible. Once the blood is gone, pop it in the laundry on cold.
- Makeup: Pretreat using a degreaser. Original Dawn dish soap works well for this. Get a tiny bit on an old toothbrush and *lightly* scrub in circles to lift the stain. This is great for collars that may be dingy, too.
- Lipstick: This stuff isn’t easy. Use a chalk-based stain pen, like Janie On The Spot Dry Chalk Stick—the chalk particles absorb those pesky oils and dyes. Let the chalk sit on the stain for an hour or more. Then use a dry toothbrush to gently lift it all off. Follow up with a cold wash. NOTE: Plain old white chalk works too—just takes a bit more elbow grease.
- White toothpaste with bleach (not the gel kind) can be an excellent pretreatment for the collars of white shirts. The mild bleaching agent lends just enough oomph to get out minor stains.
- A bar of Ivory soap is much beloved for pretreating very fine items like silk and lingerie.
Now, what do you do if your fabrics are dry clean only? First, choose a dry cleaner that does not use toxic chemicals. Here’s my favorite wardrobe tip of all time: Make your own wardrobe freshening spray.
Step 1: Buy vodka. Make sure it’s the lowest quality you can find. Single distilled, and pure firewater (yuck!).
Step 2: Pour 2 parts vodka, 1 part filtered water into a clean spray bottle. Optional: Add 3–5 drops of lavender or tea tree essential oil (do not use other kinds of essential oils as they may stain). Label the bottle.
Shake it up and spray your clothes in between cleanings (dry cleaning or not), concentrating on sweaty areas (pits, joints, etc). The vodka kills odor-causing bacteria on the spot, and quickly evaporates so you won’t smell like a distillery. The lavender or tea tree oils don’t just smell nice—they also keep moths and bacteria at bay.
I love using a tea tree oil spray for my clothes, and lavender for my linens. Works like a charm.
If your clothing has polymer clay buttons, you’ll want to remove them before dry cleaning (the chemicals will cause them to dissolve in a soupy, tragic mess all over your lovely handiwork).
Before I dry clean anything I make, I like to stitch up a little “sampler” to send through the dry cleaners first. I start with a piece of the base fabric, and stitch little swatches of any other fabrics used (lining, trims, etc) to that. Any sequins, beads, or buttons should also be represented on this sampler. This way, you can be positive nothing will give you a nasty surprise later. Often, sequins will not make it through a dry cleaning without dissolving. Put the sampler in a nylon mesh laundry bag to catch any pieces that may fall out in the dry cleaning tumbler.
If any of the sampler pieces don’t make it through the dry cleaners, you have choices. One, you may choose to remove the problem element (ie: buttons, sequins, etc) every time you send it off to be cleaned, or, you may choose to simply handwash the item.
A little extra time can make a big difference. Consistent TLC will have your handmade items looking good-as-new for years to come.
For the items you love that need special care, check out our gentle cleansing and laundry aids at Nancy’s Notions.
Thank you, Emily, for sorting out and decoding laundry label details!
Bye for now,