Garment Care Tips from the Wardrobe and Theatre Department

Laundry Tag

Garment Care Tips from the Wardrobe and Theatre Department

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By Emily Jansson, Nancy’s Notions guest blogger

Laundry Tag

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).

 Cold Water

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.

 Button Shirt

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.

  1. A quick section on stain removal:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. A bar of Ivory soap is much beloved for pretreating very fine items like silk and lingerie.

Stain Infographic

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.

Wardrobe Spray

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,

Nancy Zieman The Blog

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  • Kate
    December 29, 2015

    Wow! Thank you Nancy, I’m a little older than you, so I’ve done my share if laundry. Everyone knows cold water was for saving energy etc. But nobody ever said it did all you just described…thank you I stand corrected in my “phooey on cold it doesn’t clean” theory! I just Love you!

  • Kate
    December 29, 2015

    Sorry but I just had to do another post. Someone at Nancy’s PLEEEEESE make a cartoon out this!
    And change the header picture
    Picture it….
    An elderly woman with her pocketbook in the crook of her arm goes into the liquor store
    Sales clerk: May I help you?
    Woman: Yes, please, “Give me the cheapest rot-gut vodka you have, I’m doing laundry”
    Sales clerk: ”Lady, that must be some kind of laundry if you need a drink just to get up the courage to do it”

    • Emily
      December 29, 2015

      Kate, I just laughed out loud picturing that–I think we may have to get that drawn up! lol

  • Candice
    December 29, 2015

    Wow! Some really great tips – some of which I’d never heard. I love Kate’s idea of the cartoon, and I can picture it well! Thanks for all of your posts – love them and the knowledge they bring.

  • Pat Kane
    December 29, 2015

    I can swear by the vodka mix for clothing treatment. Learned about it years ago from a NYC costumer, and have used it ever since on costumes (a spray of all sweaty parts – sorry-) totally prevents the costume room from smelling like a locker room during runs. I use it also in my own closet, in shoes, and on things worn infrequently too.

  • Cheryl Masters
    December 29, 2015

    Thank you for making me so much smarter when it comes to the care and feeding of different fabrics. Now that I know, I am going to take much better care of my treasures. I do have a brief question. Have you ever heard of using a bit of vinegar in a spray bottle of water to “set the crease” when sewing slacks or ironing?

  • Pat
    December 29, 2015

    Now that we know what to do, is there a way to incorporate the “washing” instructions into/on the personalized labels we purchase?

  • Andrea
    December 29, 2015

    What is the best way to treat perspiration/deodorant underarm stains?

    • Emily Jansson
      December 29, 2015

      Hi Andrea,
      That’s a good question. I don’t have much experience with pit stains, as most theatrical costumes use dress shields (you just gave me a great idea for another blog!). I’ve heard that stain removers designed specifically for sweat stains (such as Raise Armpit Stain Remover) DO work. However, they can be hard to find (you’ll have to order online, probably).
      Most solid deodorants are made with hydrogenated fats/oils and starches as a base. They MAY be soluble in a solvent. I would try alcohol first–hit it with a cotton ball soaked in vodka and let it sit. Then some good ol’ Dawn Original Dish Soap to bond with the fats and (hopefully) pull them out with a scrub brush. Rinse the Dawn out. Finally, I’d wash on cold with regular laundry detergent and 1/2 cup of baking soda (this will hopefully rid the top of any starchy residue).
      Let me know if you have any success–those pit stains are the worst!
      You’ve got me thinking–I’m gonna have to try some of those professional stain removers now and report back. 🙂

    • Mary B
      December 29, 2015

      The perspiration stains come out with baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and a bit of Dawn dishwash. Make a bit of solution with these ingredients , rub it on the garment..great on whites !…let it soak in for 20 minutes or so then wash out. My daughter says this is the best !

      • Emily Jansson
        December 31, 2015

        Thank you Mary!
        Can’t wait to try that method–sounds pretty darn effective. 🙂

  • Sharon N
    December 29, 2015

    I really appreciate this info. So many times one small stain will be the end of a blouse or top. Gone forever, even if it was the best color or best fit in the whole closet. Thanks.

  • JOY
    December 29, 2015

    I am 73 and thought I knew everything there was to do about laundry and had everything for doing it. I, actually, learned something!
    I printed out the information for my grand daughter who just
    has “left” home for her own home.

  • Lorij
    December 29, 2015

    Hi all, I really like that you all truly take time to pay attention to what we say and think. And, then reply. I believe that has a lot to do with all of us following Nancy these many years.
    I hope all of you will have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016….God bless, Lorij

    • Emily Jansson
      December 29, 2015

      Thank you, Lorij!

      We LOVE hearing from you–we want to know what’s happening so we can keep up! 🙂

      Thanks for taking the time to tell us. Hope you’re enjoying a lovely holiday season.

  • eginter
    December 29, 2015

    Also hydrogen perxiside. Works well on blood,you just pour it on and I use either a paper towel or a rag and out comes the blood also ballpoint pen use hair spray the cheapest you can find Put a rag or something you do want under and pour the and spray on the stain and depending on how much ballpoint pen (try q pen in pocket of new gray cords )

  • Brenda
    December 29, 2015

    I don’t drink, but found a generic recipe for something like “Best Press.” I went to the ABC store and asked for Vodka. It was pretty obvious to the clerk I wasn’t knowledgeable of their inventory, so she asked me what I was using it for. I told her I was using it to make a spray for pressing my quilt piecing. That led to a conversation about quilting. You just never know where you’ll run into another quilter.

  • cecilia huether
    December 29, 2015

    This has been so helpful even though I have been doing laundry for many years, I am 73, so that is a lot of laundry with hubby and 2 sons. Learned a lot of great tips and now hope to save some of those clothing with stains. The pit area is a difficult problem I have for some of my laundry, so if you find an easy one please post. Thanks again and blessings in the New Year. Cecilia

  • Mary Ellen
    December 29, 2015

    these tips are terrific. Thanks for all your work in putting this together.
    Happy New Year and Blessing to you all; especially to you Nancy. Mary Ellen

  • Lillian K
    December 29, 2015

    Great tips- thank you !!

  • Katae
    December 30, 2015

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Marianne
    December 30, 2015

    Thanks for sharing this tips for garments.

  • Susan Vincenzes
    January 1, 2016

    Very cool tips. Thanks, these will be useful.

  • Kathy D.
    January 4, 2016

    I love the laundry and care tips I’ve just read by Emily !! I hope you can help me with a problem I have. Years ago (omg! 15 hrs! children grow soooo fast) I made Indian costumes out of heavy, tan cotton (broadcloth?) with faux suede fringe,embroidered trim and decorated with pics,etc. with fabric paint. I wish I could send a pic, I think they’re pretty awsome. I have kept them on paper covered hangers with dry cleaner plastic bags over them. I now have darker brown areas which appeared a couple years ago. Have shown them to 2 different cleaners. Neither wanted to try to clean them and really had no advice. I’m afraid to try spot cleaning with…anything! Please help!!!.

    • Emily Jansson
      January 4, 2016

      Hi Kathy!
      Hmm… it’s difficult to diagnose without being able to see the stain. I would venture a couple of guesses as to where the discoloration came from. Seeing as they were well-protected in plastic garment bags this entire time, I would ask next if they were stored in a dark closet, or a closet with a window (closets with windows can cause sun damage and fading to your clothes–making the dark areas seem like staining, but really it’s the unbleached part).
      Next, if it’s not sun damage, I would venture to guess the discoloration was due to sweat that simply sat for a few years (this is very common in vintage clothing). However, I’m assuming the dry cleaning bags they were in are from their last cleaning before you stored them.
      I wish I could help you a bit more, here. :/ Spot cleaning is always a bit terrifying. The fact that the base fabric is cotton should give you some courage. Try blotting an inconspicuous spot from the back of the garment with a soft cotton washcloth soaked in hydrogen peroxide (if it foams, the stain is probably body-related and organic). Don’t rub–just blot.
      There are detergents on the market that are made specifically for vintage clothing (to soften, clean, and condition). However, I wouldn’t sweat that too much–regular detergent or Dawn in a hand wash would probably be okay. It all comes down to your original materials. The cotton should hand wash just fine. The faux suede trim would be what would most worry me. If you do hand wash, be sure that any pressing to get that fringe flat again is done with a low temp on your iron, as well as a pressing cloth.
      I wish you luck on this–let me know how if goes if you decide to proceed. Otherwise, rejoice in the “patina” of such beautiful, well-made, nearly-vintage items! 🙂 -Emily

    • Emily Jansson
      January 4, 2016

      OOOH!! I forgot to mention–any time you use hydrogen peroxide, please be sure to follow up with some water, just to be positive that the peroxide is neutralized quickly (to prevent bleaching).

      • Kathy D.
        January 4, 2016

        Thank you Emily J.!! I am going to try the hydrogen peroxide with follow-up of water as you suggested. I used to have the costumes hanging in a dark closet, then for storage reasons I had switched them to closet with a window. The window always has the light filtering shade down. I’ve always heard that stored clothing should be able to “breathe”, so I left the bottoms of the bags open as they are much longer the costumes. Anyway, thanks again for the wonderful tip!

        • Emily Jansson
          January 5, 2016

          Oh you betcha! Lemme know how it goes. Mystery stains are so annoying. lol

  • Emilia
    May 13, 2020

    I have been using dry cleaning services in Washington ( for so long because i had some very bad experience in washing the stains off the clothes. I have not tried the tips before and will definitely try them now.

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