How to clean a beloved piece of clothing?
February 20, 2019 4:08 PM   Subscribe

I have a 1950s cream crochet cardigan which has a long history in my life and which is suddenly (higher humidity in Hong Kong?) showing 60 years of sweat stains along the neck and pits. Is there anything I can do?

This piece of clothing was given to me in my 20s by a bass player who I was dating at the time. He wore it on stage. For the last twenty odd years I have worn the thing, even at a very formal office over summer dresses and the like. I love it.

For the last year in Hong Kong something about the humidity is driving out ancient yellow stains in the pits and around the neck. I know I've been lucky so far because it's been essentially impervious to stains until now but it makes me really sad because it's still beautiful and I love it.

I have always had this piece dry cleaned on an occasional basis for care. There are no care instructions. When I first started noticing the yellow I had it cleaned and it didn't help at all. I'm afraid I might have actually cemented the stain during dry cleaning.

Is there anything I can do? I hate throwing something so lovely away, particularly since it has such a long history with me. I would happily continue to wear it for another 20 years if I can only get it clean.

(I am an appallingly bad at domestic skills, so my apologies if there is a really simple answer to this which I am missing.)
posted by frumiousb to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have no answer about the cleaning, but since Hong Kong has such a long history of fine tailoring/textile work generally, I wonder if there is some specialist who could overdye it for you (after consulting about material, dye and history of cleaning). This seems like there must be some kind of local Facebook group about tailoring which could point you in the direction of specialists. There just have to be people who custom-dye silk and shoes and things. It looks both pretty and useful, and it would be a terrible shame to throw it out. I really bet that a careful dye job could, if all else fails, turn it into, eg, a rich blue or emerald green one and cover the stains.
posted by Frowner at 4:21 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

On that note, try asking at vintage shops - I know that's not as much of a thing in HK, but I used to know someone who ran one so I assume there are a few. People who handle high-end vintage often hire skilled craftspeople to make repairs, overdye, etc.
posted by Frowner at 4:23 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Can you tell what the material is? For non-animal fibers, oxy-clean/oxygen bleach is good for yellowing and sweat stains. You can make up a sinkful and let it soak for a few hours, rinse well and see how it looks. But don't use it on wool, silk, or other animal fibers.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:26 PM on February 20, 2019 [7 favorites]

It looks like it's probably cotton crochet thread, and its age makes that more likely. You will want to confirm that before trying most cleaning methods for removing pit stains. Here's a pretty good writeup on different ways of identifying mystery yarns. Some are a bit destructive, but if you can find a tiny bit of loose thread to snip, that would be enough to try most identification techniques.

Once you've got a good guess at fiber content, then you should be able to try cleaning it. This article from Ask a Clean Person suggests a soak in vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, or oxygenated bleach. It's also got a good history of armpit stains in vintage fabric! Whatever method you try, it will be a good idea to spot-test it on a very small part of the stain before going after the whole thing. A small amount of damage will be repairable without being especially visible, but dissolving the armpits entirely, not so much.

If the (extremely excellent-looking) cardigan feels like it's still sturdy enough to wear, it should still be sturdy enough to wash in water. Hand wash (no twisting, very little agitation, just a bit of very gentle swishing and squeezing) with a no-rinse detergent (not sure what worldwide availability of Soak is, but that article lists a few good options). Once you've washed it, the easiest way to get enough water out of it to dry it is to roll it up in a clean, dry towel, squeezing it gently. Once it's not dripping, lay it flat to dry, gently pulling it into the right shape.
posted by asperity at 4:46 PM on February 20, 2019 [6 favorites]

Oh, and if oxygenated bleach turns out to be an option for this fabric, one way to apply it to just a tiny bit of the stain without risking the entire garment is to add just a bit of water to just a bit of the powder to make a paste, which you'd then apply to the stain.
posted by asperity at 4:53 PM on February 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Fels Naptha is my goto for yellow stains. Once you have determined the material see if you can use it!
posted by fshgrl at 5:10 PM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

So the standard of care for handwashing vintage garments is (as condensed from the Vintage Fashion Guild):
cut 2 pieces of PLASTIC window screening the width of your bath tub. SMOOTH THE EDGES
lay the garment flat on screen one, as smooth as possible
lay screen two on top, safety pin the screens together
fill the tub with 80-100 degree water to a depth that will cover your garment
put some Orvus soap in the water and agitate the soap in the water until it's dissolved
lower the screen into the tub, pressing all the air out from under the screens
let soak 40 minutes to an hour
rinse (without agitating) until the water runs clear (generally, you rinse from a bucket, not the spigot to rinse the whole garment without moving it)
roll the screen-garment sandwich GENTLY in a towel, then a second dry towel, then a third to remove most of the water
place the screen FLAT on a drying rack or some other surface with good air circulation. smooth any folds in the garment, but dry the garment between the screens

Of course, since you've already had it dry cleaned, it's probably not so fragile it needs to be handled so carefully. But that's pretty much the way you clean vintage stuff you're willing to risk laundering.
posted by crush at 5:37 PM on February 20, 2019 [5 favorites]

So, if I understand what I just did, then this is indeed made of cotton. I'll try the oxy-bleach and see what happens.
posted by frumiousb at 7:46 PM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hi all, just wanted to say that I cleaned it with oxygen bleach and it worked beautifully. There's still a tiny bit of yellowing on the back collar, but it wouldn't be visible if I wasn't actually looking for it. Thanks a lot!
posted by frumiousb at 11:56 PM on March 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

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