There's no quota on your odor, that's right, you smell
September 28, 2020 9:18 AM   Subscribe

How can we get ancient odors out of a quilt?

My wife finally got around to doing the thing that a lot of people with a ton of old concert t-shirts say they're gonna do, and she had quilts made of them. They both look pretty amazing, but...they reek. Most of the shirts are from the late 80's and into the 90's, and they've been sitting in closed plastic bins for at least 25 years until late summer, when she sent them to the quilt-maker. So, they're quite musty.

As soon as we opened the bins, we knew smell was an issue - we washed the shirts before sending them off to the quilt-maker, and that cut it a bit, but when we got the quilts back, the first thing we noticed was how the smell is still very strong.

We tried washing the quilts with this stuff, on the recommendation of the quilt-maker, but it didn't really do anything. We tried dousing (well, spraying aggressively) with Febreze, which also did nothing.

So I'm looking for ideas on how to deodorize really old odors. We unfortunately don't have access to outdoor space, as we live in a condo, so that's not an option for us. Have you tried anything that works to remove persistent old odors?
posted by pdb to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've never had anything that hasn't come out with a very-vinegar wash. I use the extra rinse so I can try to get all of the vinegar smell out. I've never needed to but baking soda+vinegar is also a thing.
posted by beccaj at 9:25 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've had good results with hanging stuff outside in warm breezy weather, for about a week. Bright sunlight is also good for deodorizing fabrics, but will also bleach them, so hang them up inside out if possible, or in the shade.
posted by Fuchsoid at 9:58 AM on September 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

The sun works great for this. Lay the quilt out for several hours in the sun. Flip it and get the other side, too. For very strong smells you may need to do this a few times. you could get some fading, but I've never had noticeable fading from doing this.
My other favorite is using isopropyl alcohol to kill of bad body smells that get stuck in fabric fibers. Soak the fabric and allow to dry and then wash.
posted by quince at 10:01 AM on September 28, 2020

Oxiclean is good for this kind of thing, and I would also recommend the detergent brand Hex, which gets all kinds of nasty workout smells out of my workout clothes.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:16 AM on September 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Fuchsoid/quince -

As mentioned, I have no access to outdoor space, so I'm looking for washing machine or other alternatives.

Beccaj - trying vinegar now, thanks for the tip! If that doesn't work I'll try the brands medieval maven mentioned.
posted by pdb at 10:26 AM on September 28, 2020

I would load into the washer with a ton of detergent and a ton of vinegar (for something as big as a quilt I'd use a 2-litre jug of vinegar), fill with hot water, soak for a couple hours, then run the wash.
When that wash is done, immediately wash a second time, with just a little detergent to get the vinegar out.

Then hang dry in the sun. The sun is really your best bet... can you take it to a friend's house for them to put over some chairs in their yard? Or hang out in a park with a book, with the quilt up over a fence?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:27 AM on September 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

What worked for me for the smell that plastic totes give clothes stored in them was to soak them in oxyclean then wash as normal. I've done it to tshirts with no problems, though not sure how the batting etc of a quilt would stand up to it, but if you can wash it in a washing machine it should be OK. If you don't have oxyclean, even a soak in a normal detergent (pause the machine mid wash) to make sure the detergent & everything soaks in & has time to work. The vinegar works by helping the detergent work more efficiently if you have hard water. Air dry in front of a window if you can't get out into the direct sun, even the sun through a window will help.
posted by wwax at 10:40 AM on September 28, 2020

Yes, people keep suggesting the outdoors because sunlight really is the most effective fabric deodorizer if you can manage it. Spreading them out on the grass in a park for a couple of hours or even hanging them in your sunniest room will help.
posted by doift at 10:43 AM on September 28, 2020

I missed the lack of outdoor space, but if you can get to a park even a few hours in the sun could help.
posted by gryphonlover at 10:48 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

If it seems to be a biological smell, try spraying them down with an enzyme cleaner meant for pet messes, letting them sit overnight, them washing them again as usual.
posted by corey flood at 11:13 AM on September 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have had success with Bac-Out.
posted by Duffington at 11:21 AM on September 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

There's a formula making the rounds on my social world.

1/4 cup borax
1/4 cup washing soda
big scoop of tide power
Calgon water softener
Soak in hot water in your top load washer or in your bathtub for 4-6 hours. Then wash in your washer without detergent.

I used it to strip athletic wear of gross smells, and have also used it on older sheets. It works really well. I didn't use the calgon water softener (couldn't find it, also our water is already softened).
posted by Ftsqg at 11:26 AM on September 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

A Borax soak is my go-to for smells.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 11:53 AM on September 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

That recipe Ftsqg posted (minus the Calgon, actually) is what a group of my friends have been using on pretty much everything around their houses. I just moved or I'd be doing it too, based on the photos and reactions I've seen from them. And one of my friends just did it with a quilt her great-grandmother made. It looks brand new and apparently smells amazing.
posted by cooker girl at 12:07 PM on September 28, 2020

Do you have a loved one who lives in a hot, dry place, like Arizona? Maybe someone stuck mostly at home who would love to do something for you? If so, I'd send this to them and ask them to put it outside in the sun for a few days.

Otherwise, yes, folks have great suggestions here. If you can't soak it in your washing machine, what about soaking it in a bathtub? I'd put a lot of vinegar in there. Two gallons, mixed with water, and let it soak for a day. Then wash with more vinegar and detergent (I wouldn't use a lot of detergent, though).

Ideally you'd want the sun dry at this point. Since you can't do that, then do you have a warm room where you can spread it out?

(Also I think we live in the same town so if you would like to hang this quilt on my clothesline for a few days, send me a message. The next few days are supposed to be warm and sunny so I would be glad to offer this. I can flip it over a few times, too. And I bet we could do this in a socially distant way!)
posted by bluedaisy at 12:17 PM on September 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

If you have or can borrow a big enough pot (3.5+ gal.) and a colander with no plastic parts to keep the quilt out of the boiling water, try steaming them. An old 22 qt. pressure canner would be even better. Test first with an old t-shirt which didn't make it into a quilt to be sure the plastic based graphics used on some shirts wouldn't be affected.

I personally have been amazed at how many persistent bad smells are apparently dependent on the continuing presence of living micro-organisms that produce them.
posted by jamjam at 12:45 PM on September 28, 2020

If you don't want to go the homemade route, I have seen small packs of name brand (Tide maybe?) wash pods for technical fabric, as in athletic clothing. I have a friend who swears by the stuff for her pitted running tanks.

But if you have a friend or nearby mefite who'll let you use their yard for a couple days, that's probably going to work as well as anything.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:44 PM on September 28, 2020

I’m going to second the OxyClean recommend. I bought a ton of vintage linens at a garage sale that were pretty musty (and some of them were pretty stained, but it was a good deal to just take the lot).

I made a super-saturated Oxy solution in a big tub with the hottest possible water and let them soak until the water was cold, and that solved the smell problem and most of the stains as well. Ended up with some amazing stuff.
posted by padraigin at 11:47 AM on September 29, 2020

I went through a phase where I was buying used clothes from Poshmark and some of them arrived very smelly. It was usually a combo of smoke and/or perfumey scents. Even though the listings always said "smoke-free home." People lie.

The worst offenders from these orders were put in a giant bucket with a full box of baking soda and water and left for a few days. I don't know where you are going to hang up a quilt if you don't have any outdoor space (perhaps your quilt is dryer safe) but that should cut down on the smell if it doesn't eliminate it entirely.
posted by 41swans at 10:32 PM on September 30, 2020

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