Be careful about ironing vintage clothing. It’s generally OK to do with cotton, but to be on the safe side, always lay a durable protective cloth between the clothing and the iron so you’re not exposing your precious finery to direct heat, the mortal enemy of fragile fabric. Ironing older silk or wool is risky, so if it gets wrinkly, you’ve got a few choices: You can use a steamer, if you have one, on the gentlest setting. You can hang the garment in the bathroom when you take a hot shower. (Some materials, like rayon, need to be steamed inside out, so do a quick Google search before you and your skirt get in the bathroom.) Sometimes I spread my old clothes out between two clean sheets and lay the whole deal under my mattress for a few days. I haven’t seen this method being recommended anywhere, but it’s definitely worked for me! Ir you can, if you’re very brave/reckless, try using an iron on the “silk” setting, with no steam. I personally never iron vintage silk or wool—I very occasionally take it to a dry cleaner. But repeated dry cleaning can wear out silk pretty quickly too, so my best advice is to be very careful with it, and don’t wear it every day.
The best way to prevent them sturdier materials like leather or vinyl from cracking is to use a special conditioner on them (here’s one for leather and one for vinyl). Start off with a small glob of your conditioner, rub it in thoroughly, and repeat a couple of times. For leather, doing this in two different rounds over a couple of days is a good idea—it gives the leather enough time to absorb the first layer of conditioner before you start on the second. The older the leather is, the more conditioner you’ll need, and while it won’t seal existing cracks, it will restore the piece’s suppleness and prevent further decay. Drying wet leather by exposing it to direct heat will crack it, so leave your newly moisturized cowhide in a warm room overnight, or as long as necessary to get rid of every last hint of moisture.
The single most important factor determining how long your vintage shoes will last is frequency of use. Shoes have to bear the full weight of your body and withstand repeated poundings on different hard surfaces, so older ones tend to be pretty beat-up to begin with. Unless your vintage footwear was made specifically to endure tough treatment (like Dr. Martens or other work boots), they can come apart quickly if you take them out on the town too often, so if you NEED to see them every day, you’re better off displaying them somewhere prominent in your room.
The thing with vintage clothing is that it’s not meant to look new and shiny—that’s what I find beautiful and unique about it to begin with, you know? It’s supposed to look worn-in and reflect the history it has lived through. Don’t throw away good clothes just because a seam is ripped or even because a button has popped off when you can add to that history by repairing them yourself!
You can test the integrity of a fabric by taking a section and pulling it gently in opposite directions, paying close attention to how the fibers are stretching. If they don’t seem to be in immediate danger of unraveling at your feet, go ahead and get to sewing. I don’t have a sewing machine, so when I hand-stitch tears or buttons on my vintage, I always use the smallest needles I can so I’m not gouging large holes in the fabric. If you’re repairing a seam, never sew along the old seam—your long-suffering jacket will just not be able to handle the stress if you try to revisit an already perforated spot.
Here’s a guide to some common mending tasks.
A short list of things that are very bad for clothes: dust, dampness, prolonged direct sunlight. Cottons, silks, and blends thereof are prone to wrinkling when they’re stored for long periods in cramped closets and can be hard to smooth out when ironing is not an option. The best way to store this stuff, especially if it’s fussily embroidered or beaded, is to hang it on a clothes rack in a garment bag. If garment bags sound expensive and finicky, it’s because they are! But you don’t need to spring for one: You can make your own cheap and effective garment bag by turning a garbage bag upside down and cutting a hole at the top for your hanger. However, if you want to pack something away for long-term storage—I’m talking years—fabric garment bags are the way to go because they’re a bit more durable and will let your clothes breathe a bit (but not too much!).
Some pieces shouldn’t be hung, though—old lace and delicate wool will stretch out from its own weight, so the best way to store it is to fold it gently, then place it somewhere without anything stacked on top, since pressure can cause folds to turn into permanent, fraying creases. When storing your polyester, just make sure it’s not in a ball in the spot behind your dresser where the cat likes to cough up hairballs sometimes. Actually, you know what? It’ll probably be fine no matter what. Polyester doesn’t care what you do to it, seriously. When it comes to leather and vinyl, atmosphere is the biggest issue to keep in mind. Mildew will rot these materials and heat will crack them, so store such pieces in a cool, dry place.
I can’t stress enough how much of a lifesaver these methods have been for the vintage pieces I love most. Preserving vintage is important to me because I want my clothes to to be more than something I just throw on every morning. I want to hear their stories and have other people listen, too! And taking care of these special and beautiful parts of my wardrobe ensures that they’ll continue to be heard for a good long time to come. I hope the same is true for you and yours! ♦