Vintage items

16 February 2017

Stacey King at DTC has been looking into problems that have occurred with vintage items, which are often luxury garments and manufactured pre-care labelling

Handle with extreme care

Vintage items present many of the same challenges as upholstery and bespoke items given that, due to their age, they rarely carry comprehensive cleaning instruction. The age of the item can also present cleaning problems that might not be seen in newer garments due to weakening or damage to the fabric structure itself.

Many vintage items are luxury garments and are not typically worn on a regular basis and as such they require storing. Storage conditions can have a negative effect on the condition of the fabric. For example, where items have been stored in an attic or similar, where ventilation is poor, build-up of moisture and dust can lead to unpleasant musty odours or mould and mildew that may not be removed by drycleaning alone. Leathers and cellulosic fibres are particularly prone to discolouration by mould and mildew and in worst cases, they can begin to rot and fall apart. At a relative humidity below 35% leather will begin to desiccate and crack, above 70% humidity, mould growth will occur which will break down the structure as the growths feed off the proteins found in the leather.

Plastic packaging is another factor of storage, which could result in undesired effects. Historically, and still in many instances today, a lot of plastic packaging contains a substance called butylated hydroxytoluene, better known as BHT. BHT can migrate from the plastic packaging into garments resulting in discolouration.

Photo degradation is a result of sunlight damage. This can manifest as either severe discolouration or partial/complete breakdown of the textile itself. The intensity of the UV rays can react with some textiles resulting in the formation of peroxides, which can essentially bleach the fabric. Damage caused by prolonged exposure to strong light is cumulative and cannot be reversed.

Fabrics made of natural fibres are susceptible to shade change with age. For example, cellulosic fibres will yellow with age due to oxidation of the natural substance lignin. Elevated temperatures and airborne pollution are also contributory factors to deterioration of many fabrics, as is mould growth related to dust and insect damage.

A cleaner should take great care when cleaning vintage items ensuring as much information as possible is gathered regarding fibre composition, age and how the garment has been stored. All of this information should help them in making a decision on how best to treat the item. Often, allocating responsibility for faults relating to vintage items is very difficult. For issues where the responsibility would typically lie with manufacturer, the age of the garment can sometimes negate this.


Velvet touched by mould

Fault: When removed from storage this vintage velvet dress had sporadic dark marks over multiple areas of the fabric.

Cause: When tested, the discoloured areas were to yield a positive test result for mould. The discolouration noted was a result of staining from the growth of mould in those areas. Although the dress had been stored in a wardrobe, it is typical in the UK that, due to the climate and weather conditions, many homes have some degree of damp. Even small, barely detectable amounts can be enough to trigger mould growth. 

Responsibility: It would be unfair to blame the cleaner for unsuccessful removal here as the damage stems from conditions of storage.

Rectification: Sunlight and fresh air is very good at remedying issues related to mildew. However, due to the staining that has occurred here, treatment with a mild peroxide might be necessary. Due to the delicate nature of velvet, this would be a difficult task and should only be attempted by a skilled cleaner with authorisation from the owner before commencing.

Old sugar stains leave bride bitter

Fault: Brown marks were noted on this wedding dress months after cleaning.

Cause: In the same way as drycleaning reveals “developing stains”, unremoved marks can develop during storage. Here a wedding dress had been stored for some time and unremoved sugars present on the dress have begun to oxidise leaving unsightly brown marks which were not initially present.

Responsibility: None. The marks were not present before cleaning so a cleaner would not be expected to spot treat them. The oxidation of sugar stains is ultimately inevitable.

Rectification: The degree to which the stains have ‘set’ will greatly influence the potential for removal of these stains. Post treatment might offer some success however, typically, developed stains are very hard to remove.

Belt buckle undone by machine action

Fault: This belt buckle was broken during cleaning.

Cause: The necessary mechanical action of the process has broken the buckle.  In this instance age was not considered to be a contributing factor, the buckle does not appear to be able to withstand the normal process which was outlined by the label.  Trims and buttons on vintage items can become weakened over time, particularly in high wear areas, unfortunately these weakened areas are prone to breaking when tumbling in the drycleaning drum even when protected by net bags, wrapped in wadding or similar.

Responsibility: The responsibility for the broken buckle should ultimately lie with the manufacturer.  In cases of aged vintage items none is normally given.

Rectification: The buckles could potentially be replaced.

Lignin and old lace

Fault: Bands of yellowed lace were observed on this vintage wedding dress.

Cause: This dress was composed of two types of lace constructed in bands. One type of lace has yellowed with age. Cellulosic fibres contain a dark coloured substance called lignin. Bleaching is used for delignification however this is a reversible process and over time, with exposure to air and sunlight, yellowing will occur. The two different laces likely had different compositions of lignin owing to different natural sources, which has resulted in a differential colour change.

Responsibility: This is an inherent property of cellulosic fibres. Owing to the age of the garment, no responsibility can be allocated.

Rectification: Bleaching may reverse some of the yellowing. Given the two different sources of lace on this dress, matching the shades will likely be difficult.

Blackout breaks down

Fault: The lining of this curtain was found to break down relatively quickly after hanging and cleaning.

Cause: Photo degradation of the blackout lining has occurred here.  This is a common fault, which DTC sees often.  The rubberised lining is attacked by the sun’s UV rays, resulting in a breakdown of the lining.  During cleaning, the solvency power and the necessary mechanical action of the process, the degraded lining begins to disintegrate and fall to pieces resulting in an unsightly piece.

Responsibility: Should ultimately be taken by the manufacturer This is an inherent property of the lining fabric and it is the responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure that the lining is likely to provide an adequate life cycle of the item and that it is fit for purpose.  The nature of curtains means that they are exposed to bright sunlight for extended periods.

Rectification: No rectification is possible. Re-lining is the only option.

Dehydration cracks up animal hide

Fault: This fur jacket was brought to the cleaners with a shrunken crispy feel. Several areas of the hide appear to have become cracked and broken.

Cause: Over time and storage the hide has become completely dehydrated resulting in the in it becoming overly dry and cracked.

Responsibility: No responsibility can be attributed.  Dehydration is an inherent property of animal hides/furs over time and storage conditions. 

Rectification: The hides can be improved during cleaning with a good dose of leather oil or similar, however any cracks or breaks in the hide, which have occurred as a result, will not be improved.  The re-hydration of the animal hide should loosen the shrunken feel also.

Sunlight warps lining

Fault: This roller blind was returned from the cleaner with both bubbled lining and linear bands of discolouration.

Cause: Again the lining here has been degraded by sunlight which has caused it to bubble and warp.  The sunlight has also bleached the colour of the curtain in exposed areas.  Those areas which were protected when rolled/open remain a cream colour, however areas which are exposed are now a much paler in colour.

Responsibility: Ultimately it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to test for light fastness of textiles such as this but age and location can also play a significant role and must also be taken into consideration.

Rectification: None is possible.


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