The Mystery Of The 60 Year Old Stain

The Mystery Of The 60 Year Old Stain

I walked into my favorite vintage clothing store and spent the next hour combing through all of the racks, hoping that today would be different and I would find something that would actually fit my modern sized curvy body when I spotted it.  It was perfect.  Not only could I fit into it but it was in a color I loved, from my favorite decade, in a style that is actually flattering on me AND the price was right!  Then my heart sank.  It was peppered in unknown 60 year old stains.  A dark blob on the bodice, brown by the zipper, a big watermark on the skirt and the dreaded underarm discoloration....


Sound familiar?  What if I told you "buy the dress!" because I'm going to tell you how to either get those stains out or lighten them enough that you will be able to wear that dress?  This is a service I actually charge for called Launder'D but I am willing to share some of my techniques and products I use if it means you will buy an article of clothing and keep it from hanging on a rack somewhere for the rest of its life, even if that rack isn't at Dupree's Vintage.  


Lets start with a little history

When I started to get into vintage clothing this was an obvious issue I needed to tackle.  There is stuff on the market that we will talk about later and loads of information online, but we are dealing with vintage clothing.  Decades old fabric, thread and notions.  One of a kind pieces that we want to bring back to life.  I did sooooo much research and you can find out a bunch of stuff about treating recent stains and some about set in stains, but they all ended with "after treating, put it in the washing machine".  Well, that's not gonna work for us because 99% of the time the washing machine is WAY too harsh for vintage clothing. I've definitely thrown 70s polyester garments (they're a bit more sturdy and usually are made with polyester thread) into the washer and most everything from the 80s and newer can generally go into the washer too.  What I am saying is that with the exception of the few items I just mentioned, you should always hand wash your vintage clothing. Wait!  Don't roll your eyes in despair yet!  Its not as daunting as you may think! 

"I take my vintage to the dry cleaner" is something I hear a lot.  First, I'm impressed you found one who will take vintage clothing.  Many refuse to because they know it is delicate.  The ones who will take vintage are one of two types.  They are either very familiar with vintage and know the steps they need to take (and will probably charge you more for it, rightfully so) or they don't know vintage and will treat it like any other garment they get in which may potentially damage your garment or even destroy it.  Second, there is a misconception about dry cleaning.  It isn't dry and it does involve something similar to a washing machine.  Your clothes are pre treated and then put into a dry cleaning machine where the cleaning solvent is introduced.  There it is gently agitated (more gentle than a household washing machine) and then 'rinsed' with another chemical solvent.  Then there is a post spot treatment and prepping for return by pressing and reattaching notions (buttons are often removed for the dry cleaning process).  The reason it is called 'dry' cleaning is that water isn't introduced like we would at home. I do have a couple of dry cleaning solvents in my personal arsenal, however, they are extreme last resorts for me because they can be a harsh.  Bottom line?  While you might luck out with a dry cleaner who truly understands vintage clothing, why risk it?  For the most part, doing your own cleaning isn't arduous or complicated.  Its just time consuming.  Luckily 80% of the time involved you aren't actively doing anything.  You are letting the solutions do the work. 

So where was I?  Oh yeah, I was thinking about how I can clean my own vintage clothing and later, how to clean the vintage clothing I carry at Dupree's.  (side note: I generally do not Launder'D the clothing at Dupree's.  Due to many people having skin issues with various cleaning agents I prefer to leave it up to the customer, however, I will pull garments off the racks to do spot treating when I have the time to do so.  We do, however Launder'D undergarments such as bras, girdles, and garters.  These garments are hand washed using my techniques, which in turn also sanitizes them)  I got to thinking about how these garments were cleaned when they were new.  What did they use then?  They didn't have an entire aisle at the grocery store dedicated to various laundry detergents and spot treatments so how did they go about it?  Back to basics.  Washing soda (sodium carbonate), Borax (sodium borate), Fels Naptha (old school plain old soap) or bar of another brand of washing soap, a washboard and a mangle.  Well, since the clothes are now decades old causing them to be more fragile, a washboard and a mangle probably aren't a good idea, however, the other stuff is.  I often add washing soda and Borax to my regular laundry. So I figured, if it was good enough for these garments when they were new, it should be good enough for them now.  Turns out, that is a correct statement!  While experimenting to find the right mix I also realized that the water became very 'soft' and was not harsh on my hands at all. 

So that's the back story on how we ended up here.  Lets get down to business.


What do you need?     

First, lets start with what you will need to put into your vintage cleaning arsenal

1. White vinegar (#1 go to for first attempt at stains)

2. Lemon juice (fresh or bottle, but fresh works best)

3. Salt (table salt is fine)

4. Hydrogen peroxide

5. Rubbing alcohol (ink and makeup stains)

6. Baking soda (blood)

7. Washing soda/soda ash (sodium carbonate)

8. Borax

9. Fels Naptha 

10. Original Dawn dishsoap (grease/oil based)

11. Sodium percarbonate (active ingredient in OxiClean)

12. Clean absorbent towels (or puppy pee pads - yes, I'm serious)

13. Baby or very soft toothbrush

14. Q-tips

15. Cotton rounds


Next up, time to play Sherlock

Try to determine what the stain might be.  Location is an indicator.  Front tends to be protein based (food) for example.  Underarm areas of course would be sweat stains.  Knee area grease or oil.  Pockets might be ink.  Cuffs or long hems could be dirt or grass.

Color is another indicator.  Rust colored could be rust or blood.  Grayish stains are usually grease.  Yellow or brown based protein or makeup.  Since you’ll be dealing with 50+ year old mystery stains, take a guess and just try to focus on the fabric content instead. 

Now, do you know what your fabric is?  I've been in the vintage biz for a hot minute and I still struggle with this.  I plan on doing a blog post about the 'burn test' to determine fabric content but in the meantime, here's what you need to know.  Are you positive it is not silk or wool?  If yes, follow the below steps.  If you aren't, then its best to treat it like it is and follow the guidelines for protein based fabrics.  Wool is easy.  They invented Woolite for a reason.  Use it.  As for silk, scroll down a bit for an explanation on what to do. 


Here we go!

Protecting your garment from the stain and the process

I highly recommend doing a spot test first in an area on the inside of your garment.  You will want to pick an area where the fabric is similar to the area where the stain is, meaning if your stain is on a red flower printed onto your fabric and flows onto the background too, test where there is both red and the background color.  Check for color fastness and to be sure your stain remover won't also remove your fabric!  A spot test should be done first by dabbing at the fabric to see the reaction.  If the fabric isn't changing color or otherwise effected, soak a cotton round with your liquid of choice or plop a bit of your paste onto it and leave overnight.  If the fabric still appears to be ok and the colors haven't changed then you are good to go.   

Prior to doing any stain treatment, always put your clean absorbent towel under your fabric (between layers if applicable).  Puppy pee pads also work really well for this!  Bonus is puppy pads have a plastic backing to give another layer of protection.  You want to do this to protect from color bleed, creating a water mark or even bleeding your stain onto another area.


Step One

You have a stain and you have no idea what it is.  The location and color didn't help you narrow it down, so what do you use first?  Vinegar and water in a 50/50 mix.  Lemon juice is also generally safe, but when applying to a colored fabric, do a spot test first.  Lemon juice can sometimes lighten colors. With a Q-tip soaked in the vinegar water mix, blot the stain until it’s saturated.  If the stain is small enough, leave the Q-tip on it and allow to soak for awhile.  If the stain is larger than the Q-tip, soak a cotton round and place over the stain. 


Step Two

That didn’t work?  I’m a big fan of pastes.  Pastes can be applied directly onto a stain and left there while you do more important things, like shopping online at Dupree's!  If you used vinegar, you'll need to thoroughly rinse the area you treated.  Vinegar doesn't mix well with hydrogen peroxide so lets not play science fair with your vintage clothing!  You can rinse by blotting the stain with a clean cloth saturated with tap water, rinsing your cloth and repeating several times.  Here's what you'll need to make your go-to stain removal paste;

  • Borax
  • Washing soda
  • Hyrdrogen peroxide

** Here's an interesting fact.  Washing soda/soda ash aka sodium carbonate mixed with hydrogen peroxide is......Oxiclean! Only difference is you are able to control the hydrogen peroxide levels and are minus the added stabilizers Oxiclean contains.  You can also obtain sodium percarbonate in powder form which is Oxiclean.    

Make a paste out of the above ingredients and spoon over the stain.  I like to soak a cotton round in the liquid I used to make the paste and place it over the paste on the stain.  This keeps is damp and working for a longer period of time. Walk away.  Go buy some accessories on Dupree's website to go with the dress you're cleaning.  Come back every so often and scrape away the paste (or powder if the paste has dried in place or if you are using Launder'D, it will often dry to form a hard shell.  Just peel that off, check your stain and if its still there you can break the shell apart and reuse the pieces on the stain).  If the stain is still there, push the mix back over it and re-dampen it with the liquid you used and walk away again. 9 times out of 10 this method will work or work well enough to lighten the stain to the point that you are satisfied.  Sometimes I add Dawn or Fels Naptha (which I pulverize in a coffee grinder), however, these are both soaps and need to be thoroughly rinsed out which may lead to water stains (we will talk about those later).  If your paste dries to resemble some sort of freeform sculpture, don't worry, you didn't do it wrong.  Its why I cover the paste with a liquid soaked cloth or cotton round.  When the stain is lifted to your satisfaction, 'rinse' the area by blotting with a cloth wet with only water. 

This mixture and process is what I used for the photo in this blog.  It is my go to for underarm discoloration, dirt, mildew, grass, and the unknown stain. Because the mixture is non damaging to just about everything (except protein based fibers), even if it doesn't remove the stain, I can move to another product or a harsher method without worry. 


When you think you know what you're dealing with


Red or reddish brown stains

Spot cleaning reddish stains.  Could be blood or could be rust.  Is it near a zipper or metal snap? Probably rust.  Rust also tends to be a lighter reddish brown or dark in the middle and lighter coppery color at the edges.  Blood is usually either an even dark reddish brown color or if the edges are faded, it’s still a deep reddish color but only lighter. White vinegar or lemon juice is excellent for rust but I suggest lemon juice for red stains.  Mainly because as I mentioned before, vinegar and hydrogen peroxide should never be mixed and if the vinegar doesn’t work on what you thought was rust and move on to try blood removal, you’ll be using hydrogen peroxide.  You can use bottle lemon juice, but you can also just cut a lemon in half and plop it over the stain.  Rust likes to wander so actively work the stain (blotting with Q-tip) initially and when you have it significantly lightened or reduced in size, then you can leave the product on it and walk away.  For really tough rust stains, you can use products like Whink or EvapoRust.  Both are not meant for clothing though, so it is a product you will definitely have to spot check first and I don't suggest walking away from while treating.  Both should also be thoroughly rinsed out as well. 

Ok, lets talk blood.  Since we are dealing with old stains, you probably won't have anything to 'scrape off' like you would in a freshly dried blood stain but I do suggest to use a fingernail or clean baby toothbrush and gently scratch at the stain.  Blood tends to cause the fibers to really adhere to each other and doing this will open the fibers up a bit.  Brush away the stained area in case you did manage to release some caked blood.  Now create a paste of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda.  With your baby toothbrush, gently work it into the stain.  If you see the stain releasing, rinse the area with a clean cloth only damp with water and repeat the process.  If it seems to be seriously set in, leave the paste on the stain and go do something else for awhile (may I suggest browsing our website?), checking back to see progress.   


Ink stains

These aren't super common in vintage but you'll see them in men's shirts and suits.  Rubbing alcohol.  This saved my favorite modern sweater.  I wear a lanyard for my day job and I am known to clip a pen or in certain situations, a sharpie marker to it.  I got black sharpie marker all over my light gray ribbon sweater (the yarn used is flat & woven like a ribbon).  I was mortified.  I spent a solid 3 hours working on it, but I was successful at removing it all using rubbing alcohol.  Ink spreads like wild fire so start with small applicators like a cotton round or Q-tip and just dampen it at first with the rubbing alcohol then dab at the stain.  I used an entire sleeve of the cotton rounds on my sweater!  Once you've removed the majority of the stain, leave a cotton round or Q-tip soaked in rubbing alcohol over the remaining stain to let it work its magic.  



Original Dawn dish soap is your answer here!  How you do this is different than the other methods though!  Turn you garment inside out.  Place the stain directly over your clean cloth or several layers of paper towels or puppy pad.  Squirt a little Dawn on the backside of the stain and rub it in with your fingers or a baby toothbrush.  Now get the area a little wet with tap water and work the stain again.  You need to be careful your cloth/paper towel/pad doesn't shift.  The makeup you are removing might end up rubbing off on a different area of the garment if that happens. As I do this process, I usually use several layers of paper towels to start and change them a couple of times.  Then I switch to a cloth or puppy pad and let it sit for 15-30 minutes.  Rinse the area thoroughly to remove the soap and hopefully the rest of the stain.  You can follow up with white vinegar if needed to remove any residual stains.  Dawn is also good for motor oil or any oil based stain.  If you are treating a stain and notice that while it is wet with whatever liquid you are using it is slick feeling you may have an oil based stain and will need to incorporate Dawn into your mix.  Dawn is safe to mix with the Borax, washing soda, hydrogen peroxide solution.  As mentioned before, with Dawn and Fels Naptha, you need to rinse the soap out of the garment.  That might be running it under cool water or using a wet cloth repeatedly.  


Step Three  

What if you need to do an overall soak?  Use the same spot treatment mixture of washing soda, Borax and hydrogen peroxide and add it to a tub of tepid (not hot, but just barely warm) water. This could be a bathtub, utility tub, or a plastic tote.  I recommend a plastic tote so you don't leave your bathtub out of commission while cleaning your clothes.  Put your garment in, making sure it is fully submerged.  You can place something on top of the garment to keep it submerged.  I use a heavy plastic cutting board since it fits well in my tote and keeps the whole garment submerged.  Resist swishing, rubbing or scrubbing at any stains!  Let the water bath do the work.  You may need to leave it in there for a looooong time (I've done 4 days before).  When the water gets really cloudy or dirty, drain and repeat.  Its fine if the water loses its heat.  The warmish water is only meant to open the fibers up a bit and dissolve your paste mix.  The solution will still keep working in cool or cold water.  When you are satisfied with the results, rinse your portable tub and fill with clean water.  Rinse your garment and repeat at least 2 more times.  When it comes time to you pull your garment out, roll it to squeeze out the water, do not wring it.


Precautions to take and soaking alternatives

If you need to soak the garment for a long period of time you might want to remove any metal closures, including zippers.  Rhinestones should also not be soaked.  They will darken and the metal will rust your garment.  Also, do not soak sequins or embroidery.  Some vintage sequins will lose their color or completely dissolve and a lot of vintage embroidery is done in silk.  You can do something I refer to as 'hand soaking' if you have a garment with a lot of adornments on it.  I use a clean cloth and dip it into my soaking solution.  I then lay it on the main body of the garment, avoiding the embellishments.  Leave it on for however long it takes to clean the garment.  This method is obviously time consuming since you have to do this process over an entire garment so my suggestion is to purchase the uber cheap bundles of washcloths from a discount store.  Lay your garment out on a large flat surface and soak all the washcloths in your solution, then placing them onto your garment, carefully avoiding the embellishments that are keeping you from doing an all over soak.  Important reminder!  If you are 'hand soaking' and both the front and the back of the garment is equally decorative, place puppy pads (absorbent towels aren't enough for this one) between the front layer of fabric and the back. 


How to deal with silk  

Ok, I promised I would talk about silk.  You can use 2 things on silk and 2 things only.  Vinegar or lemon juice mixed with water (50/50 mix).  That's it. Everything else will either cause color issues or cause your silk to shatter.  Never, never use Oxiclean, Restoration Fabric Restorer, or Retro Clean on silk.  EVER!  Seriously, it doesn't matter how well you rinse your garment, the cleaner will eat away at your fabric. To clean, start with a Q-tip dipped in a 50/50 mix and dab at the stain.  Try to feather the wetness out since silk shows watermarks easily.  Allow to dry.  If the stain is still there, do it again.  You can add a bit of salt.  You can dissolve it and then apply or you can sprinkle it onto the damp stain and use your finger to gently rub the fabric a bit.  It acts like a mild abrasive before dissolving and assisting in the stain removal.  You can place a cotton round soaked in your mixture onto a stain as well.  Repeat as needed.  Remember that colored silk bleeds very easily!  Use only a slightly damp Q-tip when working the edges of colors and always use a clean dry towel under your project.  This will absorb excess and keep it from wandering around on your fabric or the color you're working on from bleeding onto other areas.    

Since I mentioned Restoration Fabric Restorer and Retro Clean in the previous paragraph, I have a confession.  I have used Retro Clean in the past.  It works really well.  Then I learned that its main ingredient is sodium perborate.  While it is marketed as a 'gentle cleaning agent commonly found in teeth whitening products' it has been banned in Europe for the use in cosmetics since 2010.  I thought that was odd so I looked it up.  It was banned because they deemed it "carcinogenic, mutagenic, and toxic for reproduction".  A little more digging and its because it can cause fertility issues and deformities in fetuses. I'm well past baby bearing age and I would be using it for cleaning and not internally for teeth whitening or directly on my skin like a cosmetic but something about that didn't sit right with me.  Where does that water go that you used to soak in?  I'm not sure I would be defined as a tree hugger per se, but I don't really like the idea of that getting into ground water either.  And then I thought "do I want that on my skin or embedded in my vintage clothing?".  Yeah, I'll just find another solution instead.  And so I did.  A much cheaper solution too. I cannot attest to the ingredients of Restoration Fabric Restorer since they seem to want to keep it a secret  


Step Four

Anyway, back to getting your clothes clean.  For the most part, the paste and/or soak method is going to work for you.  At least to the degree that you can wear your garment.  

You are going to probably end up with water 'stains' after you spot treat.  Water lines are also commonly seen on garments on the rack.  Dampen a cloth with water enough that it would soak through your fabric if you pressed, but not enough that it is dripping wet.  Start a little inside the water mark and pull outward, past the water line and onto the non 'stained' area of the garment.  Press hard enough to get the fabric damp and lighten your pressure as you pull outward from the line, essentially 'feathering' the dampness.  Repeat this until the distinct line is no longer visible.  Allow to dry (you can use a hairdryer on a low heat setting to speed the process up).  If you see new areas of water marks from your feathering, repeat the process from that point, using a bit less pressure this time.  Gradually, the water mark will disappear.  You can use a clothing steamer too.  Feather the steam out from the water line. 


Step 5

Drying is next.  If you have a drying rack, utilize it!  Avoid hanging on a hanger to dry since it can leave your shoulders misshapen and the weight of the garment can cause structural damage at the shoulders as well.  If you don't have a drying rack, lay your garment out on a clean bath towel and roll it up, pressing as you go.  You can also place another towel over the garment, creating a vintage sandwich and gently press to remove any remaining wetness.  Now we air dry, flipping the garment a few times to allow both sides to dry evenly.  If you are dealing with fabrics like acetate, rayon, crepe, silk and wool, you will need to block dry them because they can shrink or become misshapen while they dry.  They sell special mats for this, but all you really need is a surface you can push a pin through. I use a mat that is actually one of those kid's play mats that you piece together like a jigsaw puzzle.  They're made of foam so they accept pins being pushed into them.  Thicker yoga mats work well too. Lay your garment out on the drying mat, shaping it as you go. Using rust proof pins, pin the garment at the fabric edges to the mat and allow it to dry.  You might have to check on it frequently to re-pin in other areas.  Don't have a mat?  That's fine too.  Just follow the same steps but check on it more frequently to reshape it as it dries. 


Step 6 

What on earth is that smell???

Lets face it, vintage stinks.  There are several ways to remedy this.  You can put your garment in an airtight container (ziplock bag works) with a packet of activated charcoal and then throw it in the freezer.  Keep it in there until the stink is gone (you might need to replace the charcoal a couple of times).  You can spritz it with CHEAP vodka.  It has to be cheap.  First because you shouldn't waste expensive vodka and second because for whatever chemical reason, cheap vodka just seems to work better.  The key to this one is to use a spray bottle that produces a fine mist.  A plant mister is what I use.  You don't want a spray because it might leave droplet 'stains' after it dries and a mister gives you better all over coverage.  Keep misting and drying until the stink is gone.  You can also use vinegar instead of vodka.  You can put baking soda in a large plastic bag and put your garment in it.  You can use a dry cleaning plastic hanger bag for this.  Just tie off the bottom.  I haven't had much luck with this technique though. If one doesn't work, try another one.  Don't use Febreze or other fabric 'refreshers'.  They don't work for vintage clothing.  Also, I highly recommend investing in a clothing steamer.  You can get them super cheap on Amazon or at Walmart.  Since I recommend that an iron never touch your vintage clothing, you will need a way to get wrinkles out or to reshape adornments (lace, collars, fabric flowers, etc).  Its also a good way to test if you truly got the stink out.  After you do any of the above and think your garment no longer stinks, use a fabric steamer on it.  If there is any remaining stink left in the fabric, you will know immediately!  If there is, just repeat the de-stinking process until the steam eventually smells like nothing.  Another pro tip?  After I neutralize any odors in my clothes, I add a couple of drops of my favorite essential oil into my steamer.  This gives my clothes a nice subtle clean smell to them.  I personally use lavender and cedarwood because not only does it smell nice, but it also repels moths!  Double duty! 


Step 7   

Since you went through all this work, I don't want to skip the storage of your garments.  If your garment is silk or has chiffon or similar fabric at the shoulders, do not hang it!  Hanging can put a lot of stress on the shoulders and your garment will shatter.  I've had so many beautiful dresses come into the shop that originally had sheer sleeves, but due to hanging them up, the sleeves had hanger holes or were shattered due to the stress.  Its far better to gently fold these garments or you can hang them if you hang them in a manner that places the stress elsewhere.  For example, you can cut a piece of ribbon so that when it loops around the neck of the hanger and is affixed to the inside waistband, the shoulders 'sit' on the hanger, but there is no stress on the shoulders.  The ribbon can be sewn in or you can just use safety pins. 

Clothing should be stored out of sunlight (direct, indirect or filtered).  My 'closet room' has an east facing window, but is covered with room darkening drapes.  I allow no natural light into that room.  Fading can happen in under an hour so please do not leave your vintage in sunlight. 

You can get breathable black garment storage bags on Amazon pretty cheap and can put several pieces into one bag and still be able to zip it up.  This is the absolute best way to store your garments. Do not use plastic like you get at the dry cleaners.  It can speed up dry rot or can lead to mildew if any moisture gets in. 



All of this sounds time consuming, doesn't it?  It is!  Sometimes you get lucky and the stain comes out in one go and you only spend an hour on it.  Sometimes you need to let the process do its thing for several days.  There isn't actually a whole lot of elbow grease that goes into it though.  Its a mix, spread, and walk away kind of thing.  The majority of the time spent is the paste doing its thing while you're off doing your own thing.  Its a bit of an effort but if it means you get to wear something amazing then its worth it.  

I am also available at if you have questions about this blog post or tackling your own stain removal.

If you prefer to not take this task on yourself, we can absolutely give it a go for you!  Below is a list of our prices for our Launder'D services. 


$10 for one stain (up to 2"), $5 each additional on same side

$12 for one stain over 2", $7 each additional on same side

Stains encompassing large areas $20 & up

Full soak $22

Partial soak due to adornments $30

Soak & stain removal $30 & up

Specialty fabric such as silk & wool are an additional $3 overall

- Stain removal initial treatment is approximately 8-12 hours and is conducted with the garment laying flat, if stains are on both sides of the garment then that time doubles which is why there is an additional fee if the garment has to be treated on both sides.

- Additional fees will be assessed if adornments or notions need to be removed for the cleaning process

- Silk color bleed correction will be quoted based on severity, size, & # of colors

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