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Rust stain removal on vintage fabrics.

Vintage clothes are great; they’re often inexpensive and are usually better made than modern items.  However, it’s not unusual for a vintage piece to have some stains or discolorations on it.  Discoloration from light exposure isn’t something you can fix, usually, so be careful.  It’s a good bet that discoloration is from light if it’s on the edges of a garment, where it would have shown when it was hanging in a closet.  You see a lot of this on shoulder seams, where the edge of the hangar would have been.  Unless you’re planning to dye the garment, you’re pretty much out of luck with this kind of fading.

Other kinds of discoloration, though, can often be removed.  Dust on the shoulders? Rust stains?  Remnants of old spills (you see this a lot on wedding dresses)?  All of these can be dealt with, to some degree.  Underarm yellowing can sometimes be dealt with; sometimes it’s a stain, and sometimes it’s a chemical reaction with the dye that has caused the discoloration.  If it’s a stain, you have a reasonable chance of getting it out, but if the dye has reacted, you’re out of luck.  Stains often look like water marks (because they kind of are), with very obvious edges, but just because it’s stained doesn’t mean the dye didn’t *also* react, so be cautious.

I often see rust stains on items that are otherwise in great shape.  I also see people who believe that rust stains are impossible to remove.  With patience and a little luck, rust stains are actually pretty easy to deal with on many fabrics.

My technique for dealing with stains on vintage items starts with deciding whether or not it’s worth the effort, usually by determining fiber content, since that will have the largest effect on the difficulty of cleaning the item.

  1. Determine what fiber the item is made from.  I like the Burn Test.  I pull a couple of threads from a seam allowance to burn, when possible. If it’s not possible, then you’ll have to eyeball it, and practice makes perfect.
    • Is it polyester or another plasticky synthetic? Probably not worth the effort if the stains are neckline grunge or underarm discoloration.  If it smells, don’t even bother, it’s never coming out.  Oily stains are hard to remove from polyester and nylon for the same reason getting oily tomato sauce off your plastic containers is difficult: oils just adhere to plastic.
    • Is it acetate? Acetate is a silky synthetic used in the late 40s and early 50s; its often a taffeta-like fabric, with a glossy finish and a crisp hand.  It *stinks* when burned.  I generally find it unpleasant to wear, and a total pain to care for, so I almost always skip purchasing an acetate garment unless it’s dirt cheap and totally amazing.  Acetate does not deal well with water.  Even if your stains come out, you may never be able to get the fabric looking nice again, because acetate is very very weak when wet, and will crease and crumple terribly.  If you’re dedicated, you can spot clean acetate very carefully, and then steam or iron it very cautiously (because the fibers will melt!) and end up with a nice-looking garment.  If you’re really dedicated, you can wash the whole garment and steam and iron it back into pretty good shape some of the time.  Heavier acetate garments will be less prone to irreparable damage, so if something is tissue thin, just skip it unless you’re really up for a challenge.  Coat linings are often acetate, so keep that in mind if you buy a nice coat, though at least nobody is likely to see it.
    • Is it silk?  Check the strength of the fabric, especially at the underarms and along the waist-band.  Human sweat is acidic, and causes silk to degrade, sometimes severely.  Often, the yellowing of the underarms on silk will due to sweat damage, and won’t come out.  Next, check for dye fastness; silk does not like to take dye, and only recently have we managed to manufacture colorfast silks.  Take a cotton swab and get it damp, then press it to the garment in an inconspicuous spot; check for dye transfer.  If there isn’t any, give the garment a little rub with the swab.  Still good?  Are you sure this is silk and not acetate?  Even if it seems like your silk item is colorfast, proceed with caution.  If it’s not colorfast, spot cleaning will be the way to go.  However, even with caution, you may end up causing more harm than good in trying to remove stains, because you’ll probably also remove some of the dye, leaving pale spots behind.
    • Is it wool?  Does it look like wool?  Remember that wool can come in very light-weight fabrics like crepe, especially in pieces from the 30s and 40s. Press it to your neck; if it’s scratchy, it’s probably wool, unless the item is from the 60s or later.  If you’re not sure, then use the burn test if possible.  If it’s not possible, and there’s an inconspicuous spot, get the fabric damp and smell it; does it smell like wet dog?  Then you’re smelling lanolin, and it’s probably wool.  If the underarms smell noticeably like a gym bag, it’s probably some kind of synthetic and you’ll never get that smell out, sorry.  Wool is tricky because it shrinks, so spot cleaning is generally recommended.  You can also hand wash in very cold water with specialty detergents to good effect, but you’ll want to treat spots first so you can avoid soaking the whole garment (the longer it soaks, the more likely it is to shrink).
    • Is it cotton or linen?  Yay!  These two are generally easiest to work with. Check for colorfastness, and remember to use a press-cloth; linen will get an unpleasant shine to it if you use a hot iron directly on it.
  2. Look over the item carefully for anything that might be a rust stain.  Rust stains are usually brown or orange, and typically small, often pin-prick sized.  You’ll find them near old metal findings (like zippers, snaps, hooks, or buttons) and sometimes just randomly on the garment.  If you’re not sure that something *isn’t* a rust stain, treat it like it is one, just in case.
    • Lay the item out in one layer, if possible.  If not, put a plate or bowl under the stain(s) so that you are working on only one layer of fabric at a time.
    • Snap some “before” pictures.  It’s important to be able to check if what you are doing is actually working.
    • You’ll need some acid; there are commercial rust removers out there, but they are often strong enough to damage textiles, so I use them as a last resort.  My preferred rust remover is a 50/50 mix of lemon juice and white vinegar, with a generous pinch of salt per lemon, or approximately quarter cup finished mixture if you’re using bottled juice.  You can absolutely just use lemon juice or just vinegar, but vinegar is cheaper, and lemon juice makes it smell less bad, which is why I use the combo.  Especially if you’re using bottled lemon juice, they’re the same acidity, so it shouldn’t make a difference.
    • If your item is acetate, silk or wool, or not colorfast (henceforth referred to as “delicate”) you’ll use a cotton swab to dab the acid on the stain; get the stain wet, but not soaking, and get as little as possible of the acid mixture on the rest of the garment.  Put some plastic wrap over the top of the stain to keep it moist, and then leave it for an hour.
    • If your item is polyester or cotton or linen, and is also colorfast (henceforth referred to as “sturdy”), you can soak the stains in a bowl of the mixture.  Check back in an hour to make sure nothing untoward is happening.
    •  It’s been an hour! How’s that stain looking?  If you’re lucky, it’s almost gone.  Put a towel under your delicate item, and dab the stain with yet another cotton swab dampened with water until you get all of the acid out.  Hang the item to dry, and then reassess the stain. Repeat as needed.  You can leave the item for longer than an hour if the surrounding fabric doesn’t seem to be harmed.
    • If the stain is almost gone, rinse your sturdy item in cold water and then leave to dry.  Reassess the stain once the item is dry.  If the stain is stubborn, keep soaking it.  I often leave white items to soak for 24 hours, and I sometimes repeat that a number of times.

It’s important to treat the rust stains first because they can react with other cleaning products and become worse.  They’re annoying but fairly straightforward to clean when they’re small; after reacting, though, they can get larger, or become permanently set.  And before you decide to reach for a commercial rust remover, keep in mind that I have been able to remove rust stains caused by the complete disintegration of antique steel snaps from an embroidered 1930s Hungarian blouse using the salt/vinegar/lemon mixture.  The stains were enormous, and the garment was free because the seller assumed it was done for.  It took almost a week, but the garment came clean, and the embroidery remained undamaged.