Learn How To Care For Your Vintage Garments With These Tips From An Expert

By Emma Gleason
Estelle Stroud. Photo / Erin McNamara

With her extensive background in film, costuming and vintage clothing, Estelle Stroud knows better than anyone how to breath new life into an old favourite. Her Instagram account, @Vintagestylistsown, is where she releases vintage pieces in themed collections, purchased by loyal followers, while sharing her unique personal style

Estelle’s theatrical approach to dressing and keen eye for history makes sense given her background. “I am also an indigenous film-maker and costume designer with 12 years' experience in the film industry,” she explains. She was raised to have a deep appreciation for clothes and a practical skill set to care for them.

“I am extremely grateful to come from a family of skilled sewers,” says Estelle. “As a young one I received guidance from my Māma on the importance of hand-sewing and mending — at the age of 15 I had to complete a garment all by hand before she let me touch her sewing machine!”

This early training helped shape her love of clothes with history and what they say about us. Estelle has a “passion for the individuality and quality of vintage clothing,” she says. “Which also requires the need and skill of restoration.”

From film costumes to vintage trading, restoration and repairs are an essential part of her work, and skills that are necessary when buying and caring for older items.

We’ve all been there, unearthing a piece of our dreams at a flea market, only to find it’s missing a button or has an odd stain. Or perhaps it's a family hand-me-down with sentimental value but a lot of wear. With a bit of love and attention, many faults can be repaired (effort that prevents a garment being discarded as waste).

Estelle shares her advice on how to repair and care for vintage clothing.

What repairable flaws should people look for when buying vintage?

Missing buttons — these can always be replaced, if the buttons are plain you can replace just the missing one with a similar style or colour, or if they are quite detailed you may have to replace them all. Opportunity shops usually have a little haberdashery area, you might just find what you need there or you can go to your local craft or sewing store — or go the extra mile and search online for buttons from the same era as the garment.

Photo / Erin McNamara
Photo / Erin McNamara

Stains are not always the end of life for a garment but it does take personal experience to know what is a surface stain and what is permanent... Chances are the item just needs a good soak in water and from there you can experiment directly onto the stain with lemon juice, vinegar, baking soda paste or eco whitening powder soak.

Lipstick or foundation can be removed by handwashing with dishwashing liquid.

For oily stains (my Māma taught me this one), oil lifts oil. It works in the same way that you can use sellotape to remove sticky tape residue from a surface. Eucalyptus oil dabbed on the oil stain with a cotton bud, then launder as normal. I also like to use De-Solve It spray, which you can pick up from Bunnings.

Hemlines that have come loose can be handsewn back in place.

Splits in the underarm seam; depending on the age of garment, if the armpits have split along the seam it will be due to the age of the cotton thread, having deteriorated over time from perspiration, etc. Once the garment is laundered, unpick the stitching all around the armpit and sew it back together.

What are flaws that can’t be fixed?

It can come down to personal preference and aesthetic and skill base really. As a collector of vintage, when it comes to repairs, I am a purest and I prefer my mending invisible, so I choose to stay away from anything that has major ink stains, bleached areas, ripped areas in the body of the garment, or colour run — unless it’s not too noticeable, say, on a patterned textile.

If you're open to mixing and matching fabrics to patch up an unsightly stain or replace a shredded area the garment is your oyster. In the mid-2000s I had a pair of 1960s Christian Dior Monsieur trousers. I tripped up and busted the knee and ended up with the classic L-shaped tear, promptly mended with appliqueing a black silk love heart patch.

How do you get rid of that musty smell some clothing has?

Sometimes a musty item just needs to be hung on a washing line outside in the sun and fresh air for the day. If your garment is machine washable, pouring in around half a cup of white vinegar will cleanse your clothes of a dank musty aroma. Steaming will remove odours but my favourite industry tip is vodka spray (recipe below).

What repairs should people learn to do themselves and why?

Hand-sewing! Because unless you've lost the use of your hands it is so easy and fosters positive feelings of achievement and independence. Key hand-sewing techniques are replacing buttons, blind hem stitch, catch stitch, darning, attaching a hook and eye or domes YouTube tutorials are your friend.

When buying a vintage garment, what repairs should people expect to make in the future?

Zips tend to need replacing, all vintage buyers will have a busted zip story.... buttons hanging on by a thread and seams coming apart due to vintage cotton threads becoming weak or rotten over time.

What are some ways people can breathe life back into an old garment?

My personal favourite was getting a pair of leather knee-high boots custom painted by mural artist Xöe Hall. Before I got them painted I had not worn them for a while and was considering donating because they really did still have life left in them... Seven years later I still have and wear the boots, and when the time comes that I can't wear them anymore they will take a place on a wall as art.

Does vintage need to be cared for differently to new items?

Definitely treat your retro and vintage with care. Try not to over launder your garments, air them out in the sun and wind and only wash when necessary. Depending on the age of garment, handwash or soak with either just water, mild or eco detergent — modern-day washing powders can be quite harsh on vintage fabrics. My favourite tip, acquired when I started out in the costume department in film, is the miracle cure that is vodka spray.

Vodka spray recipe (roughly)

Spray bottle
1/2 cup cheap vodka
10-20 drops of tea tree oil
1 ½ cups water

We use this in theatre and film on costumes that cannot be laundered daily or, at times, laundered at all due to either time constraints or their construction. The vodka and tea tree oil are both odour eaters and antibacterial agents. Once the alcohol evaporates so do the odours and bacteria along with it. Hang your garment on a hanger inside out and spray all around the neckline — front and back and under the pits. If it’s trousers or jeans, spray around the waistband and crotch then let the garment air dry — this is also another way to get more longevity out of your denim.

What are some easy alterations that can improve the fit of a secondhand garment?

Hemming for sleeves, trouser cuffs or skirt length; there’s no need to be deterred of anything that is too long for you, having a garment hemmed to your preferred fit and length is easy enough to take to a tailor or repairs and alterations business. Darts; do not underestimate the power of having an item nipped in at the waist to fit your figure.

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