Stain Removal for Vintage Clothing

How to Spot Treat Stains on Vintage Clothing

So you got yourself a new vintage tee or some nice vintage crewneck from your local thrift store or vintage seller, and you notice a stain on the item.  A lot of people will begin building resentment towards the seller of said vintage piece and think that there is nothing they can do.  Well let me tell you that there is always hope for cleaning up a vintage article of clothing.  In this guide I will show y’all how to defeat these stains.

Before we get started I need to stress a few things:

  1. Think first, act second!  If the article of clothing is so old that it belongs in a museum, then please don’t try and clean up any stains.  The museum curators will buy the clothing as is, and will have specialists that determine if the stain is worth treating.  
  2. Not all fabrics can be stain treated the same.  I am going to primarily focus on stain treating cotton, denim, and some flannel.  Fabrics like silk, velvet, and satin can be very delicate and the chemicals in cleaning supplies can burn holes or bleach the fabric if you are not careful!
  3. Sometimes people prefer their vintage clothing to have their “natural patina”.  This means that the fades, stains, and rips in the clothing article provide character and personality to the product.  (The perfect denim jacket with nail holes in the sleeve and sun fades from building a barn would be considered a “natural patina”)

Vintage Clothing Stain Removal

Let’s move onto the actual stain treatment options.  There are many different ways to remove stains from your vintage clothing, but I am going to share with you what has worked for me in the past.  Let’s look at the supply list:

  1. Oxyclean Powder
  2. Small bowl or cup 
  3. Spoon 
  4. Newspaper or other disposable “mat” to clean on

Once you have your supplies gathered, we can get to work on treating that stain fighting.  In my experience, removing stains from vintage clothing can be accomplished with Oxyclean about 90% of the time. As such, this blog will focus on stain removal with Oxyclean.

  1. You’ll want to add some Oxiclean powder to your cup or bowl, as well as, enough water so that the Oxyclean/water mixture looks caked-up. The mixture should appear thick and “gravy” like, not too “soupy”.
  2. After that, you'll want to lay your clothing article flat on a paper mat to determine all the stains and spots that need treatment. (*If there are stains on the front and back, then you will need to use Oxyclean on the front side first and then fold the shirt into itself afterwards to stain treat the back of the clothing article.) 
  3. Once you've completed Step 2, take a spoonful of the Oxyclean/water “gravy” and apply the mixture to any visible stains.  Flatten the mixture onto the stain, but make sure the stain ios covered completely by the mixture. You don't want any part of the stain visible through the mixture. After you've applied the mixture to all the stains and spots, you need to put the clothing article away in a flat secluded area. *If you have pets or small children DO NOT leave your garment on the floor since Oxyclean can be poisonous!
  4. Let the clothing article sit for 12-24 hours depending on the severity of the stains. 
  5. After the 12-24 hours has elapsed, you can now wash your garment to determine whether you have successfully removed the stain.  I recommend only washing your clothing article by hand, but if you use a washing machine then only wash the clothing article in cold water using a low-spin cycle wash setting.  A good rule of thumb for using a washing machine to care for vintage clothing is to only wash garments on 'machine wash cotton, linen, and some wools' usually when mixed with nylon or acrylic.  As a guideline, nylon mixtures will be post 1940, acrylics after 1950, and polyester marked labels after 1960.  Most vintage clothing did not include a washing care tag and fabrics listed.  This is because of the Textile Fibers Identification Act passed in 1960.  Once the clothing article is washed, you need to hang dry it.  If you can’t hang dry the clothing article, then dry it on a low heat setting in 30 minute intervals so you can check on it frequently.  Now the clothing article should be dry and your vintage piece will be looking fresh and clean!

Vintage Clothing Care 

While the steps to removing  above stain treating method has worked best for me in the past but there are some other ways to eliminate stains.  If you have a few vintage articles of clothing that have minimal staining (sweat stains, tiny spots, dirt scruffs), then you can fill a large bucket with water and add Oxiclean to the bucket.  2 tablespoons of Oxyclean for every pint of water is a good ratio for mixing.  Once you have your mix ready, then you can add some clothes to the bucket and give it a few spins with a large spoon or stick to get the clothing evenly mixed and coated.  I will let the clothes sit in the bucket mix for 12 hours typically and then wash them afterwards.  This is a great method for eliminating smaller stains and is way less labor intensive compared to the first method of stain treating.  

Vintage Clothing Care FAQs

What if I wash my clothing and some of the dye bled onto other clothing?

That is a common problem that I have unfortunately ran into a few times.  Don’t worry because the clothing isn’t ruined if you take the right steps immediately!  First, you need to mix one tablespoon of dishwashing detergent liquid like Dawn with one tablespoon of white vinegar with two cups of water.  Next, using a white cloth, sponge the stain with the detergent/vinegar solution, blotting frequently.  Flush with clear water and keep blotting until the liquid is absorbed.  Still not working?  You can try dabbing the stain with a cotton swab dipped in hydrogen peroxide.  Hydrogen peroxide works as an all-fabric, color safe bleach, so it’s worth a try.  Just make sure to test it on an area that isn’t noticeable before trying to tackle the bigger stains.  Better safe than sorry.  

*Public Safety Announcement: Never mix chlorine bleach with ammonia.  This causes a hazardous fume*


As we've mentioned above, there are a few different methods to handle stain treatment for vintage clothing.  While there is no right or wrong way to treat stains on vintage garments, the above method for stain treating vintage clothing have saved countless garments in the past. Using this method for stain removal detailed in this blog, I've turned “worthless and ruined” vintage pieces into $100+ in sales, previously.  Even if the vintage garments look like they were used as toilet paper and napkins by their previous owners, I have still been able to was able to get these pieces looking fresh again. While your results may var, It's always worth trying to stain treat clothing before giving up on it entirely.  So next time you find a dope but stained vintage shirt at the thrift, don’t pass up on it because you probably can get it looking fresh and clean if you give it a little TLC!


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