Cleaning and Storing Your Costumes

By | May 7, 2016

Confession time: I wash my costumes at little as possible. I always make sure I’m clean and awash in antiperspirant when I put a costume on, I take it off as soon as I’m done and rely on airing out and strategic spritzes of Febreze to keep things fresh. But, sometimes, sooner or later, something’s going to have to be cleaned.

Take a look at your costume. What is it made from? Don’t limit yourself to the outer fabric, what about the trim? The buttons? The lining? Did you have the foresight to jot down any care information on the bolt or spool or button card? If so, that’s the place to start.

When in doubt, cater to the most delicate part of your costume. Oh, sure, that cotton shell can take six rounds in a washer full of hot water, but what about the metallic gold braid on the hem? Dry clean only? Then to the dry cleaners you go!

For that matter, what IS dry cleaning?

To quote Wikipedia, dry cleaning is a process for cleaning clothing or textiles using a chemical solvent other than water. I bet entire days go by when you don’t think of water as a chemical solvent, but that’s what it is.

Dry cleaning doesn’t mean that your garments aren’t going to get wet, only that they’re not going to get dunked in water. Instead, most dry-cleaners use perchloroethylene or “Perc” for short, which is about as lovely as you can imagine with a name like that. Perc is a known carcinogen and the waste is hazardous. There are chemical processes that are less harmful to the environment and to the staff of the cleaning facility – often advertised under the “Green Earth” trademark – but it can cost more than regular dry cleaning.

Aside from the difference in solvents, the cleaning process isn’t all that different from regular laundry. The dry cleaning process will subject your clothing to similar agitation and soaking like it gets during the “delicate” cycle on your home washer.

Dry cleaning solvents are ferocious and can do serious damage to plastic and metallic elements of a costume – such as metallic trim, or the buttons. Also consider whether or not your garment can tolerate being wadded and crunched up in a washer – some trims might crease permanent or even break during the process – and your dry cleaner will not accept a dime’s worth of responsibility for any damage. In a worst case, dry cleaning solvents could DISSOLVE parts of your costume, which is why it’s a good idea to record the care instructions for trims and buttons as well as your fabrics when you’re buying commercial goods.

If your costume is free from vulnerable trims and the buttons on it are rated as safe for dry-cleaning solvents, AND you think your costume can survive being tumbled about you can consider it for your costume.

Some costumers will remove the buttons and other embellishments from their costumes before sending them to a dry cleaner which is a good idea if you have any doubt as to how they’ll hold up during the process. You can always re-attach them, later. It’s a lot of work, but it beats destroying the costume.

Okay, what about washing a costume at home, then? That’s definitely an option. You can either run your costume through a washing machine, or you can hand wash it. Me? I hand wash my costumes when Febreze and airing-out isn’t doing the trick. I NEVER use a washing machine unless the costume item is a ready made garment that came with a laundering label attached and I’m 100% sure it’s okay to subject to the stresses of a washing machine.

If I owned a front-loading washing machine – which doesn’t have the central agitator that a top-loading machine does – I might reconsider my policy. But as I’m convinced that my top-loading machine is just waiting for a chance to snag on a bit of my costume and pull it apart, I’m not going to give it the chance.

I wash my costumes in the bathtub. It’s the only thing big enough. If you’re lucky enough to have an honest-to-gosh laundry sink which is deeper and larger than even the biggest kitchen sink, then by all means use that. You’ll end up using less water and it’ll be easier on your back and knees, too.

There’s a lot of debate out there about what detergents to use when washing costumes, but the only point of agreement is this: Woolite is not all that and a bag of chips. Woolite contains lanolin which is great when you’re washing, well, wool, but it can leave gunk on other fibers. And some folks are allergic to lanolin, too. Use Ivory Snow, instead. Sometimes I just rely on warm water, alone, to do the job, if the garment isn’t all that dirty/worn.

Because you OF COURSE pre-washed your fabric before cutting it, your fabric is probably done giving up dye and won’t leak when you wash it. Maybe. You hope?

My rule of thumb: if there’s any doubt, use water that’s just lukewarm. You want a little bit of heat to help get the dirt out, and to keep your hands from going numb while you’re agitating the cloth in the tub, but don’t get it anywhere near steamy-hot.

If you have some scraps from the costume’s construction in your bag, dig them out and run them through a sinkful of warm water and soap and watch what happens very closely. Make sure you let it dry all the way, too, before committing your costume to the same thing, so you can look for any signs of fading.

There’s no need to twist and wring your costume while washing it. It won’t make the dirt come out any faster and puts a strain on delicate fabrics and trims. Swirl it about with your hands for a few minutes, go take a rest for a quarter of an hour because your arms are tired, and then swirl the clothes in the tub again. Go after trouble spots with a soft bristle toothbrush. If you’re sure your fabric can take it, pre-treat those trouble spots with Shout or other spot-lifter.

A note on washing white fabric. If you’ve got a garment that’s pure white – like a dress shirt, or the pantaloons in your Victorian wardrobe – and you notice that the white is getting a bit dingy over time, what do you do? No, don’t reach for the chlorine bleach. Bleach weakens fabric fibers and can still leave your white garments looking dull and even yellowed, over time.

What you need is a bluing compound, which will brighten up your whites better than any bleach. I like Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Bluing, but there are several products out there that do the job. A very little of this goes a long way, so read the directions before using it. Be sure to pour the liquid bluing into your washer or sink after running the water in but before adding your clothes. The concentrated bluing can stain your clothes, so it must be diluted before putting your garments in the wash.

When using detergents, rinse your garment several times to be sure of getting all the soap out. Soap left behind can become visible on your costume as it dries and even irritate your skin, so take the time to rinse thoroughly.

An alternative to washing an entire costume is to spot-treat any stains on an as-needed basis. This often works out fine, but there is a risk that you’ll end up with spot-fading in that area. This shouldn’t happen if you remembered to wash your fabric before cutting it and you’re washing it with water that’s the appropriate temperature. If in doubt, grab some scraps from your scrap bag and put it to the test, first.

Drying your costume. I’m going to say this a few times, so it sinks in: lay your costume flat to dry. You can put it on one of those nifty sweater hammocks, or lay it out on some towels in a warm spot, but lay your costume flat to dry. Do not peg it on to a clothesline unless it’s a lightweight garment that you’re sure, and I mean SURE isn’t going to stretch out under its own weight while dripping dry. Remember, clothes that you’ve just hand-washed are going to have a lot more water in them than something that’s just been through the spin cycle of your washer. That means the costume is heavier and some fabrics are weaker when they’re wet. Putting them on a clothes line is asking for trouble.

In a pinch, drape your costume across a clothes horse, which offers more support than just the single line of a clothes line, but if you can, find the room to lay a costume out flat to dry. And dry it indoors – why go out of your way to collect street fumes and wandering yard debris on your costume?

Of course, if your costume piece is a ready-made garment with washing instructions that specifically state that tumbling dry is okay, then it’s okay – as long as you haven’t hot-glued a bunch of will-melt-in-the-heat plastic trim in the meantime.

Ironing Costumes

What about ironing? Costumes get rumpled, especially when you have to cram them into a suitcase for transportation to an event. But before you reach for an iron, consider investing in a clothes steamer. Putting your costume on a hanger and steaming it can address a lot of suitcase rumpling without subjecting your costume to the high heat of an iron. A decent portable steamer will cost you about thirty dollars. A less portable upright steamer will cost you a bit more, but it will have a larger reservoir for water and pump out steam hotter and faster than a portable item. I had an upright steamer and it’s one of those things you don’t realize how much you’re going to use it until you have it.

If you don’t have a steamer, grab your iron and set it to the lowest setting at which it will generate steam, make sure the steam button is turned on – to “extra” steam if you have that option – and puff steam on to your garment – either on the ironing board or on a hanger.

But, sometimes, you’re going to have to press your costume. Military style pants need those snazzy creases over the knee. Your crisp cotton shirt is looking distinctly uncrisp after twelve hours in a suitcase. It’s time to break out the iron.

Just like when you’re deciding what temperature water to use to wash your costume, let the most delicate part of your costume determine your iron temperature – although you have a bit more wiggle-room when you’re ironing. After all, you can iron around plastic buttons, and stop short of delicate trim, if necessary. And if your garment is made from one fabric, but lined in another – say a heavyweight cotton, but lined in silk – the weight of your surface fabric will give SOME protection to the fabric underneath. So run a hot iron over that cotton, but stop and check how the underside is doing as you go along. When in doubt, start with as cool an iron as possible and put a little extra effort into the actual pressing of the creases. Then carefully increase the heat and steam if that doesn’t do the trick. Steam and heat will accomplish more than heat alone.

Be aware, some fabrics do NOT like steam irons or steamers. More accurately, they don’t like it when the steamer or iron hiccups and spits hot water out onto the fabric. Unfortunately, this happens more often than anyone likes, especially hotel irons that aren’t exactly highly-engineered items. One way to avoid that is to keep your device turned up a hotter than just the bare minimum threshold to generate steam, and to take your time when hitting the “steam burst” button. If you try to move water through the system too quickly, then it doesn’t have time to heat up and evaporate and that’s when you get those spits of hot water. Many fabrics will forgive hot water splatters, but silk yarns will NOT.

(As a rule, I don’t trust hotel irons an inch. Use a pillow-case as a press cloth and test the iron thoroughly before letting it anywhere near your costume. Just recently, I had a hotel iron GUSH water through the steam vents and the bottom of the plate as soon as I poured water into it. The dratted thing was plugged in, too, so I had a horrible moment of wondering if I was about to be electrocuted. Fortunately, my unsuspecting costume was still laid out on the bed and escaped any damage. Previously, a hotel iron spit mineral buildup all over the place (I’m guessing it had never been cleaned) and the spit-up was promptly ironed into the fabric and I had a hell of a time getting it out. This was before I learned about the pillow-case trick, sigh. When possible, bring your own iron.)

If you end up with fabric that has been watermarked, you can sometimes resolve it by gently washing the whole garment and letting it dry evenly. If your fabric is a dry-clean only fabric, then you’re going to have to take it back to the cleaners – although maybe not your usual cleaner if they put the mark there in the first place!

In your ironing nook, you should have not just an iron and a full-sized board, but also a sleeve board, a pressing ham and a teflon plate for your iron. The Teflon plate isgreat for when you’re handling fussy, artificial fibers, or afraid that your fusible interfacing is going to get over-enthusiastic and stick to your iron. Also stock your ironing corner with a misting bottle with extra water, a can of spray starch and a silicon resting pad for your hot iron.

Storing Costumes

Your costumes are cleaned, pressed and ready to be put away for another time. How should you store your costume? Unsurprisingly, the answer is “It depends”.

You can hang your costume items in a closet, but only if they’re not so heavy as to stretch themselves out while hanging there for months at a time. Also make sure that the closet is well ventilated and not subject to mold. I lost a leather jacket and several pairs of shoes to an ill-ventilated, damp closet in one apartment. I left them alone for a few months and by the time I pulled them out to wear again, they were simply covered in mold, inside and out. After that, I acquired a dehumidifier and ran it inside the closet once a week.

Some costume pieces take up a lot of room in a closet – lots of ruffles and tiers and whatnot. If the fabric can take a LOT of rumpling, consider investing in some of those vacuum bags so popular at the As-Seen-on-TV stores. I think they’re great for storing all-cotton, untrimmed clothes that can take the heat and steam necessary for undoing the effects of being vacuum-packed – such as my exceedingly frilly petticoats – but I would hesitate to use vacuum bags for anything else

I prefer to store my costumes wrapped in tissue (or even a cheap bedsheet from the thrift store) and laid flat in a plastic tub – the kind you buy to store under your bed, but use whatever type suits you best. When storing your costume pieces in any kind of container, buy some silica gel packets to help keep the inside of the box dry. The downside to this approach is that a garment is going to get more creased than it would on a hangar, but often that’s an acceptable trade-off. Some costumers are horrified at the idea of storing fabric in plastic but as long as you keep your fabric from coming in direct contact with that plastic and you store the boxes somewhere dark (or the boxes are opaque) I consider it the most practical solution.

If your costume contains any amount of wool, you need to think about deterring moths. Mothballs are always a possibility, but they don’t smell good and they’re poisonous to humans and pets. I don’t like them. The best thing to do is to put lavender sachets up with your clothes if they’re on hangers, or in the storage box. It smells nicer than cedar in my opinion, and it doesn’t emit any oils that could stain your fabric as a cedar plank could. And, of course, air out your clothes often and examine them for signs of encroaching moth infestation. Regular check-ups keep costumes happy.

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