How can I clean a smelly vintage dress?

We’ve had an email from Su:

Although is not strictly a recycle or indeed repair, I nonetheless need help!

I bought a lovely dress in a second hand shop which I just know I would get loads of wear from if only I could remove the smell! It seems to have been washed in a very highly perfumed washing powder or maybe fabric conditioner. Unfortunately, I am very susceptible to smells, so at the moment there is no way I can wear. I have washed it countless times, it’s been hung outside for weeks now and I have soaked it in vinegar, all to no avail, the smell does not even seem to be fading. It’s made of a man made material.

Any suggestions?

We often get clothes with a “charity shop smell” (which isn’t a bad smell, per se, just an overly-perfumed one) but one wash usually sorts them out, so I don’t know what to suggest on this lingering aroma. I suspect the answer may be to use bicarb of soda since that’s great at absorbing smells but I don’t know how that would be applied… Anyone know?

Any other ideas?

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10 Responses to “How can I clean a smelly vintage dress?”

  1. Try putting it in a bag with bicarb and leaving it for a few days. You may need to do it more than once but it should work. If not cat litter is said to do the same trick!

  2. someone told me once about putting stuff in the microwave with vinegar or baking soda (but you should look this up and obviously not do if there is any metal on there)

  3. Kara says:

    Unfortunately, the smell may be the result of the manmade fibers decomposing. Acetates are particularly bad about that, and baking soda does help (it neutralizes any acids that are contributing to the decomposition) but may not completely solve the problem. Try a couple of tablespoons of the baking soda in a very warm sinkfull of water and let soak for a few hours. Then wash one more time to remove the soda (alkali can also damage fabrics over time).

    There is also always consulting your local dry cleaner. I don’t know how common this is in other places, but most of my local cleaners offer special conservation services for older textiles, including odor removal.

  4. Bobbie says:

    I would do the soda in bag trick that Lynsey suggested, leaving it for at least 24 hours, longer if it needs. Then lastly I would air it outside in the shade for a day. Fresh air does wonders. I trade books and sometimes get really smelly cigarette odor books and simply put them outside where the fresh air can blow through the pages and in a day they are fit to read. Baking soda and fresh air is a powerful combination.

    • Bobbie says:

      I was thinking shade because being vintage it might fade in the sun, but the treatment would certainly work better in the sun if it was not a fading material.

  5. Agata says:

    In such cases I use my granny’s trick-hang your dress on a coat hanger on a tree.Let it be soaked with rain,dry her and repeat 3 tims.Then wash it,and it won’t be only no longer smelly,but also the colours will be freshened!
    It may sound ridiculous,but it does help-it has something to do with rain-air ozone .

  6. Chicgeek says:

    I’ve heard something similar. Hang item on clothesline, let it stay out all night and get dew soaked, then dry in the next day’s sunshine.
    Also, for the baking soda, you can dump some in the washer, let it agitate a minute to make sure it’s dissolved, then add the dress. And then use an extra rinse cycle to be sure all the soda’s rinsed away.
    I think I’ve seen a product sold in natural food stores in the cleaning section. Forgotten the name-Simple Green, perhaps? Ask a knowledgeable employee. Whatever it was, it was touted as being wonderful for washing smoke damaged clothes to remove the odor. So, there very well may be a particular cleaning agent that works for odor removal. Sorry I don’t know exactly what!

  7. mommacat says:

    I think there’s two kinds of perfume; alcohol or oil based. Maybe you’re dealing with an oil based one… you need a powerfull grease cutting
    treatment. What I would do is get the name of a company that makes
    perfumes, like maybe one in France, and ask them how to remove the smell as they are probably experts in this area. Good luck.

  8. Katrina says:

    Soaking it in Borax is helpful too. It’s gentle, natural, and a great deodorizer (+I feel like my clothes are softer after using Borax too!)
    Another option, assuming the decomposing acetate thing isn’t the problem – I think this one would make it worse – is to wrap it in newsprint and leave it for a few days. The newsprint will absorb the odors. I used this method to deodorize a refrigerator that had been left closed with no power for too long.
    Good luck!

  9. OmnivorousReader42 says:

    Turn the item inside-out before putting on the clothesline if you are worried about fading :)

    2 weeks on the clothesline got cat pee out of a towel without any washing! It was an experiment that surprised me with its success.

    Let us know what works, okay?

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