A Guide to Laundering Costumes & Embellished Clothing Pt. 1

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series written by friend and colleague Monica Schierbaum. I first met Monica at the Mediterranean Fantasy Festival many years ago where she was helping out at the Silk Road Tribal booth. Monica is one groovy lady and thrives on costuming and belly dance as much as I do. I hope you’ll enjoy the article she has written. -ks

Read Part 2 here.

Laundering costumes and embellished clothing can present a bit of a challenge. Specialty fabrics, beads, feathers, trim, fur and similar all need special care. So how do you clean a garment without dry cleaning or throwing it in the washing machine? Let’s find out.

The first step is determining the best way to handle your particular item. If your garment comes with a care label, you’re in luck. Follow the directions the manufacturer recommends and you shouldn’t have much trouble. No care label or you made it yourself? You’ll need to figure out the best care for your garment on your own.

Special garments generally fall into one of two categories: those that can be cleaned by traditional means and those that can’t. This list, though not exhaustive, can help you decide the best way to clean your garment. If you are still having trouble deciding what to do, read through both complete cleaning methods and see if that helps you decide. Use common sense and always err on the side of caution. Cleaning a costume improperly can damage or ruin it.

Hand Washable

• Specialty fabrics without embellishments that can tolerate being soaked in water (spandex, lurex, etc.)

• Some woolens

• Delicates

• Fine, unstructured garments made of washable fabrics

Everything Else

• Items decorated with appliqués, coins, beads, sequins, ribbons, braid, trim, found objects or similar

• Anything made with special structuring – suit jackets, some hats, mascot heads, etc.

• Things that shouldn’t be wrinkled or put under stress

• Specialty fabrics that cannot tolerate being soaked in water

• Mixed media garments (i.e. leather & fabric)

• Fur

• Leather

• Faux Fur

• Feathers

Hand Washable Items

This method works for anything that can be soaked in water. Soak-able garments can include those made of wool, rayon*, modal, cotton, some silks, linen, bamboo and most synthetics**. However just because they can be soaked doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Use common sense. Also, be careful as many fabrics can release dye (i.e. bleed or run.) In particular, be cautious of hand dyed items or items dyed in India. If it’s all the same color or you don’t mind a little color bleeding, go for it. If not, do not use this method. ALWAYS TEST ITEMS FIRST! If you aren’t sure it will hold up, don’t do it.

Find a container in which to wash your item. You can use whatever container you like so long as it comfortably holds the garment and is not made of metal. Plastic and tempered glass are best. Metal can scratch work surfaces and aluminum in particular can cause reactions. I use a shallow black mortar mixing tub from Home Depot, a big plastic file box from Staples or a large plastic mixing bowl.

Place whatever container you are using in the bathtub. Doing this saves water and you don’t have to clean the tub first (in good weather you can also this outside so long as you use bio-degradable detergents). Find the highest quality shampoo you can to use as detergent. You don’t need to use Woolite or any special cleaner; it’s simply not necessary. High quality shampoo is often more gentle and more effective plus it can leave behind a pleasant scent. If strong scents bother the costume’s wearer, be sure to find shampoo with a minimal/non-existent scent. Add the shampoo while running COLD water into your container. The water should be a little sudsy, not too foamy. Add the garment, submerge, and let it soak for about 20 minutes. Do not agitate! If you are washing wool and you agitate it, you could felt it! Pull the item out, being careful to support it. Don’t stretch the fibers. Do NOT wring or twist. Just let it drip. Change the water, put the item back in and rinse gently. Repeat until there are no more suds and the water runs clear.

Ready to dry? Gently press the item into the bottom of the container and tilt it so that the water runs out. Take the item out, still supporting it, and place it on a clean dry towel on a clean surface. Roll it up in the towel and gently press on the roll. This is ‘couching’ and it will remove much of the water. If necessary, do this a couple of times. If you need another towel, go get one. After couching you can place the item somewhere it will dry on its own, never in the dryer. You can hang light, sturdy items on a hanger or clothes line. Everything else should be reshaped and laid flat on either a drying rack or a towel. If you let it dry on a towel, you may have to replace the wet towel with a dry one in a few hours.

Occasionally this method will fail to remove body odor. If this is the case, use the vodka misting method described below to take care of residual odors. In addition to cleaning costumes, this method is great for washing regular wool sweaters you don’t want to dry clean.

A word about vintage garments

Before attempting to launder vintage garments, you should ask yourself if it’s truly necessary. Fibers break down over time and the simple act of applying water and soap could ruin them. Dry cleaning can be even worse. Please understand that every time you wash an older garment you risk ruining it. It’s pretty unpredictable. Try to follow whatever care label is present on a garment if possible. However, it is almost never a good idea to put anything vintage in the washer or dryer unless it is not terribly old or not valuable. Wash old stuff at your own peril.

* Vintage rayon (pre-70s mostly) should not be gotten wet. Water will do terrible things to it and it will never be the same. Don’t do it. Dry clean only!

** Most synthetics can take getting wet & soapy however older polyesters (60’s, 70’s, 80’s) may never come clean. They hold smells and stains like nothing else and you will be lucky if this type of cleaning works. Some light or shiny synthetics will spot from having water applied. Test first!

In conclusion

Unfortunately there is no magic method that will clean every garment or remove every stain, but following these guidelines should give you some darn good results. Use these methods at your own risk. Washing/cleaning unusual materials can produce unexpected results. Take care to use common sense and always test if in doubt.

See you next week for Part 2!


Designer Monica Schierbaum never met a sequin, feather, bead or bangle she didn't like. The daughter of seemingly average suburbanites, she was mystified at her predisposition towards fashion, glamour and show business until one day a household accident revealed she was the great grand daughter of a circus magician's assistant. "That explains quite a lot," she said "It's in my blood."

Monica is a graduate from the University of Delaware with a Bachelor's of Fine Arts. After working as a graphic designer, illustrator and web designer for several years, she returned to school to study her one true passion: fashion. Monica attended the New York Fashion Academy in Seattle's historic Ballard neighborhood where she studied garment design and construction.

Since then Monica has worked for many small Seattle businesses, designing and creating sewn products and garments. In addition Monica has worked as a freelance costumer for bellydancers, burners, stage performers and other unique folks.

You can find more cool stuff from Monica at http://www.peacockdreams.net/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *