A Guide to Laundering Costumes Part 2

This is Part 2 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

If you missed Part 1, check it out 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. 

Structured Costumes & Embellished Clothing

First and foremost, do not submerge this kind of item in water. Wet fabrics are easily stressed by the extra weight of embellishments, leading to rips, tears, or stretching. Whether you have sewn your embellishments on or you have used hot glue to attach them, you’ll need to exercise caution. Many fabrics and trims will shrink or warp when soaked in water. Certain kinds of trim and embroidery can bleed color when wet. Many feathers are not colorfast. To avoid damage caused by water, address spots, stains and smells separately.

Body Odor & Other Unpleasant Odors

For overall smell eradication and general disinfecting, use the deodorizing agent used by ballet and theater companies around the globe – vodka! Find the cheapest, worst vodka you can and mix it 50/50 with water. (The more undrinkable the vodka, the better it cleans.) Put the resulting solution in a spray bottle. Mist the costume inside. Resist the urge to soak it; it’s not necessary. Let it dry inside out, either hanging or flat on a drying rack. The garment must be completely dry before being worn again. No more stink! Don’t worry, the garment won’t smell like booze. There is no scent left.

This method is great for belly dance bras/belts with lots of coins or beadwork. You can also use it inside of lined leather garments like jackets or vests.

Spots & Stains on Fabric

Got a stain or spot? If you can leave it alone, you might consider that. Alternatively sew something over it. However if you suspect the stain was caused by something that will eventually damage the fabric (for example petrochemicals) or if it’s in a bad place, you’ll need to remove it.

Before you attempt spot cleaning on a garment, test whatever cleaner you are using in a hidden area! This will save you many tears! It does not matter if it’s a commercial cleaning product or not. If you care about your costume, always test your cleaners.

You can usually spot clean icky parts with 20 Mule Team Borax (this is assuming that you can rinse that part with a little water). Mix Borax and a little water in a small container until it becomes a thick paste. If there are solids on the fabric, use a stiff but soft brush or your fingernails to remove what you can first. Apply a small amount of paste to the affected area and gently work it in. Use a small amount water to rinse it, but avoid soaking a large area. Do use enough water to get rid of powdery residue. You may need to repeat a few times to remove the stain completely. Allow it to air dry.

If this method does not work, you can try using a tiny dab of shampoo instead of Borax paste. For removing makeup stains, you can also try using non-oily makeup remover, but sometimes makeup remover will damage or stain fabric. Test first!

Using bleach is generally a bad idea. It is not recommended. Chlorine bleach often damages fibers and can leave holes. It should never be used on synthetics. It can be used with extreme caution on some natural fibers like cotton or linen, but only on whites and only if it is tested first. If you must use it, dilute it 1/10 with cold water and dab it on with a cotton swab. Soak the area with hydrogen peroxide to neutralize it afterwards. Rinse with lots of water. Use this method at your own risk.

Fur, Leather & Faux Fur

Real fur should be cleaned using a special professional fur cleaning method*** but only if it’s truly necessary. Most issues can be dealt with by using a dry brush, spot cleaning, or vodka misting. Leather should be cleaned using a special professional leather cleaning method*** but again, only if it’s truly necessary. Never soak real fur or leather in water! Chromium tanned leather (99.99% of the supple garment leather out there) is ruined by immersion in water. Vegetable tanned leather (usually hard, heavy leather used for belts, armor, etc.) is not necessarily ruined by water, but it may discolor, become stiff, stretch, lose shape or have other problems. Leather of both kinds can usually be wiped down with a lightly dampened cloth, no cleaner. Leather and fur can take exposure to light rain or misting. Just make sure garments are completely dry before putting them away.

*** Use caution when having real fur or leather professionally cleaned. The age, condition, and value of the garment needs to be considered. Not all cleaners are equal; do research first and get references. It is very easy for cleaners to ruin leather and fur. Don’t take chances.

Leather items which have been hand-tanned with oil, brains or eggs can be hand washed. These leathers are sometimes called chamois (shammy) or buckskin. Due to the high cost of hand-tanned leathers, commercially chromium tanned look-alikes are very common. These chromium tanned chamois and buckskin look-alikes are not washable. Hand-tanned hides are not common and garments made with them are generally made by hand; if an item has been commercially produced, it is not made from hand-tanned leather. You will know if leather has been hand-tanned – whoever sells it to you will tell you and it will likely be very expensive.

If you have something made of faux fur, use the vodka misting method if it gets stinky. If the item is dirty or dusty as well as stinky, misting it will simply make it muddy. You may be able to gently hand wash it instead. (See hand washing method above.) Some newer faux furs can be washed in the washer on GENTLE/DELICATE using COLD water. If you are unsure if your faux fur can go in the washer, hand wash. NEVER put fake fur in a dryer or you will get a nasty, melt-y mess that can never be worn again.


Feathers, whether loose or made into trim, can generally be cleaned. After all, most birds are exposed to dirt and water in their natural environments. However due to the vast array of shapes, textures and dye treatments, cleaning feathers gets really complicated. Unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss those methods. You are urged to research for yourself the methods most suited to cleaning the type of feathers you use.

When designing, constructing or buying costumes, consider these tips to make your costumes easier to maintain:

• Detachable or separate feather elements make cleaning much easier. Many feathers can be gently hand washed when they are not attached to a garment. Many garments are easily washed without feathers attached.

• Some feathers (especially craft and certain millinery feathers) are not colorfast. They can release dye if they get wet, likely staining everything around them. Using high-quality feathers, feathers prepared for use in fly fishing, or un-dyed feathers can reduce the chances of getting feathers that bleed.

• Work with feathers that have been already been properly cleaned. They are easier to clean later.

• Use feathers wisely. Delicate feather boa trim on the hem of a little-worn, indoor-only floor-length skirt is probably OK; delicate feather boa trim on the hem of floor-length everyday jeans is probably not. The less dirt and wear feathers receive, the less maintenance they require.

Of Special Note

Feathers and real fur require special storage. They must be protected from pests. In the natural world the feathers and fur of dead animals are broken down by insects and micro-organisms. These same creatures can find their way into your storage locations and damage fur and feathers.

If possible store furs coats, stoles, etc. and feathered items in cold storage. If you must store them at home, research the best ways to so. Keeping fur and feathers in the freezer is a great way to store them if you have the space. Cedar chests are another way to keep them safe, but only if the cedar oils are still active in the wood. The biggest enemies of feathers and fur are moths, sunlight, and dampness.

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.


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/

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