Stain Removal on Vintage Fabric

Over a year ago I had bought some cute 50’s or 60’s light weight cotton fabric at my local flea market.  I bought it knowing there were stains but the vendor assured me that the stains would come out.  One wash later, the stains weren’t any closer to being removed and I felt quite ripped-off.  Since then I’ve been shopping a bit wiser at the flea and checking for any stains on fabrics.


I got this McCall’s 4003 pattern in the mail last week from one of my dear reader’s etsy shop (Naomi) and I really wanted to try and see if I work around the stains so I could use it on the full-skirted dress, version A.

I thought this shirt-dress pattern would look exceptionally cute with the hem detail.

I laid the fabric all out and there was a long vertical stain every 12 inches or so along with a few horizontal stains which made it impossible to cut around for the skirt pieces.  (Although I could have cut the bodice pieces without the major stains.)

Another stain image:

I was soo close to cutting out my pattern pieces, irregardless of the stains when I decided to take to Pinterest and Google to see if there wasn’t some magical stain removal I could try out.  I found this formula for armpit stains (via One Good Thing) along with Split the Lark Blog that tried out 4 different stain removal formulas (but I only tried her #1 winning formula).

Not knowing what kind of stain was on this fabric, I spot tested a few areas to see if either of the two concoctions would work (see links above.)

After waiting around 30 minutes, the first formula removed some of the stain but not all of it.  The second formula made the stain worse (I’m thinking it’s because I used a bottle of lemon juice instead of using a fresh lemon…. since my fabric turned yellow!)  Then I decided to sprinkle on some Borax along with some dish soap, re-scrubbed the stain, and let it sit 10-20 minutes longer.  (I used to make my own laundry detergent and it called for Borax, so I have a whole box of it on hand.)

When I came back in the kitchen the stain was completely gone!  *Woooot!*

I rinsed the fabric section I had tested on and air-dried it overnight.  I didn’t clean any other sections since I wanted to wait until it completely dried so that I could assess if the fabric texture had been harmed at all.

The thing I was the most concerned with is the delicacy of the fabric since it is vintage after all.  It’s old and delicate to begin with so the last thing I wanted to do was compromise it in anyway with harsh chemicals.  While the Borax I added to the mix is a chemical, per say, it was the only addition that removed the stain.  Luckily when I checked on it the next morning the fabric felt the same as it did before and I then had some confidence that I could clean the whole 6+ yards.

I’m thinking the stain is from mildew, but there’s really no way to be certain.

So what is my magical, new color-safe formula?!

  • 1/4 cup of Baking Soda
  • 1 Tbs. Borax
  • 5-ish pumps/squirts of liquid dish soap
  • Hydrogen Peroxide (enough to make the above mixture into a paste)
  • Toothbrush or small scrubber brush

When you have all the ingredients together the mixture should be a bit pasty.  The Baking Soda really absorbs the Hydrogen Peroxide, so be sure to keep adding it to until it’s no longer dry and flaky.  You want it to be paste-like so you can scrub it into the fabric.

I laid out the fabric on my (enamel) kitchen table and scrubbed one section at a time.

I used a toothbrush (which made it slow) but you don’t want to use too large of a scrubber and damage your fabric.  I also had a glass of tap water on hand so that I could add a bit of water when the mixture was feeling a bit dry.  I found that the water helped the stain formula absorb better into the cloth.

I dipped my brush into the water, then scooped some of the baking soda mixture onto the brush and scrubbed a bit at a time.

The chunks is the mixture that I scooped on via the toothbrush, and I then worked top down scrubbing and adding a bit of water when needed.

(Like my old Scooby Doo toothbrush?!)  heh

As you can see in the image above, I’m scrubbing this all over the stained sections of the fabric including where there are colored motifs.  I did NOT notice any issue with using this on color and can happily say that it is color-safe.

*But be sure to spot test on your own fabric, just in case, since I’ve only tested this on a cotton fabric.*

It was mindless work, but luckily my mom (and later my Aunt Kathy) called me as I was scrubbing so luckily it made the time fly by as I went section by section for 6-7 yards.

I let the formula sit on the fabric for around 1 hour.  I then checked all of the stained sections once again and re-applied the stain formula to 2 or 3 stubborn areas and let the whole thing sit for another 30-45 minutes, checking frequently.

I would advise to only let this sit on your fabric for the minimum amount of time.  I think it goes without saying, but if your stain is gone in 20 minutes, there’s no need to let it sit for an hour.  I had a gauge for the time it would take to remove the stain from the testing it out the night prior, so I was confident my stain needed at least one hour.

Once I thought all the stains were lessened/removed, I let gently put the fabric in my kitchen sink.  I filled it with warm water and swished it around gently to get loosen all of the stain remover.  I then let it sit in this sink for another 45 minutes.

After applying stain remover to the stained sections of the fabric, I feared the treated sections would become whiter than the non-treated sections.  Therefore, I wanted to let it all get some stain remover before laundering it which is why I let it soak in the sink.

Let out the water, and very gently *squish* your fabric to remove the excess water.  Lift the fabric all in one (balled-up) piece and transport to your washer machine.

Fabric is most delicate when it’s wet so avoid the temptation to pull apart the fabric in order to admire your handiwork until it’s fully dry!

I threw this fabric in the wash, with laundry soap, on a normal warm cycle along with some other whites.  This will remove the rest of the stain formula.  Afterwards, dry your fabric like normal.


The Results

Look!  The fabric is all nice and white again with no color fading! YAY!

Not too shabby huh!  :)

Well… truth be told the stain has been removed 95%.  Remember how I was telling you that there were a few stubborn areas I had to reapply the mixture to?  Well, those sections are where the stain is still kinda there.  They’re quite inconspicuous and I’m now able to cut around them since there are only 2 visible areas.

If I were being good, I’d re-apply the stain mixture and rewash the fabric once again.  But I didn’t want to hold up my project any longer by doing this and I’m quite happy with the final result, regardless of the remaining 5%.

Below you can see the long, vertical stain in the middle of the fabric.  It looks like tan shading, but it’s not.

Here’s the full fabric piece with the remaining stain on the far left:

I know it’s there… but can you guys even see it???  Either way, it’s not terribly noticeable and it wasn’t bad enough to make me re-wash the fabric.

The lighting isn’t as good here, but below is another stain free piece!  :)

Isn’t it great?!  I never thought I’d be able to get these stains out!

As far as my new pattern goes:  I’m currently underlining the fabric sections in a white cotton batiste since the fabric is a bit sheer and also because it’s vintage fabric.  (Did you know underlining also helps keep any strain off of the fashion fabric, if it’s delicate?)

Happy stain-fighting everyone and hope you had a nice weekend!

In: Sewing Tutorials

Blogger for 6 years and counting, I am a passionate creator who loves to tinker.

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