Buy and Hold: Clothes preservation finds a new audience

Have you noticed the small revolution in clothing maintenance? Women who resist the waste and short lifespan of fast-fashion have led renewed interest in preserving what one has, which for at least twenty years had been as rare to find as a community of canning enthusiasts. (And men, too—I called an old friend to catch up; he told me he was darning his wool socks.)

Now, their wisdom and ways have found an audience. Today, a summary of their suggestions.

1. Store with care

Textiles need protection from light and dust. Shelves and uncovered racks like the one below, which I see on so many decor sites, are hard on fabrics. The plus of the shot below is that it shows spacing, so there's air flow, but few of us have the space to practice this "sartorial distancing".

Open shelving is also dead easy for pests to find. (I periodically post on my never-ending battle with clothing moths; if looking for tips, see this post.)  

For sweaters that you're wearing regularly, the bags many makers supply will do, or use Ziploc XL bags. For longer-term storage or just nicer bags, breathable natural-fibre ones of cotton or Tyvek (a paper-based fabric) are better. The problem with most cotton storage bags is that the closure is not tight.

Photo: RestoreProducts

A fabric conservator recommends these Tyvek bags with a three-sided zipper from Restore Products, a seller of textile conservation products, but they are expensive, £17.50 each. Also available as a gusseted or non-gusseted garment bag. (Note: If you use a cotton sweater bag, won't moths eat that? Maybe, but unless you are away for years, they will not progress to the inner treasure, your sweater.)

2. Reduce laundering and especially dry-cleaning 

The simplest way to extend wear is to air and brush clothes. This is antithetical to the habit of removing and stowing immediately, in drawers or closets with no air flow. 

Find a spot in your laundry or bedroom where you can hang what you wore at least overnight. Extra points for brushing both before and after hanging. I adopted the hanging habit during the first months of covid, when we thought the virus could attach to clothes, and kept it up when I noticed I laundered them less often.

Steam reduces odour-causing bacteria and relaxes wrinkles. Instead of dry cleaning so often, use a steamer or "semi-steam" the garment with the steam setting on your iron, while you  hover the soleplate over the piece. The travel trick of hanging the garment in a bathroom while you shower only relaxes creases.

Of course things need to be washed—but many times we over-wash, punching in a long cycle when a shorter one suffices. Read your machine's manual; this seems obvious but it took several years for me to read mine, as well as the instructions on soaps. Use a mesh laundry bag for anything delicate, even on the delicate cycle.

Sometimes "Dry Clean Only" is real. Last summer I shrank a rayon dress labelled Dry Clean Only even on the delicate cycle and so, if you think you can wash it yourself, hand-wash and test first on a small area.

Do not use the often-touted hack of spraying vodka on a garment as a "pick up" between dry cleaning. "Costume Spray Mythbusting" explains the matter, and offers a better spitz recipe. (Hat tip to 20dollarlolita.)


With knits, washing reduces the pills, but it's kinder on a fine woollen jumper to air and de-pill if that's all it needs. Since long fibres resist pilling much better than short, I prefer the gentler action of hand combs like The Gleener to battery styles that are in fact tiny electric clippers, so cut fibres.

3. Furlough the dryer

I don't use the dryer for any clothing; clothes last far longer when not subjected to high heat and friction. 

Hand-washing and spot cleaning will save you hundreds of dollars a year, versus dry-cleaning. There are endless choices for soaps and stain removers; I like stain-treatment bar soap for spots, collars and underarms. Whether you buy the posh Laundress Wash and Stain Bar or good old Fels Naptha, the magic ingredient is borax, a type of sodium, which in this dilution is considered nontoxic.

The gold standard is the Carbona Stain Devils kit, which contains nine products for specific stains like ballpoint ink, grass, blood and grease, as well as treatment instructions.

You know all about those handy Tide to Go pens or similar products. Did you know, though, that the pen in your handbag will lose its cleaning power at around the one-year mark? (They also dry up.) 

4. Consider your cultural programming

I'm Canadian, apparently we are washing maniacs. My French girlfriends roll their eyes at Canadian houseguests who habitually launder daily. Huguette visits Canada for one month every summer with her medium-sized check-through suitcase. She does a washer-load once or twice, and hand-washes her lingerie and socks. (She does not participate in strenuous sports.) 

Anne views the North American propensity to launder the life out of clothes as bizarre. Her European machine has a much smaller capacity, and takes three times longer to run a cycle. She pays for even cold water use, unlike here. When her daughter and family visit from Canada, she can't believe how her teenaged grandchildren use her machine nonstop and have no idea why there's a clothesline strung in her back garden.  

Probably a whole other post, but we also might also examine our attitude that being seen wearing the same outfit repeatedly is a cause for shame.

5. Shop with longevity in mind

Factors include textile lifespan, construction and how to maintain the piece.  Some of the most delicate and demanding textiles are absolutely worth the special care, but others are best passed by when you consider yet another trip to the specialty cleaner's.  

L.F. Markey "Ethan Coat" in Indigo

Second, and I'll bet you in the Passage do this, avoid dry clean only clothes. I was mildly interested in this tencel/cotton denim coat ($US 242) from L.F. Markey, a hip 'streetwear' designer, until I saw it's DCO!  Why does a firm clearly not parked in the "classics" pew go down this path?

Toast Indigo Denim Long Jacket

Toast's Indigo Long Denim Jacket is washable and made of Japanese indigo-dyed denim. More expensive but eventually cleaning costs will override that, and this is a better-quality fabric that would age nobly. (Price, $US 460.)

Related reading:

Good basic tip sheet:  The Ultimate Guise to Making Your Clothes Last Longer; on GoodOnYou's site.

Tips from experts: How to Take Care of Your Clothes (New York Times Magazine). If your access is limited it is worth spending one of your non-paywalled peeks on this.

Moth prevention: "How to Stop Moths Eating Your Clothes- 10 Steps to Clothes Moth Prevention".  A no-nonsense article that does not recommend ineffective methods such as lemon-scented drawer liners. 


CK said…
What a great piece. I try to be conscious of how I'm caring for clothes but this article has given me many more ideas. It's too humid to line dry where I live in much of the summer, but I do try in winter. Only problem is now that I'm working from home, the house seems more cluttered overall and I get a *little* downcast when I see the rack of drying clothes and kitchen towels!

I will start small and try to better about hanging things before I go to bed at night.
Laura J said…
Such sensible advice. Airing and brushing especially useful as you can check for tears loose threads etc. we definitely in NA wash our clothes waaay too much. I’m a great sweater air-er! I use old pillow slips for protector over a hanger or wrapping up something to be stored for awhile. I have to say that anytime I’ve bought something rayon it’s been problematic..shrinkage mostly so I just avoid it. Except for a very few items my clothes now are all cotton, wool, linen or silk and real easy care…well, I do press linens lol🤷‍♀️
Mardel said…
Love this post. I haven't used a dryer on clothing for years. Well, I occasionally dry gardening things, just because they were needed again too soon. I love hanging, airing, although sometimes recently I have neglected to brush. Hand washing lingerie is so easy to do in a sink while one prepares for bed; I don't understand why people see it is as difficult. Of course that means there are always bits hanging in the bathroom (I am too lazy to carry them down two flights of stairs to the laundry at the end of the day).
Ocd said…
Well, Canada's *cold.*
Living in a subtropical swamp AND having entered the endless hot & sweaty years, I wash all clothing after every wear (even dry clean only) & having a sensitive nose, I do appreciate others who do so too.
Thank you so much for this practical and well-written article. I'm sending it to some interested friends, male as well as female, obviously crediting the Passage. The NYT article was interesting too, though of course there are aspects that have nothing to do with how I dress any more - some male colleagues still wear dress shirts with black or dark-wash jeans at events, but most women choose other tops.

I lost quite a bit of weight in hospital and divested myself of quite a lot of clothing, but I simply took it to Le Chaînon. In addition to charity shop sales, they give clothing to women at their emergency shelter and their longer-term residence.

But this means some wardrobe gaps - not enough bras and other lingerie to give them all a proper rest, and I have to try them on at the store; I'll figure this out. Despite these gaps, I am happy to have fewer clothing items and none that are just taking up space in my century-old wee closet. (Friends who live in brand-new condos have closets just as small).

I am very heartened by the upsurge in mending, other repairs and care for clothing among people of all ages - men as well as women. Shocking to see the trash piles of fast fashion and worse, the trashing of garment workers' lives; at Rana Plaza and other places. Many times the death toll at the Triangle Fire a century earlier. The garment industry, mostly located in Europe and North America back then, now mostly located in poor Asian countries.
LauraH said…
Terrific post, thank you. Happy to say I'm already doing some of these things but there are some areas where I can definitely improve. I've never brushed my clothes...a new experience:-)
Jane in London said…
Excellent post. I find that (now I have the time for it) wardrobe maintenance is a very satisfying pastime and helps me to enjoy my clothes all the more.

Living in central London, I need to wash clothes rather more than I would were I in a suburban or rural area. But I always use low temperatures and non-bio soaps to avoid being too hard on the fabrics.

I never tumble-dry clothes - though I find that 5 minutes in the dryer on a gentle heat makes newly air-dried woollen jumpers wonderfully soft and lofty!

I also enjoy cleaning my boots, shoes and handbags and have invested in good leather conditioner to keep them supple, plus velour shoe shapers and proper boot 'trees'. All great fun!

Jane in London
Hummingbird5 said…
An excellent post (yours always are!), but, respectfully, I confess it portrays a worthy ideal I have neither time nor space to maintain. I can't imagine not using my dryer--wherever would I hang everything to dry? Dryers of our era are sophisticated enough to get the job done without ruining our clothes. As I age and time rushes away, there are ever more urgent choices to make about how to spend my days. I will continue to do my reasonable best to maintain my wardrobe responsibly and gently, but for me, the task must also be quick, efficient. In a few months I turn 70. So much to do, so little time.
Bunny said…
Great post. I became aware of overwashing tendencies when I read "Overdressed" by by Elizabeth Cline. I highly recommend. It was then I started looking closely at my clothing at the end of the end of the day for spots, giving them the sniff test and hanging them in an open space in my good sized closet to air out until the next day. We then moved to a new home where water is VERY expensive and this became imperative. We have a washer that uses very little water, borax in every load, etc. My clothing is no dirtier when I wear it than it was when I washed in the style of my French Canadian mother in law. Like her, I was washing because I could and because it was time to wash, not because things were soiled.

Awesome post, Duchesse. Thanks for opening the window on our penchant for over cleansing. While my MIL would judge people by this factor, no spots and no smell is fine with me. The rest is waste and ruins our environment, never mind affects my budget.
Bunny said…
I just wanted to add 2 things to the convo. First I turn most clothing inside out before washing and drying. It really helps reduce abrasion wear. Second, You know I am an avid sewist and I have really jumped on the mending wagon as of late, visible and invisible. I am practicing sashiko mending as we speak, great fun. I love this visible mending movement.
Duchesse said…
CK: I am familiar with hot and humid environments, lived in some. Hanging outside, it can take forever for heavy things to dry and things like bath towels can mildew. But things like a cotton blouse are usually OK. The challenge when I spent time in India was to remember direct sunlight could bleach dye very quickly.

Laura J: Pillow slips are great protectors. I use pillow covers because they zip shut. Anyone using old pillowcases: wash in super hot water or freeze for a week before using as garment covers; moths love body dirt and even what we view as clean can have traces that attract them.

Ocd: I completely understand needing to wash a sweaty garment after every wear. A sweat-infused garment has to be washed promptly or it will set, locking in odour and causing fabric damage. The goal then is to wash enough without degrading the textile. There are (if interested) many articles on types of sweat. And yes, of course we value smelling clean and feeling fresh in our clothes!

LauraH: Can be a pleasant experience, like shining shoes.I have several well-made old clothes brushes from my childhood home. They brushed their woolen clothing all the time.

lagatta: In Canada the average person throws out 81 pounds of textiles annually. Though this post is about clothing conservation, the first step is to control accumulation, as you noted.

Jane in London: I enjoy it too, which is odd because I don't like the housework equivalent of clothing maintenance, such as hand-washing glassware.

Hummingbird5: I don't know the volume of your laundry or your living space, but Europeans live in generally smaller homes than North Americans do, and they are far less likely to use dryers. They use lightweight (foldable) racks that stow against a wall, or wall-mounted racks like the Rebrilliant Rack sold on Wayfair. It is common to set out a drying rack in one's bedroom, on balconies or in kitchens. It's just part of the scenery and it's packed away if you're having guests over. We live in a 1250 sf apartment and I can dry all clothes in a tiny laundry room and occasionally use a rack in the bathroom. As for the value of your time, I agree wholeheartedly with the principle; I'm 73. Hanging clothes to dry takes me no time at all—but then I'm used to it, and Le Duc hangs his own most of the time.

Bunny: Inside out, of course! I'm so used to doing it that I forgot to mention it. There is this whole 'cleanliness' trope, promoted by both the wet and dry cleaning industries. Perhaps we can learn from the Indian women who air their saris and shawls and are fastidiously clean, in those magnificent 7 yards of fabric.
Duchesse said…
mardel: I admit I wash "hand washables" in the machine on delicate cycle, in a bag, except for lace— and have indeed used the dryer for a quick turnaround like you mention, in my case for exercise wear.

Ocd (again): Your remark "Well Canada's •cold• is accurate, most of the year. But our MontrĂ©al summers are hot and sticky (July and August can mean 90s and with the humidex, over 100F). So we too do not want to be smelly. I wash summer clothes way more often and if I lived in your climate I'd do that year round. But I still hang clothes to dry; linen dries quickly and summer-weight cotton is usually an overnight dry.
Carol in Denver said…
I find that clothes stay fresh on ventilated shelving, such as Elfa. On solid shelves or in cardboard boxes, they acquire a smell. I use the dryer to fluff up clothes, then hang them while still damp to finish drying. My mother once told me she always knew which sheets were mine in the wash because they smelled so bad (this in spite of the fact I bathed once or twice a day and put on fresh clothes each time) and since then I change and wash clothes frequently. Some people have an essential body odor that requires diligence to manage in spite of the fact that we, ourselves, may not smell it. A few times I've read where people reminisce about aunts who smell of perfume, face powder and body sweat. Few of us smell sweat any more, although that used to be common. Even manual laborers do not smell bad any more.
Duchesse said…
Carol in Denver: Ventilation is important! Many homes have have vintage or antique dressers and armoires so have to ventilate via hanging in airy places, and older dwellings usually have small closets that end up being crammed. (The walk-in closet is rare unless the space has been renovated.) I like any technique that reduces dryer use, it's not necessary to eliminate dryer entirely.

re body smell getting into clothes, there are three different types of sweat, and reading about that is useful to managing the odour each type can create. (I sweat so much as an adolescent that I had to wear armpit shields and even those did not do the job fully.)

Also life stages create different body odours. There is what is familiarly called "old person smell". Here's a good article on that:
Carol in Denver said…
Very interesting article in the link you posted. The dry, sensitive skin of old people may lead them to bathe less often, which could result in unpleasant odor, but your linked article is enlightening about "old people smell."
Could you recommend a few clothes brushes that might be available in the US? Thank you.
Duchesse said…
Louise in Buffalo: I use several brushes that are at least 50 years old; they belonged to my parents.So, I am not able to recommend current brands but you can find them by searching "natural boar bristle clothes brush". Synthetic (plastic) bristle bushes will damage fine fabrics.
I followed your advice & purchased the (not inexpensive)Kent CG1 handcrafted brush. I did not purchase from Amazon but in reading the reviews one was quite funny & I am sure, true: “Buy once, cry once”,
I also purchased the same brush for my fashionista goddaughter!
Thank you, Duchesse, and my best wishes for a beautiful holiday season.
Duchesse said…
Louise in Buffalo: Kent say they "have supplied Royal households for nine consecutive Sovereign reigns", so you are in good company.

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