How Clothing Dies (and How to Put Off the Inevitable)

The following is a shortened version of an article that appears in full in A.S.K.: ALHFAM’s Skill & Knowledge Base. Want full access to all 25,000 documents? Join today! Membership starts at just $30 per year for individuals.

When is clothing dead? If l threw out all of Living History Farms’ faded clothing, I’d lose most of my stock. It may be faded and even unsightly, but it will fit someone, and it will suit the work that they do for us. No, clothing is dead when the fabric itself dies, and any attempt at repair will either fail or take longer to do than to construct a garment from new cloth.

Preventing Early Clothing Death

The goal is to have all parts of the garment die all at the same time.

Prevention starts even before the clothing is cut out. First, preshrink every material that will go into the garment if it will ever be cleaned. The general rule is to wash fabric a little harder than the finished clothing will be washed. I prewash in hot water and tumble dry cotton fabrics, and warm wash and tumble dry wools so that Living History Farms doesn’t end up with coats that are bigger on the inside than the outside. Clothing construction also affects longevity. Your thread should not be stronger than your fabric, even when sewing on buttons— otherwise you will have to patch a hole before sewing the button back on!


Since too much machine laundering damages clothing, I tell interpreters, “If it doesn’t look dirty or smell dirty, it isn’t dirty.” There are period ways to put off washing. Collars and cuffs aren’t just nice accessories—they take the worst of the wear and dirt that clothing collects. Add these to dress shields in a bodice, and it may go for weeks without seeing a washing machine.

When you do wash clothes, use the lightest cycle and the coolest water that will get them clean, to prevent wear, fading and shrinkage. Hang period clothing to dry whenever you can. Dark or brightly colored clothing should be hung to dry in the shade or indoors. It gets faded enough while being worn.

Doc3-1[1]Ironing is also important to reduce wear. Press out the wrinkles that develop in sleeves and skirts from wearing in between washings, so they don’t become creases that wear out on the edges. Also, starch early and often. Hot starching fills in the spaces between threads that would otherwise collect dirt and washes out, taking the dirt with it. Even spray starch will help clothing look better and last longer. Avoid fabric softener. It’s not period, not necessary, and makes light and fuzzy fabrics more likely to burn like a torch.

Doc2-1[1]Clothing death usually is not a sudden thing. Shirt collars can be turned when the fold grows thin: Rip the collar from the collar band, turn it over, insert it and stitch it back in. Bodices and vests can be darned by hand on the unavoidable thick spots before the outer fabric wears through. Find a line of transparency where a let-down hem was? Take a tiny tuck on the inside of the garment, and protect the new edge if possible. When doing repairs, remember: These are permanent. Use small stitches, not large hasty ones, on your patches.

Clothing is made to be worn. My hope is that, by using good construction techniques and making repairs as soon as possible, it will be a long time before your period clothing wears out.

May your clothing live long and prosper.

Poresky, Laura M. “How Clothing Dies and How to Put Off the Inevitable.” In Proceedings of the 2010 Conference and Annual Meeting, edited by Carol Kennis Lopez, 110-115. Bloomfield, Ohio, 2011.

Full text first appeared in: MOMCC Magazine, Volume XXXIV, No. 1


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