Here you are again, Googling “how to get oil stains out of clothes”. Maybe you spilled salad dressing all over your shirt, or dropped a hefty glob of truffle butter on your pants. Maybe the story of how you arrived at this very article actually started out great—you dug through dusty bins and rusting racks to find the vintage grail of a lifetime, but not before it had seen its fair share of, ahem, life. (Is that oil, or are those spots…blood?)
If the latter example hits close to home, you’re not the only one. After all, who among us hasn’t encountered a vintage grail made all the better by its patina—save for the murky blotch splashed across its chest? The good news, though, is that vanishing those baked-in stains can be a walk in the park if you know how, and come prepared with the right tools. So to help resuscitate your secondhand duds, we dialed up a couple of the most prolific vintage dealers in our rolodex to weigh in on the tips, tricks, and products they rely on to make old clothes look new—and keep new clothes looking that way.
Wait, What About That Vintage Smell?
Sometimes the stain you’re dealing with isn’t so much visible as it is smellable, especially if it’s attached to a piece of clothing that lived multiple lives before you bought it. Funky smells are a fairly common complaint among hardcore vintage fiends, and one the experts who cater to them are well-equipped to handle with relatively little headache. Kathleen Sorbara, the founder of Chickee’s Vintage, recommends adding vinegar to your wash to help eliminate musty odors. Both Sorbara and Chad Senzel, the owner and operator of Street Rack, also suggest airing your clothes outside or in a well-ventilated space for a few days. It really is that simple.
The Household Remedies
Good news: plenty of stains, including sweat stains at the neck and armpits, can be reversed with household products that you probably own already. Senzel’s first line of defense is a good ol’ fashioned bottle of bleach. “Just wash the item on hot with an appropriate amount,” he says. “I’ve found a full load of items that need whitening usually warrants about 1/3 to 1/2 of a large gallon bottle of bleach.”
“Dish soap is great for oil stains,” says Sorbara, founder of Chickee’s Vintage. Yep—dish detergent. The food detritus remover is a powerful tool for fighting the toughest oil stains on your clothes, too.
The Niche Wonder Products
Armpit stains are one of the most common—and most frustrating—forms of wear vintage lovers encounter. (They make cleaning your office-friendly Oxford shirts a real pain, too.) Sorbara recommends a specialty spray solution called Pit Stop to ease the burden. For items made out of wool and silk, which can handle water but should really be hand-washed, Senzel suggests soaking them in water with Retro Clean.
The Old Reliables
Sometimes, bleach isn’t enough to vanish the most stubborn stains, and using it too frequently can damage your clothes. In lieu of bleach, the experts often turn to OxiClean. “We use OxiClean more than anything at the store,” Sorbara says. “There are always at least a few soak buckets going at all times.” Unlike chlorine bleach, OxiClean uses sodium percarbonate, a powdered form of hydrogen peroxide, in tandem with sodium carbonate, which is similar to baking soda. Add a little OxiClean to an overnight warm-water soak, and if you’re lucky, stains will vanish by the next morning. All that’s left to do is to rinse the shirt and let it dry.
“For more persistent stains I’ll soak in OxiClean for long periods of time,” Senzel says. “Counter to the instructions on the packaging, you can soak items for 24 hours or more. For more centralized stains, I’ll usually scrub with OxiClean spray or dish detergent and then wash.”
And When All Else Fails, Take It to the Real Experts
We’re all for buffing out stains with a little grit and know-how, but every now and then a substance is so formidable that you have to concede defeat—which, in this case, means taking it to the dry cleaners. Even if you were to the one to bring the ball up-court, Sorbara occasionally recommends passing the rock to the dry cleaners for a dunk. “Sometimes garments get crunchy from soaking in OxiClean,” she says, “so taking it to a dry cleaner for a ‘final clean’ normally restores the texture of a garment [that’s made from] silk or cotton.” (You’ll still get the assist, and an ‘A’ for effort.) A word of caution: Not every dry cleaner will be equipped to deal with your particular issue, Senzel says, and you might be forced to go at it yourself. But unless you’re dealing with a true disaster, your local dry cleaner is a safe bet.