Vintage garments: How to alter and care for them

Q:  My grandmother died recently and left me all sorts of beautiful clothes and furs. She was much heavier than I am and a couple of inches shorter. Would it be worth having some of my favorite pieces altered?

First, I’m sorry to hear about your loss – but your grandmother was lucky to have lived through so many fashion trends.  She must have seen a lot in her lifetime. 

Let’s talk about what constitutes a “vintage” garment. Vintage usually means at least 25 years old. I mean, are we talking about clothes from the 1930s and 1940s or from the 1960s and 1970s?

It makes a difference because the textiles and construction were so different in those eras.

Clothing made in the first half of the 20th century, in my experience, was made so it could be altered more easily; they usually had generous seam allowances and lots of fitting seams. However, the seams were frequently sewn with tiny machine stitches, much smaller than now.  They can be a pain to remove, especially from delicate fabrics. Dresses and skirts had deep hems and that’s important if you needed them longer.

You’re lucky that your grandmother was heavier than you because it’s much safer to take in a vintage garment than to let it out!

Clothing made in the latter part of the 20th century had a completely different fabric and construction aesthetic. With some exceptions, the overall silhouette became looser and sloppier (think “granny dresses” and the movie “Flashdance”). That resulted in less seaming and less options to change the fit. You could certainly take in the sides to make the tops smaller, but the neckline would still swim on you! And changing necklines takes more skillful sewing.

With the fitted garments of the ,60s and ,70s, the seam allowances tended to be less generous, making them nearly impossible to let out. Polyesters, which were the most popular fabric of that era, tended to attain a “patina” so that when they were let out, you could see the old seam lines and the rest of the garment would look soiled as well. Because of this, letting down hems was not always possible. And the old polyesters were difficult to press; when they were pressed hard enough to stay, they stayed forever! It was nearly impossible to get rid of that line marking a crease or a hem.

On the bright side, bugs and other vermin did not acquire a taste for polyester so holes were not a problem. Also, because of the chemical properties of the fabric, humidity was not as essential for storage either. Polyester doesn’t really dry out or get brittle. The only damage might be stains for which they were notorious for holding onto (especially oils).

Check the wear and tear on the garment. Is the fabric dry or brittle to the touch? Is there discoloration under the arms or around the neck and wrists or at the hemline? Silks and the synthetics, which were just coming into widespread use during the first half of the last century, were easily discolored from perspiration and they didn’t always clean well. Also, early rayons and acetates would shrink beyond recognition from accidental washing and get really stiff from dry cleaning.

And take a whiff. Has the garment been stored away from mold and mildew? This smell may or may not be removed with cleaning. And last but not least, has the piece been protected from critters? Are there holes, or worse, droppings left over from who knows what?

Furs can be altered, but again, you have to check them, just like any garment. Furs are susceptible to bugs and other critters and if they haven’t been stored in the proper humidity, they can be dry and brittle or moldy. Handle the fur to feel the suppleness (or lack of it). Smell it to catch mold problems. Also, check for wear in the stress areas such as across the back, under the arms, the elbow area, and across the lap. Rips can be repaired but you must make sure the fur will still fit after the repair.

I would pick the garments that meant the most to me and take them to a reliable tailor and get his/her opinion.

Barbara Stone is the owner of Barbara Stone Designs, a full-service tailoring and dressmaking business at 5200 Churn Creek Rd. Suite P, Redding, CA, 96002. She can be reached at (530) 222-1340 or [email protected]

Barbara Stone
Barbara Stone is the owner of Barbara Stone Designs, a full-service tailoring and dressmaking business at 5200 Churn Creek Road, Suite P, Redding, CA, 96002. She can be reached at (530) 222-1340 or [email protected]
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2 Responses

  1. Jill Dorn says:

    I bought a vintage brocade fitted evening dress yesterday. It has metallic threads woven throughout. It is too small for me (the women in the 50s were so tiny), but 3/4 inch seam allowances. The fabric edge shreds, so it I would not be able to use all this seam allowance in making it bigger. How can I finish the (now raw) edges so that I can use them in letting out the side seams? Should I back the fabric? Can I do something to extend/strengthen the edges? If I could use 3?8 on each seam, it would be 1 1/2 inches bigger–this would fit me.

    I hope this is not too confusing!

    Thanks you,

    Jill

  2. Barbara Stone says:

    Dear Jill ~ congratulations on your score! Finding a decent vintage garment that is close to fitting is difficult at best.

    As for the fraying edges, if you have a serger, that would be the best way to clean up and protect those edges. If not, your best bet would be a small zig-zag edge or a hand finish.

    If you think the fraying will not leave enough fabric to let out, you can back it to strengthen it so you can stitch as close to the edge finish as possible. I would not recommend backing the fabric or binding the edges if you can help it because these methods can change the fit and hand of the garment. I am hesitant to recommend a fabric to back it, too, without seeing the actual garment but I will tell you what I have used in the past. A lightweight fusible interfacing may work; fusing a fabric similar to the original, but a lighter weight can sometimes be used as well.

    Good luck!

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