Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Getting perfume out of vintage fabric

Today I thought I'd talk about how to resolve the downside of vintage fabric collecting, mainly because I've been dealing with it for the last two days instead of knitting or spinning.  Not that I'm bitter!

It wasn't the tea toweling I bought for our kitchen windows that did me in, but a vintage French linen sheet and some tea towels from a different, albeit just as nice, vendor: I opened the shipping box and it was like falling face-first into a meadow of fabric softener sheets.  I have a perfume allergy, so the fact that I don't particularly like that scent was the least of my problems; I also got a massive headache straightaway.

Obviously mt first reaction was to run my new purchases straight to the washing machine and dump them in. In hindsight that was the right thing for me to do because I'm in a condo with no balcony and my neighbours would probably not like it if I strung up a line on the shared upstairs terrace to air them out for a few days.  But seriously?

Air out perfumed fabric for as long as you can before you try to wash it. 

Next - unless you have a big soaking pail and a good place to keep it far from where you plan to breathe - wash the fabric, but not in your regular detergent (twice, like I did, with zero impact.)  Use Borax. (and use Borax in your soaking pail, too.)

Don't just run it through the cycle.  Let it soak in warm water and Borax for an hour or three before letting the machine go again, and when you get to the rinse cycle, pour some vinegar, maybe half a cup, into the fresh water.  Let that soak for a few hours too.

After you've done two or three of those wash cycles you might still smell the perfume, and simultaneously realize you've run out of vinegar.  But fear not! You can use baking soda in the rinse water, instead.  You can substitute baking soda for Borax too, if you run out of that.

If you've gone this far and still have terrible-smelling fabric, you may well be dealing with the effects of fabric softener.  In my various rabbit-hole research on this point between wash cycles, I learned the possibly incorrect theory that fabric softener effectively layers a thin coat of perfumed wax over every fiber in its reach.  Over time, the layers get very thick and your fabric loses absorbancy (which is one of the prime features of both towels and linen sheets, so if this is true it's an especially bad idea to use fabric softener sheets when you dry these two items.)

Sigh.  Isn't that red stripe beautiful?  But after about eight hours of washing, this fabric still stinks.  As does our laundry room.  AND the washing drum, I suspect because any perfumed wax that was stripped off the fabric was left on the metal finish.  So after I got the fabric down to about half as offensive as it was on arrival, and hung it up in sheer desperation because I had urgent clothing-related laundry to do...

I had to deodorize the washing machine as well.

If this happens to you, try filling the drum with warm water and adding more Borax.  Let that sit for an hour, then run through to the rinse cycle, add vinegar to the fresh water, and let that sit too.  Running through a cycle like this twice cleared enough odor out of our machine to allow me to wash clothes unscathed.

I'm not sure how many more runs I'll have to do with the Borax-vinegar-baking soda routine to get the rest of the scent out of the fabric, but I do know this:

The linen sheet is huge and completely unstained and if I can ever get it smelling clean it will be a great asset in the new house.  And we love the tea towels. 

Also: it's a really good idea to have a clothesline.  I wasn't planning to put one into the new back yard, but I'm going to now, even though I'm seriously questioning the wisdom of buying fabric online, at least until technology advances to sniff-o-vision so you know what you're getting into when you click Buy It Now.

I'm not at all blind to the terrible waste of water just to undo the damage caused by a chemical product but I don't know, is it worse to throw out the fabric?  I'll probably have a clearer answer to that after another day's wash, though I suppose at that point I'll have invested so much water and energy it would be a slap in the face of Mother Nature to throw it in the bin.


Hope everybody who celebrated a big national holiday this weekend had a wonderful time and that all of you (holiday or not) got in some crafty time with a marked reduction in laundry-doing, heh.

See you tomorrow, if I get lucky with the next round of linen-soaking!


Su said...

I can heartily recommend an outdoor washing line! When I had this problem, I simply hung the offending item outside and left it there for a couple of weeks! It did get rid of the smell. Could you not put your fabric in a plastic storage container with lots of baking soda?

Whiteoak said...

Thank you so much for the comment that you are allergic to fragrances! I have the same problem and no one believes me (except the other family members who have the same problem and my husband who has seen what perfume can do to me).

Sorry you had to deal with all that "stink" to have fabric you like. Hopefully it will come out soon. Beth

Laurinda said...

I have a similar issue! I bought some beautiful yarn in a wool mohair blend at a fiber festival, & realized when I got it home that it wasn't just the vendor who reeked of patchouli. It's a polarizing scent, & I'm not a fan.
It's been washed in blue Dawn 5 times, Power Scour 3 times, a vinegar rinse in between all of those washes, & a week of hanging outside, including two rainstorms. Still stinks D-:
It was also the bulk of my budget, darn it

yvette said...

What a drag. I too am sensitive to fabric softeners and the accompanying artificial scents. Makes my skin just itch. Thanks for the tips and I hope your beautiful fabric turns out to be usable.

Mary Keenan said...

Guys, thank you all so much for the sympathy and for the tips, Su!

The good news is, the smell is almost out after many, many more washes. I can't dry the sheet perfectly in our laundry room and was afraid to put it in a bin still wet lest it get moldy (and there is no way I'll risk stinking up my dryer), but then I remembered we are opening our cottage this weekend and there is a TON of space there to string up a separate washing line. A few hours damp in a bag won't kill that big sheet.

Laurinda, I am so, so sorry to hear of your wool/mohair tragedy... that is one of my favourite fiber combos and I would also be unable to face working with yarn that smelled of patchouli. What a loss! Fingers crossed that something will work...

Beth, I hope the word spreads where you are about perfumes... in Toronto there is a good awareness about allergies and lots of scent free areas and office. It's definitely not in your head!

I'm with you Yvette about the itching - if I smell most fragrances, I get a headache, but if it's on clothing I come out in hives. SO frustrating. I wish somebody would figure out there's a market for creating nice scents without whatever chemicals cause this reaction so nobody has to suffer any more :^)