Easy-Peasy Tips on Repairing Vintage Clothes

Repair kit full of cotton, needles, pins, scissors, hemming web, buttons, embellishments, patches and spare fabric.

The lovely Pooka asked me if I could give some tips on how to repair vintage clothes. To be honest I always take anything complicated or expensive to a seamstress but there are plenty of things which are easy to do yourself. I really enjoy repairing and restoring vintage finds, especially those for sale in my shop, I love being able to transform a find into something beautiful that will be treasured by someone else. You don’t necessarily need to have a sewing machine either, although this does make things easier, but they are expensive so these tips are all ones which can be done by hand. My favourite vintage clothes usually mostly come from the 80s, so I am not as scared to have a go myself unlike I would be if it was something from the 1920s for example.

Firstly I would say always check vintage clothing carefully before you buy it, little flaws can add character but beware of huge stains or rips. Stains in vintage clothing could have been there for years so have worked their way well into the fabric. If this is the case your usual stain removers might not be able to get it out. A tip for removing stains is to treat like with like, if you spill coffee for example then this is water based so running it under the tap should wash it out. If your stain is grease based like lipstick a water based remover won’t work. One place to always check vintage clothing is under the arm pits as deodorant stains are impossible to remove. I have read soaking the garment in soluble aspirin can remove them but this is one I haven’t tried myself.

A simple way to remove non-stubborn stains is to apply your detergent or stain remover product direct on the stain and let it soak in prior to washing. I find this gentle methods shifts most stains.

If you find you are stuck with a stubborn stain, don’t let this totally ruin your garment. A common trick I use is to hide the stain.

I have a nice stash of patches, beads, trims and embellishments all which I have ready to fix a problem. I always bear in mind where the stain or rip is when buying and consider if it is in a place which would look suitable with a cover up. One dress I found was beautiful, but had a little mark on the front which would not come off. It was such a stunning dress that I thought it would actually be improved with a little embellishment and choose to add a large corsage. I bought this one but you could easily make your own.

With a few tiny, carefully placed stitches below the top layer of petals the corsage is secured.

You also need to bear in mind when adding embellishment how the washing instructions will be effected. This dress would be easy to hand wash around the corsage but you might choose to use a brooch or something detachable with Velcro for example.

One major trend in the 80s was the shoulder pad, whilst Balmain brought back the statement shoulder not all 80s vintage looks quite as glam. But don’t let this put you off, shoulder pads are easy to remove and I love how you get a bit of extra shoulder drape once you have taken them out.

Simply turn the garment inside out.

Then raise the pad to expose the stitches and simply snip them, taking care not to catch the fabric below. Always save your spare pads as some garments actually look better with them and you can use them in the future.

This dress caught my attention with its wonderful stripes, the sleeves were damaged so I had to get creative. I tried it on and saw it would look very modern with rolled up sleeves, so I cut off the damaged cuffs and hemmed up the sleeves.

If you don’t have a sewing matching you can buy hemming web, most supermarkets sell it as well as specialist haberdasheries and fabric shops. But please don’t use this on delicate or very special pieces, sometimes the web can loose its stick over time and some webs can damage delicate material such as silk. On 80s polyester it is just fine!

All you do is lay a strip along the area to be hemmed.

Neatly fold the hem over the webbing, you can use pins to hold it in place if needed.

Then you cover the area with a wet cloth and press for a few minutes with an iron. Allow to cool and that’s it a perfect hem.

Whilst a sewing machine makes life easier, hand stitching can still be done on small areas.

On this dress a small area of stitching had come undone.

Secure the area with a pin to keep the open edges together.

Then carefully make small, neat stitches over the missing area.

If the original thread is still in place joining the rest of the seem at either end of the gap you are fixing, stitch the loose thread into your stitches to keep it from pulling.

Here is tip which isn’t necessarily a repair but useful none the less. As many of you know I have recently developed rheumatoid arthritis which has made many of my shoes feel too narrow. I also find when buying vintage shoes they do seem narrower than more modern shoes too. If you want to stretch out a pair of shoes by a small amount, imagine the amount they would give after wearing for a few weeks, then this works perfectly. The shoes needs to be real leather, you risk damaging other fabrics. Take a couple of sheets of newspaper and soak it with water, I just run it under the tap, and make a ball. Stuff the ball into the toe of the shoe pushing the shoe out where you want it to give, you can keep adding paper by wrapping more layers over the ball until you have the ball pushing again the area desired to give. This will soak your shoes like you got caught in torrential rain, so use a dry sheet of paper balled up behind the wet ball to stop the water running.

If you are unsure where you need to focus the wad, do one shoe whilst wearing the other to guide you where the shoe is tight, then do the other shoe to match. You also need to be aware that newspaper ink will run, so if you don’t have dark shoes and you think the ink might ruin the shoes use colour free tissue paper instead. Leave the shoes over night and put them on whilst still damp, if you can bear it wear them for on hour to really get them to mould to your foot shape.

If you find them still a bit tight or you need a fairly large width difference most cobblers offer a shoe stretching service. Cravens in Manchester charges ┬ú5 and will let you try them and take them back for more stretching if the first attempt isn’t wide enough, which is well worth it for the perfect fit.

I have sung the praises of leather wipes and feed before, they are perfect for looking after your shoes and bags. But leather feed is also good to restore embellishments on vintage clothing. You can also use a beeswax leather polish, anything which will replenish the moisture to the leather.

I used this on the leather covered straps on my vintage trench coat, they were very dry which can result in the leather cracking, crumbling and flaking off.

Here the right side of the leather has been treated you can see the moisture adds shine back to the leather, whilst the left side is still dry and left like this will soon become damaged with use.

I hope this tips are useful, please feel free to ask anything else. I have listed some other posts I have found useful, please let me know if you have any other links to add.


Mending an antique scarf by Evil Dressmaker – via Penny Dreadful fortnightly posts round up.

Cleaning vintage, tips by Fashion Era

How to repair and rework vintage clothing video by Amber Kloss Fashionvillage

Ultraviolet light and how it is used to determine repairs in vintage garments by Lorraine Stratt – one for my fellow geeks!