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THE GRAB BAG
A collection of Information, Opinion, and Advice
By Terry McCormick

Every time I put together a newsletter, I make little notes about things I really should include. Tips, how-to's, opinions, and bits of information that would be useful to vintage clothing aficionados; but none of which makes up an article by itself. Some of these get left out for lack of space. Others fall under the desk, or get tracked outside by the dog, or wind up in strange boxes or drawers. In the interests of the ecology of my office, often considered the last playground of every odd bit of scratch paper in North America, I'm collecting these together herein. Get a cup of tea, put up your feet, and prepare to be edified.

Costume Jewelry: When buying costume jewelry for yourself, don't let the glamour of "signed pieces" lure you away from an unmarked piece that you really love. You could be passing up a treasure. Miriam Haskell, for example, rarely marked her jewelry before the 1940's, although she'd been designing since the 1920's. Even some of the early costume jewelry by Chanel and Schiaparelli was occasionally unmarked. Let your heart be your only guide for buying costume jewelry to wear on your body. When you're wearing costume jewelry, no one can tell whether there's a maker's name on it or not anyway; unless they come up and start fondling your clasp. At which point, it seems to me, you'd better start asking yourself what kind of people you're hanging around with!

Some of you may have heard about the current method for testing B akelite; which is to rub it with your finger, and then quickly smell the place you rubbed. Theoretically, the rubbed B akelite will emit a distinctive odor, which other plastics don't have. A group of us gathered together several B akelite pieces and did a semi-scientific test of the sniff method; producing the following results: some B akelite did, indeed, have a distinctive odor whenrubbed. But some other pieces, although definitely Bakelite, did not. And some pieces had an odor sometimes, but not every time. And some of the testers couldn't smell a thing no matter how hard they rubbed; accusing the others of having overwrought imaginations. The general consensus was that this test is an iffy proposition, at best.

The Bakelite Jewelry Book, Davidov & Dawes, Abbeville, 1988, sug-gests heating a needle and poking it into the purported Bakelite piece. Theoretically, if it's Bakelite, ahotneedle will notpenetrate. Again, testing revealed that, while this was generally true, the needle did poke a hole in a couple of things we were positive are Bakelite. The owner of said pieces looked a little ill at this point; so we ceased operations. This method is not recommended when shopping, as you could end up getting chased down the street by an angry shopkeeper. Worse, the angry shopkeeper might consider poking holes in you with a hot needle. A better test is to handle enough Bakelite to become familiar with the look and feel of it; which is how most experts identify Bakelite.

At grocery stores you can find Twinkle, for cleaning copper jewelry; and Brasso, for brass jewelry. But don't substitute one for the other, or you may cause damage. Do be careful when storing enameled copper jewelry, because it chips easily. Wrap each piece in tissue, or keep it in separate boxes. Be gentle with your rhine-stones, too. If the surface gets scratched, which can happen easily if the jewelry is jumbled up in boxes, it will dull the shine. If you soak rhinestone pieces to clean them, the metal backing, which creates the glitter and some of the color, will rust. Your only recourse is to replace the stone completely. Clean the surface with window cleaner, using an old, soft toothbrush, or Q-Tips.

The majority of the costume jewelry that is currently popular is of recent vintage. The shiny metal backing we see on glitzy rhinestone pieces is arhodium coating, which was developed in thelate!940's; and the process that gives irridescent rhinestones and crystals their distinctive appearance was used from the 1950's on. Earlier rhinestone jewelry has a dull metal backing, and tends to be less glitzy and glittery than later pieces.

Washing vintage clothing: In the more conservation-oriented refer-ences for cleaning vintage textiles, you will find that the recommended bleach is sodium perborate. Don't despair, or start racing around to pharmacies trying to find it. Sodium perborate is the active ingredient in dry Clorox 2, and it's all set to use; no fussing about how much, what solution, etc. When sodium perborate gets wet, it becomes hydrogen peroxide, which is the active ingredient in liquid Clorox 2.

Incidentally, I'm convinced that cleaning vintage clothing is sort of like making soup; each of us has to experiment around to find a way that works for us, and stick to it. I've tried otherpeople's methods, and always ended up redoing the whole wash using my own; which I present for your experi-mentation. First a pre-soak: using the washing machine as a sink (and twiddling dials throughout to by-pass agitation and spin), fill the tub with warm water, add Clorox 2, and agitate to mix thoroughly; then add the clothes to soak for about 30 minutes. An hour is okay, but clothes left overnight may re-absorb some of the dirt, and you have to repeat the pre-soak. Then by-pass the agitation, and drain the water; let the rinse cycle fill until it starts to agitate, bypass the agitation again, and let drain. If the clothes are fairly sturdy, I will sometimes use the spin cycle for about 30 seconds; just to make it easier (I hate wringing out dresses and petticoats.) Then take the clothes out, refill the washer with warm water, add a mild detergent (Woolite, LinenWash) and some more Clorox 2. Agitate to mix the soap well, add clothes, and repeat the process used for pre-soaking. I then lay the clothes flat to dry.

I find the preceding method will often get yellowish stains out of rayon print dresses when drycleaning fails. However, while many 1940's rayons handwash beautifully; whenever you wash a vintage rayon garment you are running a risk that it may shrink, or that the dyes may run and fade. It's one of those Solomon-type decisions that we have to wrestle with in the privacy of our own souls. Underarm stains are to be considered permanent on all rayon and silk vintage garments; and some modern ones as well.

I put cotton whites out in the sun, on the grass, after washing (avoiding dandelions, which stain), for a natural bleaching action. Rayons and silks may be weakened by drying in the sun, so should always be dried indoors; as should colored cottons which could fade. Your family won't miss the dining room table or the middle of the living room rug for a few hours! Just tell them it's in the interests of truth and beauty. If cotton whites remain stubbornly yellowed, I'm a firm advocate of boiling them in a large pan on the stove with good, old Ivory Snow and some Clorox 2. Rinse cotton in water the same temperature, or as close as possible, to the wash water. A cooler rinse will set the soap in the fabric, instead of removing it.

Vintage stains will usually resist anything - at least anything that won't eat holes in the fabric. I've occasionally had good results from Shout, however; and some folks advocate Prell Shampoo (although this is very strong). I'm becoming a believer in White Wizard, a spot cleaner carried by some catalogs, including Vermont Country Store. It's alleged to be both gentle and nontoxic; and I've certainly seen some amazing stain removing results when using it.

Speaking of The Vermont Country Store (free catalog, P.O. Box 3000, Manchester Ctr., VT 05255-3000), it carries a product called Quilt Care, which was developed for washing delicate and antique textiles; and also Mildew Away, a chlorine-free product that is claimed to be safe for fabrics. Remember, though, to always test any new product in an inconspicuous spot on the garment before plunging in.

It's to be clearly understood that any cleaning methods or products presented here are for vintage clothing that you plan to wear; and are not intended as conservation. That's a whole different kettle of fish; not to mention kettle of cleaning. On the other hand, if you want to get wearable vintage clothes clean, this method is relatively harmless.

Which reminds me, every fall I make a note to tell you to be sure to rinse the starch outof all your whites before tucking them away. Silver fish smack their lips and grab knives and forks when they get wind of starch. Unfortunately they tend to munch on the fabric while they're at it. When spring arrives, you can starch and ironyour clean whites, nice and fresh for another season. Also, if you don'thave any acid free tissue on hand when storing whites away, don't substitute other paper. Wrap the whites in old cotton sheets, to keep them from yellowing.

Furs: Every year whenl take out my vintage fur coats I find new tears, new worn spots, and fresh deterioration. No, there are not fur wearing pixies living in my closets; those old furs are just suffering from extreme old age. The average life of a fur is 40 - 50 years. In 1970, a 1945 fur coat was a great deal. In 1980 it was still a very good deal. In 1991 a 1945 fur coat is a risky proposition. It could wear beautifully for another 5 years; but it could just as easily leave you shivering in a cold breeze after only a year or two. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing the things that make the difference: how the coat was stored and treated in its first 40 years, where the pelt came from, and how it was processed before being sewn. The key is to tread lightly before investing in a pre-1950 fur.

The market for vintage fur, as you may be aware, is slow, slow, slow at the moment. Even dealers who've always had good luck selling furs are seeing their coats sit around for months, and even years. Collars, stoles, and capes are almost past the "you can't give 'em away" point. It would seem that this is a good time to rush out and buy a good fur, cheap; but not so. Weirdly enough, the prices on vintage fur seem to be going up. What's going on?? Maybe someone out there can explain it to me. Fur garments deteriorate whether being worn or not. So if you've got some vintage furs you really love, you'd better wear and enjoy them while you can. It really is a case of, "if you don't use it, you lose it."

Some people are afraid to wear the furs they've got, and some shops are afraid to sell them, because a few anti-fur people are getting very nasty. While I always honor another person's causes, having many of my own; I think there's a difference between choosing to not wear fur yourself, and putting down others who choose to wear or sell it. Cruelty to animals is the reason given for militancy against vintage fur wearing and selling. I submit that at least equal cruelty (greater if you value the well-being of human beings over that of weasels and rodents) was involved in the manufacture of vintage laces, bead work, and virtually all manufactured items. Small children were employed in lace factories, and beaten if they fell asleep or cried during the 10 hour days. Impoverished, often widowed, women were forced to labor 12 hours or more a day, seven days a week, for barely enough to eat. Many lost their eyesight and health doing needle and beadwork in unheated, poorly lit rooms. Sweat shops, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, employed young women and girls for a few cents a day, in horrible working conditions. Why is it that I don't hear about pickets at shops that sell vintage laces; or paint being tossed on Edwardian shirt-waists? I will pass lightly over how the cotton was obtained for those early Victorian dresses.

Not meaning to rain on anyone else's parade, although there are those who feel no compunction about drizzling on mine; some aspects of the history of clothing are not pretty. It seems to me that we either condemn the lot, or accept the reality that most clothing, vintage or new, has unsavory origins; and wouldn' t stand up well if examined for humane or environmentally sound manufacture.

The bad news is that things haven't changed. Read The Fashion Conspiracy, by Nicholas Coleridge, 1988, and discover that sweat shops are still flourishing, and the source of most the clothing we wear now; including well known and fairly pricey brands. Not to mention the cost to the environment of manufacturing petroleum based fabrics, growing cotton, and grazing sheep. If this sounds as though the only alternative to walking around in our birthday suits is to be socially and environmentally culpable - you've got the picture!

Phew, I've gotten pretty heavy here, which wasn't my original intent, actually. However, last week I passed a billboard with an anti-fur message.

Under it were huddled a bunch of homeless people trying to keep warm and dry in sleeping bags; with some plastic tacked to the legs of the billboard to keep out the rain. I knew there was something a bit out of balance with this scene.

To end this on a lighter note, here's a book to take you out of the world of harsh reality, and bring a welcome touch of fantasy. Radical Rags, Fashions of the Sixties, JoelLobenthal, Abbeville Press, 1990, S30.95, is one of those gorgeous, fun books that entertain while enlightening. I thank Jacquie Greenwood for tipping me off to it. The 1960's is not my favorite clothing era, so I would have passed it by without her glowing recommendation; and what a shame to miss this. To be honest, I don't remember the man or woman on the street (at least my street) looking quite so glamorous, or anywhere near as avant garde as the pictures in this book; but that's not the point. The point is that the best, most exciting clothes of the period are visually exciting; and the designers, including the unsung artists who created much of the handmade, innovative street clothing, worth honoring. Even if you were alive and wearing clothes in the sixties, there's much to learn from Radical Rags about the period.

Copyright 1991 - All Rights Reserved, Terry McCormick, Vintage Clothing Newsletter