Video: How to deal with stains on tailoring

Monday, November 16th 2020
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This video, the latest in our series on how to care for your tailoring at home, looks at stains.

Cutter Ben Clarke, from Richard James in London, suggested this as a topic a while ago, but I wasn't sure. I thought we'd want to talk to a dry cleaner or similar professional.

It was only when we started discussing Ben's tips and tricks, that I realised how often a cutter or tailor has to deal with this problem. Cloth gets rubbed, spilled on, even bled on (easy to do with shears and needles around) and instant solutions are needed.

In fact, in that way these tips are particularly relevant to you, the reader. It's about first aid: about how to apply quick solutions or minimise the problem. You can still go to the dry cleaner if it's bad, but what - if anything - should you do now?

Interestingly, often the answer is nothing at all. Some stains can be dealt with quickly, according to Ben; others can be mitigated; but if neither of those is possible, you shouldn't do anything. It's too easy to make things worse.

 

 

Here's a summary of Ben's points, for anyone that needs quick advice, or a quick reminder:

  • Absorption is the best first aid on a wet stain. So if you can, soak it up
  • If the stain has dried, and it's not oily, then try lightly rubbing the cloth with another part of the cloth
  • The next thing to try (on a dry stain) is a bit of steam. Animal-based cloths, such as wool, contain natural oils, which work well with steam. Whereas water is repelled
  • Apply steam, then try brushing - particularly if it's cloth with a pile, like velvet or flannel
  • If the stain is oil, try French chalk powder. Sprinkle it on, leave it overnight, and then brush off in the morning
  • All chalks don't work though - eg the chalk a tailor uses for marking cloth does not
  • If the stain is blood, use your own saliva. Soak some cotton thread in your mouth, then put it on, pressing lightly. Can use tissue as well
  • With wax, you can put greaseproof paper on top and then use an iron, to heat up the paper and draw the wax out
  • But this is hard to do, and it's unlikely you've done it often. So anything this hard, is best just taken to a dry cleaner
  • Equally with stain removal products - it's easy to make a stain worse. If you're going that far, basically a chemical-based approach, then it's probably time to go to the dry cleaners. Particularly with something expensive like a bespoke suit
  • Same with wine, don’t try and treat it with lots of other things (nothing more than water) - just go to a dry cleaner
  • Good dry cleaners are not easy to find, but Simon recommends Michael Norman

Many thanks to Richard James and Campaign for Wool for their help with this video.

For other cleaning and maintenance videos, see:

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Lindsay Mckee

Another superb post Simon!
I’ve already learned to sew a button from your previous video with excellent results.
For stains, where does one obtain French Chalk?

Penn

I apologise for starting off-track; but I thought other readers of PS might like to read a three-page spread from yesterday’s New York Times, ‘The Unraveling of Savile Row’. It deals with the economics of the Row in the time of Covid grounding, with tailoring aided by robots and Zoom, and includes comments from Edward Sexton, Kathryn Sargent, and Ozwald Boateng, among others. Go to nytimes.com and search ‘Unraveling Savile Row’.

Bobby

French chalk is talc, or hydrated magnesium phylosilicate. Talcum powder will work just fine.

limekiln

I second that. I’ve used talcum powder (specifically formulated for babycare) with great success. Even on a silk tie.

Jim

This video turned out to be a lot less useful than I had hoped. Why not actually illustrate how these methods could be used by applying some dirt, salad dressing, wine, blood, etc to that piece of cloth and prove that they can be cleaned off? It would have particularly interesting to test the highly dubious claim that blood can be cleaned off only with the same person’s saliva!

Christopher Lee

Except for well-dressed hitmen.

Harry

The world’s greatest authority on dry cleaning has to be Stu Bloom of Rave Fabricare, Arizona, USA. Do a video with him, and it’ll be a science lecture. Hoping other readers will back me up on that.

Off topic: hope I don’t sound impolite here. Funny how we all have the same body parts, yet some men will never look good in what they wear. No matter how expensive the suit. It seems that secret code will never be cracked. Still baffles me after all these years. They’re experts on the subject matter and know all the ‘rules’ too. It’s a weird one I’ll never stop pondering over.

Luckily, none one of that applies to you Simon. You wear it well. Good luck to you, or should I say your genes.

Don’t know if you’ve ever done a post on posture, movement, confidence and poise. Slipping into a bespoke garment is only half the story.

Peter O

Dear Simon,
Your presupposition is knowledge of origin of stain. Some of my cotton trousers begin to get irregular discolouring after machine wash. There must be something like vinegar or whatever that affects like chlor the cloth.
I accused the Italian trouser manufacturers of New & Lingwood to be responsible, but realized my error when the mysterious stains appeared on other trousers. Some trousers seem immune. I’m resigned. – Off topic: when Crombie tweed or wool coat arms must be shortened from 66 to 60, is the cut around the arm cuff straight?

Evatt

I would have thought that fuller’s earth would be the best powder for soaking up stains. It’s been used for centuries for just that purpose and even now is used by the military for decontamination of clothing. It’s available online.

Alex

Interesting video, thanks Simon. On the topic of steam… should you avoid steaming the canvassed chest piece, as I’ve heard some people say it can cause puckering and damage to the canvassing?

Jason

Simon, what have you got in your jacket breast pocket during the video ?

Nico

I looked up French Chalk as I expected it to be something different from talcum powder, but in English sources it is effectively described as talcum. You may want to try what was my guess however, Terre de Sommières, which has a more specific reputation as an oily stain remover in France.

Initials CG

Just a thought Simon, how about a follow up video with your preferred cleaners – Michael Norman?
You guys could go over a few more tips, but more importantly how to validate a good dry cleaner, what questions to ask, what methods do they typically use, maybe more advanced techniques that can be done at home?
It’s becoming terribly difficult to find good cleaners that know the difference between wool and polyester, or tailored clothing and a track suit…
I guess it’s the demise of the suit and tie overall, but i have found that most cleaners will absolutely ruin your beautiful garments the first time. I’ve had to explain to the cleaner to never iron the lapel flat to the coat!
My tailors here in Rome agree; avoid the cleaners at all costs – better to learn to do most things yourself !

Peter

Simon – you may have seen “The Dig” on Netflix, where Ralph Fiennes excavates English history while wearing tweed tailoring, Fair Isle sweaters, and a tie – as in, what people in the 30s would have just called “clothes”. No microfibers or performance polyesters here. Not only does he get dirty, and probably sweaty, but several times also head to toe drenched. Which begs the question, how would you get those clothes clean, either today or in the past? Did people have a greater tolerance and expectation for smell? How would such wear impact the garments’ longevity? And what can this teach us about how to dress and care for our clothes in the present day? I would love to see your perspective on this in a post. Otherwise, this could be someone’s esoteric PhD topic. Thank you.

Peter

Thank you Simon. I imagine the costume department helped Ralph Fiennes with his upkeep as well. If you’ve ever been to the Washington DC area in summer, it’s incredible to think that the US Civil War was essentially fought entirely in wool. Our standards for comfort have changed.