ASK ALISON: How Do I Get Stink Out of Silk?

The answer? Quite easily!
Publish date:
February 13, 2015
Ask Alison, what's in a costume designers kit, smells, hand washing, steamers

Hi Alison!

I have a weird clothes-cleaning question that I haven't yet been able to find a satisfactory answer to . . . how the heck do you get that gross pit smell out of silk? I bought an amazeballs vintage dress that I haven't yet been able to wear because it has that gross high-school-costume-closet stank to it, and it is filling me with The Sads.



Everyone thinks that cleaning silk is a mysterious sticky wicket due to it being of a delicate nature, but it's really not all that hard to deal with.

Silk is a naturally occurring animal protein fiber, produced by certain insects in order to build their cocoons and webs. And almost any 100 percent natural fiber (including silk, linen, chiffon, and cashmere) can safely be washed at home — no dry cleaner necessary.

Yeah, you heard me: Our dear reader Maggie can totally skip the dry cleaner and get that stink out at home! Natural fibers are actually quite easy to care for, and release dirt easily. But that's not to say you can just cram your silk in the washer and be done with it. You'll need to be willing to put in a little time, effort, and TLC in order to get it clean on your own.

To get a bad smell out of a 100 percent natural fiber garment, give it a dunk in a sink or bucket full of slightly warm water and a capful of gentle detergent (or good old-fashioned baby shampoo). Very cold water is best for silk, but it isn’t quite as effective at removing dirt and odors.

It takes a good five to 15 minutes max of constant movement in a wash bath to really get an item clean and un-smelly. (With silk, I'd err on the side of caution and do no longer than five to avoid shrinkage.) Yes, that means you’ll have to stand there the whole time and carefully swish your dirty garment around in a sink full of water.

Don’t freak out if you see some dye bleed into the water — if it’s a solid color garment, I promise you won’t notice any color loss once you’re finished. But a brightly patterned garment (like the dress Maggie wrote me about) calls for a little additional TLC — so I'd suggest she use very cold water and an ultra-gentle wash made specifically for delicate and vintage fabrics.

I feel like Maggie is at her wit's end with this dress — so the slight risk of colors running might be worth it in a last-ditch effort to get the stink out. But if you are concerned about washing a brightly patterned silk piece, dampen a white, 100 percent cotton cloth and carefully press it against the garment in question. If any color transfers, proceed with caution.

While hand-washing, take great care not to rub the garment against itself — there’s no need to beat it into submission. Excess friction is exactly what causes fabrics to weaken, stretch, and pill. (However, in Maggie's case, she could give the armpits a tiny, tiny bit of scrubbing with a toothbrush to really give her stink the heave-ho.)

Euclan bills itself as a no-rinse garment wash, but if you are using regular old laundry soap to clean your delicates, let the dirty water drain completely and then refill the sink as many times as it takes until the water stays clean. As tempting as it is to squeeze the garment under running water, avoid doing so! It can very easily damage fragile fibers.

After rinsing, don’t wring or twist your item — lay it flat on a clean, dry towel and roll it up into a burrito in order to squeeze all the water out while still retaining its shape. Repeat this burrito-ing process until the item is nearly dry, then lay it flat on another towel, making sure air can freely circulate around it. Never put an item you just spent a ton of time hand-washing in the dryer! It spells certain death for delicate fabrics.

Once your garment has air dried, the real work begins. (That's the reason dry cleaners get what they do for cleaning your clothes — pressing is a hassle!) When your item is just shy of totally dry, get to work carefully pressing it back into shape with a medium-warm iron (making sure to use an old T-shirt as a pressing cloth between the iron's plates and the garment).

If you (or Maggie!) are too afraid to dunk your precious silk item into a wash bath, you can try using the power of steam (with a few drops of your favorite essential oil added to the water) to eliminate bad smells. It might take a few passes, but using copious amounts of steam is the absolute lowest-impact way to combat the problem.

The little pink hand steamer below is the same one I use every day at work — and even if you don't have a tough smell on your hands, it's an absolutely essential tool for keeping your wardrobe in tip-top shape.

If all else fails, you can try a clever technique that an xoJane reader recently turned me onto: activated charcoal. (Also known as activated carbon if you're a fish enthusiast.) Take five minutes to make your own sachets using loose charcoal/carbon pellets and an old sock tied up at the end. Then, seal the offending garment up in a plastic trash bag or cardboard box for a minimum of 24 hours.

Alternatively, you could use plain-old kitty litter (the world's most commonly available odor eliminator!) in the same exact manner to remove a stubborn stench from your beloved garment. If you've got some laying around the house already, it's worth a try. Your cat won't mind a bit.

Got a pressing wardrobe question of your own? Send it my way!

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I wrote a book: 'How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing'.