The curse of the smelly fabric

by Always Alice on June 19, 2012 · 21 comments

in Vintage Sewing

Hi all! I’m hoping someone has a miracle cure today. I found some amazing wool pieces at an estate sale. Each piece is big enough for a coat or jacket. That blue one will be a 1941 Vogue swing coat with big round shawl collar. All the fabric in the pictures was $2. I was a machine, I didn’t stop till I stuffed that $2 box with every piece of wool I could find. Anyway, it smells, badly. Like a garage smell mixed with musty house and Goodwill. I aired them out yesterday with no luck.

While it was airing on the deck a gigantic storm popped up (like they do in western NY) and they got a tad wet before I could run them inside. Not soggy, just like sprinkled on. Wow, the smell only intensified and it made the garage reek.

Soooooo, what’s the best way to get the stink out of these large pieces of wool? I was thinking of using woollike in my washer on the wool cycle and then fluffing them in the dryer with zero heat or hanging them back out on the deck. I’m terrified of felting them on accident.

As an experiment I sprayed pet odor neutralizer on the small green scraps. So far it still smells like feet and sweaty kid.

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– who has written 30 posts on

I'm a self taught seamstress with only a couple of years under my belt. I love to sew from 1940s and 1950s patterns and try to work a little vintage into my modern life. Each garment helps me get closer to creating and designing well constructed and original garments.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Dust Bunny June 19, 2012 at 9:56 am

I would wash gently in Woollite or Orvus, then air-dry. Air-dry laid out flat on old bedsheets, if you can, so they don’t stretch. Hand-wash them in the bath-tub if you have to, and rinse well.


Foster June 19, 2012 at 10:12 am

You could also take them to the dry cleaners if washing them out by hand doesn’t work. What a steal! $2!


Katherine June 19, 2012 at 10:13 am

I’ve never tried it personally so take this with a grain of salt, but I’ve heard good things about Eucalan no-rinse delicate wash:


paige p @ luxperdiem June 19, 2012 at 10:24 am

try vinegar maybe? I use a mix of vinegar and baking soda to get cat pee out of upholstery/carpet and it works really well.


Stephani June 19, 2012 at 10:36 am

I second the vinegar wash. Vinegar smells bad at first, but it has a neutral PH and neutralizes all other smells, and its own smell dissipates quickly. It also brightens colors and helps set dyes. I think 1/8 – 1/4 cup for a full wash load would be sufficient.


BeccaLT June 19, 2012 at 10:37 am

I hand wash/soak wool in cold water w/Eucalan or Soak. Soak has stronger scents than Eucalan but is more expensive.

As long as you wash and rinse in cold water with no agitation you will not felt. Line dry or dry on sweater racks.


Sandra June 19, 2012 at 10:53 am

Hand wash in a tub with cool water & mild soap and some white vinegar – Lay on a flat surface to dry (a sheet on a your lawn or driveway on a sunny day is great)wont smell great while drying, but should be ok when dry.

If you put the fabric in the washer you run the chance of the agitation turning it to felt – dont do it!
Best of luck!!


mideva June 19, 2012 at 11:11 am

spay on vodka


Joni June 20, 2012 at 9:54 am

On the fabric or on yourself? ;-)


Always Alice June 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Lol, me!!


Always Alice June 19, 2012 at 11:17 am

The Eucalan is $4 but the shipping is $12! I laughed. I think I’ll try the vinegar and use baby shampoo as my soap. I’ll do a test on one of the green scraps. Which, btw, I looked at more closely when I got home and it has four H’s (the 4H logo) scrawled in yellow marker on it. I think it must be some 4H manufacturing cut scrap or something. I wish i would have found a large piece of that, it’s such a brilliant green.


Dust Bunny June 19, 2012 at 11:40 am

Maybe somebody used the rest for a 4-H uniform? They were green, and there were home-sewing patterns available for them.


D'ellis June 19, 2012 at 11:39 am

By the way, have been told by a friend who spins & dyes her own wools for sale in her shop that Woolite is no longer recommended amongst the wooly yarn crowd. Seems the formula changed.

Will agree with the vinegar method, cold water, and no agitation!

If your water’s got lots of minerals (like mine) you can also try either baking soda or washing soda, which I discovered last winter and use in everything now, even dishwasher.

Seems the mineral content changes the pH, which is what allows/disallows detergents to work. Everything now comes out cleaner, sparkling (glassware), softer, & and no odor. (Had your prob, but with cottons, last year & 1 wash with soda cleaned everything!)


Rosa June 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Have you ever heard of a hand wash soap called Zote. It is from Mexico but is also popular in TX and other border states. It is a large pink bar of soap and I have used it for washing wool, and silk with good results.


Catholic Bibliophagist June 20, 2012 at 2:06 am

A product called Nok-out is highly recommended by Mary Hunter of Although I haven’t had an occasion to use it on fabric, I think it would be worth a try on one piece of your wool as an experiment. (The product is also a disinfectant, so perhaps it would solve the odor problem rather than merely masking it.) As recommended by other posters, I’d avoid agitation and use cold water. Mary Hunter’s account of how she used this product on a smelly Featherweight is here:


Retro Seamstress June 20, 2012 at 6:52 am

I’m in Australia, so not sure of brands, but I get a eucalyptus wool wash that’s been great for getting that “wet dog” smell out of old wool. Using vinegar as a rinse helps remove excess soap/detergent residue (soap is alkaline, vinegar is acidic, they balance somewhat). I often reclaim old woollen blankets for the Lost Dogs Home and depending on where they’ve come from they can absolutely stink. I’ve used diluted Dettol to wash these in to kill off any nasties as well as the smell and it usually works pretty well. Though I follow it up with a eucalyptus wash as the Dettol smell can be a bit strong. To avoid felting, you don’t want to agitate it too much, more squeeze the suds through the wool as many times as possible, rinse well, then dry outside rather than use a dryer.

What a bargain though. Hope you can freshen them up.


Angie June 20, 2012 at 8:28 am

I have not tried the vinegar, but i definitely will- i have an old wool blanket i found at an estate sale.

Do not take it to the dry cleaners. That blanket still reeks, $20 later, and after a week out on the laundry line too.


Rosa June 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm

OK, so I thought about this for a while and this is my solution to removing the odor without washing. First you need to get some activated carbon, you can probably do this cheaply by buying some carbon filters (for fish tanks) from the pet supply area in any shop. Put the carbon filters in a small sachet. Now put this along with your fabric in the dryer and set it at fluff (or a no heat setting). Cycle the filters and fabric for a good amount of time maybe 30 to 45 minutes. The carbon should absorb the odor, and since there is no heat or water involved the fabric should not have any shrinkage or other damage.


K2 June 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Cut a 4″ x 4″ square out of the fabric and wash it in the washer. Air dry it. Check it to see if it has affected the weave or the fabric negatively (felting). You can also measure the dry squares to see how much shrinkage it has done.

Personally, I would wash the 4×4″ fabric in the washer AND run it through the dryer. That way you can see what will happen if you subject the fabric to the worst.


Vickie June 20, 2012 at 6:53 pm

I spin wool and can vouch for Eucalan. I am certain that someone in your area will be able to get you to a distributor, so that you don’t have to pay for shipping.
I can also vouch for the vinegar soak, it works for fleeces that haven’t got the best odor.
Another alternative is the homemade skunk rinse. You can google it, but it will cut skunk spray.
Don’t agitate wet wool it will felt. Don’t dry it in the dryer that will also felt it. Wash it, with one of the solutions, and let it line dry out of the sun (wool will sunburn). Good luck.


My J June 21, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Vodka! Vodka! Vodka! One part vodka, 2 parts water in a spray bottle. Spray, spray, spray the fabric and air it out. If that doesn’t work, dry cleaning will.


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