Out damn spot! How to save a piece of clothing from stubborn stains

If you act fast, many stains can be removed without a trace. But for those that won’t come out, a creative approach might be your best option

Once upon a time, I was wearing all white at a dinner party (remember those?) when someone I had just met (remember strangers?) complimented me for not having spilled anything on my outfit. Of course, my enthusiasm in receiving the compliment immediately caused me to spill red wine in my lap. As these things go, everyone jumped to attention and offered advice on how to deal with it.

“Soda water and salt!”

“White wine!”


On this occasion I knew (from previous spills) that my dry cleaner would prefer it if I didn’t touch the stain, so I did nothing. The conversation rolled on and I’m pleased to report my pants survived.

Not all of my clothes have been so fortunate, but this expert advice offers hope for the things in our wardrobes rendered unwearable because of stubborn spill stains.

A cool soak then a hot wash

According to Steve Anderton, a laundry expert from the consultancy group LTC Worldwide, oily stains from meat or fish should be softened with a soak or pre-wash in cold water and then run through a hot wash, of at least 60C. Anderton suggests using a premium detergent containing a biological enzyme and an emulsifying agent.

He says the same rules can be applied to red and brown sauce stains, as they usually contain proteins and vegetable oils that will respond in a similar way. If the dyes are fresh this should remove any residual vegetable dyes, but if marks persist, try applying a general stain remover. The same rules apply for wine.

If your stained garment is made from polyester or nylon, be aware that fats and oils are highly attracted to synthetics, so you’ll need to break this bond with an emulsifying agent. It may need to be washed more than once at 60C – but no higher. Polyester is thermoplastic and excessive heat can damage it.

If you find yourself dealing with blood stains, Anderton advises moving quickly: “speed is of the essence – fresh blood is often removable with cold water and can be rendered virtually invisible with a rapid cool wash”. If the blood has dried and aged a little, follow the instructions outlined above for oily protein stains.

For stains that won’t budge: try natural dyes

If you’ve got a light-coloured garment with an indelible mark, hiding the stain with a dye job could be a good option. Kate Wilkins is the founder of Studio Tinta and specialises in dyeing textiles using plant materials such as onion skins, avocado stones, black tea and eucalyptus leaves.

Natural dyes are less hazardous than synthetic ones and can be safely used at home. She says the key is plant matter that is high in tannins because it will “achieve a good level of colour-fastness on both protein and plant fibres”, such as cotton, wool, silk and linen. Unfortunately, synthetics don’t take the dyes as well.

A person tie-dying a piece of white fabric using pegs and chopsticks
Changing the colour of a stained piece of clothing through tie-dying can help disguise an immovable stain. Photograph: Sipa Asia/REX/Shutterstock

When it comes to using dyes to cover up a stain, be aware of what the stain is from. She says protein stains will pick up natural dyes so you risk accentuating the mark if you dye the whole garment. To get around this issue, she suggests using dye techniques that create patterns, such as bundle-dyeing, which involves laying the plant material directly on to the fabric and imprinting the patterns using steam, or tie-dyeing.

The process will differ depending on your materials but, generally, natural dyeing can be done with things already in your kitchen. For example, a silk garment can be dyed using avocado seeds that have been boiled in a pot of water on the stove.

Natural dying can be complicated, but there are plenty of DIY instructions in print and online. Wilkins has written a downloadable ebook of dye recipes (though it is email-gated) – and there are hundreds of YouTube videos devoted to the topic.

Or cut and cover

A man wears a white shirt with a contrasting pocket
Adding a pocket to a stained shirt is a good way to give the garment a new lease on life, says Chloe Turner, a designer who specialises in upcycling. Photograph: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Chloe Turner is the designer of streetwear brand Homie’s line of upcycled garments, Reborn. The line takes excess and faulty stock from the main line (and brands such as Champion and Nobody Denim) and repurposes it into unique pieces. This diverts existing materials from landfill and saves precious resources from going to waste.

When dealing with a stained garment, Turner has several suggestions, depending on where the stain is. “If it’s at the bottom of the jumper, why not make it a cropped one? If it’s on the chest, you could sew a patch over it or even a pocket from another garment.”

She says they get more technical in the studio. “If there is a large stain or mark on the garment, we unpick and change the style of it” by inserting “panelling using scrap fabrics from other garments that have been cut up”.

“You don’t have to be an expert sewer to upcycle a garment,” Turner says. “All you need is a bit of creativity, which I think is the beauty of it.”


Lucianne Tonti

The GuardianTramp

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