Vintage 101: devil dust in textiles

Erin emailed me recently asking about devil dust and what to do about it, so in response, today I’ll be talking about one of the worst things you can encounter in the wonderful world of vintage fashion.

Last year in preparation for my Wintersun vintage swimwear parade I started buying up swimwear big time: one of the cutest styles was this great 1960s Oleg Cassini swimsuit: here it is on display at Ballarat’s Heritage Weekend – cute, huh?

Unfortunately, when I was setting up for the final fittings the day before the swimwear parade, I realised that there was a problem: the padding in the bust was starting to crumble, producing a grainy residue – devil dust!

What happens is that the composition of some early synthetic materials become unstable with the passing of many years and start to degrade: the material will break and crumble, producing a fine and gritty dust. I’ve heard that finally the residue will become sticky but I haven’t had anything that far gone. I’ve also heard that the dust is a health hazard – certainly it’s unpleasant and seems impossible to get rid of!

Garments from the 1960s are the worst affected but it is found in more modern garments too: foam padding and linings are often prone to the affliction, so be especially careful of padded bras and coat or dress linings. I’ve also met several impacted hats and handbags. The first sign you will notice is usually the dust on your hands after handling the item, or you will see dust on the surface you rested it. If there is foam, it may start to feel crunchy and stiff.

An item that was previously without devil dust may begin to produce it at some point, hence my swimsuit that was fine in May but not in June.

What to do?
Dry cleaners loathe it, because it can get caught in their machines, contaminating future loads – if they notice it they probably won’t clean your garment. I’ve heard that one way to get rid of it is to tumble dry – but then the dust will be in your machine. Hanging in strong winds may work for some: it hasn’t worked sufficiently for me. Vacuum cleaning has also been recommended, but as long as the material deteriorates you’re going to have more problems.

If it’s only the lining or padding that is affected, you can sometimes save the garment by removing it – but if it’s imbedded in the material, you’re doomed I’m afraid. It will only continue to break down and unpleasantness will follow.

So my advice is to throw it away if you can’t remove the material. Ideally, you avoid purchasing it in the first place – so be wary of 1960s fashions especially that contain padding or synthetics. The dreaded devil dust has been found at every quality level from designer to mass produced, due to the incredible popularity of synthetics during this decade.

Update:
Seeking further information I found this page from the Plastics Historical Society which includes the following:

There are four plastics that are especially problematic. These are cellulose acetate, cellulose nitrate, polyvinyl chloride and polyurethane. Objects made of these materials should be identified and managed separately, according to their special needs….The onset of degradation is unpredictable and rapid. It can manifest itself in an advanced state apparently almost overnight. It is irreversible and in most cases, once started, unstoppable. The best that can be achieved is to slow down the process.

Degradation products from objects can contaminate other objects in the vicinity. Collections should be checked regularly, ideally at least once a year, and any object showing signs of degradation should be separated from the rest of the collection…If degradation has begun you cannot reverse it or stop it. If however you move it into storage as outlined below you will slow down its progress.

The following signs of deterioration are associated with the materials listed…Crumbling: Gutta percha Polyurethane foam. Deterioration: Oxidation causes discolouration and loss of strength. The result can be catastrophic loss of structure leading to collapse.

Storage guidelines: Temperature 20 degrees centigrade RH at the low end of 20 – 30%. Ideally oxygen free, using products such as oxygen scavengers. Store with future display requirements in mind.

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2 comments

  1. Hi Nicole, Thanks for this information, I was given two 60’s turbans and one had all this crumbly, grainy stuff in it and I wondered about it, now I know what it was.I threw it away because it was so messy, but was sorry to do so as it was bright red and the nicest of the two. Regards, Angela

  2. I read the article and thank you very much for the information and the research you did that has assisted we vintagers. I have encountered it in bras mostly. Fabrics that have the foam backing is another loss as you mentioned. Unless you have encountered it you probably never heard of it.

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