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.

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.


  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.

  3. I have a hostess gown with gold embroidery and a purple sash. When I handled the dress I noticed a gritty feel on the sash and a black soot – like dust coming out of the sash. Could this be “devil dust”?

  4. Hi Gloria, thanks for your comment. It sounds like it could be. Have you tried cleaning it? If the residue is still there after a clean, perhaps open the sash and remove the lining. Perhaps replace it with another material. It sounds like a lovely gown, and if it’s only in the sash, that’s something you can work around. Good luck!

  5. I have a question about how this “Devil Dust” starts. Is it from being contaminated by another article of clothing that has this problem or is it due to age, and /or storage environments? Cleanliness? I have a bad problem with what I believe is this dust. It’s ruining my entire closet of clothes that I got from my grandmother when she passed away 2 yrs ago.. She had good taste and expensive taste as well. My 2 favorites are the wool coats that are long (to the mid calf of leg) they have it 1 badly the other just began. I’m crushed to the core. I cannot replace them as they are expensive and I’m on a fixed income (Social Security) they are basically the same looking as what u may find in stores today its just affordability and there’s other items that all together bring me to tears of loosing her now these. Ease if u have any other suggestions on ridding my closet of this before I have to go around in the style of in ” the Buff” not pretty nor practical.. please please help. Anything helps.
    Sincerely thank you—-
    Teresa Durr

  6. Hi Teresa, sorry to hear about your situation: that is distressing. My understanding is that it’s the deterioration of certain synthetics (plastics). There does seem to be evidence for contamination but it will only affect synthetics. If your coats are wool they shouldn’t be affected. If they are wool backed onto a synthetic lining, see if you can remove the lining. My advice is to contact a professional textile conservator as they will have the latest information about solutions. In Melbourne I can recommend the Grimwade Centre.

  7. Does cordoroy fabric get devil dust? I have some vintage cordoroy fabric and when I put a lint roller on it, off comes a lot of dust.

  8. Hi Mary, it depends on the fabric composition: corduroy is usually pure cotton and safe from deterioration of this sort, but if it does have any synthetics, it’s a possibility. You can do a burn test to determine if you’re unsure: set a small bit on fire (I recommend cutting off a piece and using tweezers) and if it melts or produces hard blobs, there’s some polyester in there.

  9. Hi Nicole,
    I have another question about rugs. My boyfriend has a very old rug probably from the around the 1960’s. He recently got a new vacuum from Walmart (2023) and when he vacuums the container is filled with dirt and also a dust like material. Could this be Devil Dust? Could this rug have polyester in it. I wouldn’t think an rug from the 1960’s would have polyester in it. When did they start making synthetic rugs or putting polyester into fabric. Thank you for the information.

  10. Hi Mary, rugs aren’t my area but if it’s from the 1960s I would think it’s likely to have polyester in it: many modern rugs contain the synthetic fibre and they were so keen on it during the ’60s in fashion and everything else, I would not be at all surprised. You could always snip a few threads and do a burn test which will show either way.

  11. Hi, I’ve just bought a Deretta wool coat from eBay and it feels like grainy dust is coming off it. Do you have any idea if Deretta are prone to this dust. It’s from the 1960s or up 70s.

  12. Hi Fiona, I don’t know if Deretta is a brand that’s particularly at risk but the in time frame you mentioned it was common for coats to have synthetic bonding to the wool that is at risk of devil dust. Have you had it cleaned? Perhaps if you launder it, it might improve (if it’s not the dreaded DD) and if it doesn’t improve you might need to consider how much you love it. Your description does sound like DD, unfortunately.

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