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Collecting Mania: Vintage Childrenswear Part 2

Updated on May 28, 2010

The number of children's garments made by hand decreased dramatically as the 20th century progressed, owing to increased opportunities for women in the workforce and the availability of affordable, mass-produced clothing in department stores. Although handknit sweater, hat, and bootie sets were still being created for infants, the majority of clothing for the entire family was store-bought. While textile scholars and serious collectors focus more on the 19th-century pieces, the early-20th-century items are being snapped up by new parents who appreciate the retro styling and wearable condition of the later pieces.

Antiques shops, flea markets, and vintage-textile shows number among the venues where antique and vintage children's clothing can be found today. Internet auctions are also a good bet; typing in "antique children's clothing" in the search field often brings up pages of listings. And don't miss an opportunity to scour thrift shops, yard sales, and children's resale shops for unexpected treasures. Beware that there are some unscrupulous sellers online who will try to pass off junk Chinese clothing that has been artificially aged as a true original. It is very easy to be fooled by the carefully taken photographs and deftly worded descriptions that lead you to think that you're getting the real thing, when instead you're shelling out good money for a worthless piece of modern apparel.

To prolong a collection's life span, proper care is key. When it comes to cleaning, do only what you must. Each time you clean old garments, you risk damaging delicate fabric and stitches. When light cleaning is called for, vacuum with a handheld vac covered with cheese cloth. Cottons can be hand-washed with a mild soap such as Orvus (available at needlework and quilting supply stores). Because the chemicals used in dry cleaning can be harsh, this method is usually discouraged by textile experts, especially for early silks, which can disintegrate easily. For storage, place vintage clothing in archival boxes in an area of your home where heat and humidity fluctuations are minimal. Stuff sleeves and folds with acid-free tissue to prevent permanent creases.

Prices for vintage children's clothing can range from $10 for a simple 1930s store-bought outfit to $1,000 or more for a rare 19th-century hand-stitched calico dress. As is the case with any vintage textile, condition strongly affects value. Pristine examples are difficult to find, given the hard use they were wont to receive from their original owners. Mint-condition knitted clothing is also rare, owing in part to the frequency of moth and mouse damage.

Collectors who choose to display prize pieces should take care to keep them out of the line of direct sunlight. If you have a large collection, rotate items to prevent any one getting too much exposure. When hanging a dress, shirt, or jacket, use a padded hanger to protect tiny shoulders. Finally, keep little hands and pets at bay by displaying your pieces out of their reach, on a peg board or a high shelf. Whether worn or displayed, these tiny treasures serve as charming remembrances of childhood in America.

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