“You clean up pretty nicely” is something you might jokingly say to a friend who’s getting ready for a night on the town. It also applies to Steiff and other collectible bears and animals made from wool (from sheep) or mohair (from goats) plush as well!
Keeping your fine plush collection clean is really important, but often overlooked. Here are four key reasons why you should start with a “clean slate” when welcoming a new vintage treasure made from wool or mohair plush into your collection.
· The first is appearance. Dirty items look neglected, and dirt and dust unattractively “mats” down dimensional fabrics, especially fine plush.
· The second is structural integrity and longevity. Dirt and dust are not good for fine plush or its cotton backing and can dehydrate and destabilize the materials over time. This can result in what’s known as “dry mohair” or “dry rot.” If a piece of fine plush fabric gets dry rot, any moisture on it can causes it to crumble and disintegrate.
· The third is infestation. Dirty items attract moths and other pests, and everyone knows the havoc and sometimes irreversible damage this can create, including balding.
· The forth is history. When you bring a vintage item into your collection, you really don’t know most of the time the conditions in which it was loved, kept, or displayed in any of its previous lives – or what might be hidden in its materials.
As a collector and dealer of Steiff for many years, I encourage you to clean a vintage item made from wool or mohair plush before introducing it to your Steiff hug. It is also a good idea to gently clean fine plush items in your collection – even if they are displayed behind glass – every year or two.
Of course, if you come across an exceptionally old, damaged, dried out, or otherwise fragile item, or have one in your collection, I highly recommend that you have it evaluated by a professional restorer with expertise in delicate items before doing anything about cleaning it. They can tell you if an item has underlying condition issues that would make it a poor candidate for cleaning. As always, use common sense, and handle frail items, even ones that you suspect may be frail, very conservatively.
There are many ways to clean vintage fine plush items effectively. I’ve tried several and this one I will share with you seems to work well on vintage bears and animals made from wool or mohair plush fabrics. It also works for items made from Dralon, a popular synthetic fabric used on Steiff play toys from the 1960’s and 1970’s.
However, please don’t use this process on items made from felt, velvet, or artificial silk plush fabrics. These specialty materials are less resilient, can stain or bleed, and must be handled by professionals.
It is also important that you don’t clean wool or mohair plush collectibles that have extensive balding and/or brittle surface fibers; either could indicate dry mohair, dry rot, or other very serious condition issues. I made this mistake once – only once – and watched a Steiff dog from 1928 literally disintegrate in front of me after a light surface cleaning. Again, always check with a professional if you have doubts on the structural integrity of any fine vintage plush item. For example, this charming 19-teens Steiff mohair Dachshund on wheels could certainly benefit from a cleaning, but his fabric is too worn and delicate for this process.
So, now would be the perfect time to “clean up our act.” To demonstrate, I will clean a c. 1950’s Steiff Molly puppy. I’ve had her in my collection for a really long time. She’s displayed behind glass, but even protected things get dusty over time.
To start, gather together:
· the fine vintage plush item(s) you wish to clean
· soft WHITE cloths made from terrycloth or rags
· warm tap water
· Woolite hand washing gentle detergent
· OxiClean Laundry Stain Remover
· a spray bottle
· a clean brush with flexible bristles
· (optional) a vacuum cleaner
step 1: First eliminate as much surface dirt and dust as possible by “dry” measures.
If it is appropriate, shake the item gently yet vigorously. You don’t want to damage the item, so use common sense here. You will be surprised how much dust floats off of most items; even more tends to come off of long haired ones. In the retail world, this is actually done with some toy items on display and is called “refreshing the product.” Truth!
If it is possible and practical on larger or life-sized items, vacuum them very gently and at a distance. You may want to secure a piece of old stocking with a rubber band over the vacuum’s hose nozzle to add an extra layer of protection between the suction and your item.
Use a lint brush or the sticky surface of wide tape wrapped around your hand to VERY GENTLY “roll clean” any felt or velvet detailing on a fine plush animal or bear. This could include areas like paw pads, the backs or linings of ears, and/or an open mouth. Keep these non-plush areas as dry as possible because these fabrics can discolor or change surface texture with even a little moisture. This Molly does not have felt or velvet details, so it is not necessary in this case.
If your item has delicate tags or ribbons like this Molly, you can gently cover them with a Ziploc bag or plastic wrap to ensure that they stay dry. However, if you are careful, you can easily work around them in your cleaning process.
step 2: Next make up the cleaning solution. Mix up about one and half cups of warm tap water and 1 teaspoon of Woolite detergent and 4 or 5 sprays of OxiClean. The water will turn slightly grey-cloudy. Transfer this solution in a hand spray bottle.
step 3: Test the solution on the item to be cleaned. Very lightly moisten the white cloths with a few sprays of the cleaning solution. DO NOT soak the cloth or the item, this is a surface cleaning only! Find a small place on the underside or other non-visible place on your item. In the case of this Molly, a good test area is her underside, in the crotch area. Very carefully, and very gently, start rubbing this area down with the moist white cloth. Check very carefully to make sure that dirt is coming off, and that nothing is happening (color bleeding, fabric dissolving, weird discoloration, etc.) to the hidden fabric testing area. Stop immediately if you see or sense a problem. Chances are, everything will be fine. If that is the case, move to step 4.
step 4: Proceed with the first “wash cycle.” Moisten the cloth, not the bear or animal, as you clean. This is a better way to control how much solution touches your item. You can always add more solution to cleaning process if you need it, but you can’t take it away if you’ve added too much!
Start at the bottom of your item and begin rubbing it gently down with the damp cloth. You’ll be surprised what comes off, so keep changing the place on the washcloth where you are rubbing, or you will be grinding old dirt into new places on your item. (One of the reasons to use WHITE washcloths is so you can see the dirt that comes off your item, and can adjust the cleaning surface accordingly.) Here you can see here the rag I am using to clean this Molly and how important it is to keep finding a fresh place on the cloth for cleaning.
Strategically work your way upward or forward (depending on the design of your item), so you can keep track of what you have done, and what’s left to be done. Also, very gently wash your item’s eyes with the cloth and solution. It’s amazing how this simple act can really brighten up a Teddy bear or animal’s face! Here you can see Molly immediately after her wash cycle. Notice her fur is slightly moist but not wet, and how much better she looks even just partway through the process.
step 5: Now it’s time for the “rinse” cycle. Once you have given the item a complete head to toe cleaning with solution, take another dry white cloth and gently rub the item down once more, to remove any excess water, cleaning solution, or lingering dirt. Do not add any solution to the white cloth during this “rinse’ phase. The white cloth should only have a trace of dirt, if any, on it after this rub down.
Depending on how dirty the item was to start with, you may need to give it another “wash” cycle. If dirt is still coming off the item after you have dry rubbed it in the “rinse” step, repeat step 4 above, but use about half as much solution as you did on the cloths in the first round. Make sure you are not over-wetting the item! Then repeat step 5. In this case, only a very light touch of dust came off of Molly after her rinse cycle, so she can move right along to step 6.
step 6: Next, just air out. Let the item naturally dry, away from direct sun and heat sources on a clean white towel. On larger items, in humid conditions, this could take a few days. If your item has alot of surface areas, move it around over time so all sides and angles can dry. Be 100% certain your item is fully dry before moving onto step 7.
step 7: And finally, it’s time to put the “fluff factor” into action. Take a soft, flexibly toothed brush and very gently fluff up the item, being sure not to actually “pluck out” the wool or mohair covering. It is amazing what a difference this last touch can make, especially on items with longer “fur!”
Now that wasn’t hard, right? And now your vintage friend, like this Molly, is in fine form and ready to face the future in the most beautiful, and “healthy” way possible!
About the Author
Rebekah Kaufman is a third generation lifelong Steiff enthusiast. Her personal collection of vintage Steiff treasures numbers north of 1,600. Rebekah’s German grandmother kindled her love for the brand over five decades ago, and today Rebekah is the proud steward of many of her Oma’s Steiff treasures.
Rebekah’s passion became her vocation when she became the Steiff Club Manager for the North American division of Margarete Steiff GmbH in 2003. A few years later, in 2008, she changed jobs and was appointed to the position of Steiff’s North American archivist, a job she held through the end of 2017. In that role, she led collector’s events around the country, authored most of the vintage related articles in the biannual Steiff Club Magazine, and authenticated and valued vintage Steiff treasures on behalf of the company. In 2014, at James D. Julia Auctioneers in Fairfield, ME, she appraised and cataloged the largest and most important vintage Steiff collection to come to market ever in North America; the sale realized over half a million dollars. Since 2015, she has consulted with a number of well-known auction houses as a Steiff and Fine Plush Expert. She also runs her own full-service public relations and social media marketing agency for organizations in the antiques and auctions industries who wish to outsource these key communication functions.
Rebekah owns and merchandises on Ruby Lane, the largest online vintage Steiff shop worldwide.
Rebekah’s blog, My Steiff Life, focuses on vintage Steiff finds, Steiff antiquing and travel adventures, international Steiff happenings, and the legacy and history of the Steiff company. It has been updated weekly since 2009 and can be found at http://mysteifflife.blogspot.com. Her book, Sassafrass Jones and Her Forever Friends ABCs, features vintage Steiff as an integral part of the storyline. It was co-authored by Cathleen Smith-Bresciani, a fellow Steiff enthusiast. The book, ISBN #978-0-578-15002-4, is available for purchase on Amazon.com. Rebekah truly leads “The Steiff Life.”
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