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Ask Dr. Laundry

Ask Dr. Laundry

Removing Tarnish from Clothing Decorations

By Dr. Laundry January 11, 2011

Q. Any tips on removing tarnish from the beads/decorations sewn on holiday sweaters? The sweaters are hand washable.

A. Tarnish is simply a thin layer of metal oxide formed when a metal (for example copper, bronze, silver, or aluminum) reacts with oxygen. Note that silver also needs to have contact with a sulfur containing material (such as hydrogen sulfide) to tarnish. Tarnish removal is achieved by either dissolving the metal oxide layer or reversing the chemical reaction that caused the tarnish in the first place. For best results, you should ideally remove the decorations to treat them, especially since you will likely need to rub them following treatment to restore any shine. Here are some treatments you can try:

1. For tarnished brass or copper: in a plastic or glass container, dilute 1 Tbsp of a weak acid (vinegar or lemon juice) in 4 cups water and add 1 tsp of salt. Add the items and let soak for a few minutes. Transfer to a second container and rinse thoroughly. Rub dry with a soft cloth like an old t-shirt.
2. For tarnished silver: line the bottom of a non-metal container (like a plastic dishpan) with aluminum foil. Add the items so that each one contacts the foil directly. Then pour in a solution of 1 cup baking soda per gallon of very hot water. Wait several minutes, then remove the items from the solution and rinse thoroughly. Rub dry with a soft cloth: heavily tarnished silver often needs to be treated several times, so repeat as necessary.
3. For tarnished aluminum: home treatments require elbow grease and can scratch, so hopefully this is not the material your decorations are made of! Aluminum pots and pans can be scrubbed with SOS pads to remove tarnish, but those can also scratch, which doesn’t matter so much on a 10 qt stock pot but may not be acceptable for your decorations. If they are small beads, you may also not be able to hold them and scrub hard enough to get the tarnish off. In that case, check your local Autoparts store to for an aluminum wheel cleaner.

I haven’t tried the above methods on metal objects while they are attached to fabric, and my concern is that the tarnish that is removed from the metal will redeposit onto the fabric. Again, taking the decorations off is the best way to avoid this. I realize you may not be able to—you could even have beads knit into the sweaters! In that case, you can try treating the sweaters and beads together in a large plastic dishpan with ½ cup vinegar diluted in 2 gallons of water + 1 Tbsp salt (for bronze and copper). If you are going to try a commercial aluminum cleaner while the decorations are on the fabric, test the product first on a hidden portion of the garment to make sure it won’t damage the garment. Also, be sure the sweaters are clean before you start by washing them first in a mild detergent–avoid detergents and laundry additives with oxidants (will make tarnish worse).