Winter weather changes both your wardrobe and the damaging factors it can be exposed to.
Be prepared to make a few adjustments in your clothing care.
I didn’t – and my first winter here in Wisconsin I lost one of my favorite pairs of dress boots.
Yes – that picture above is mine. Water damage and leather cracking – not something even a master cobbler can fix without replacing the shoe’s upper!
A minute or two of extra attention can save a multi-hundred-dollar investment from permanent damage.
So what should you watch out for?
Public Footwear Enemy #1: Road Salt
The most damaging change that comes with winter is the appearance of road salt and other thawing chemicals on the streets and sidewalks.
These are hard to avoid, especially in urban areas. Very few towns have strict regulations — in most places, businesses can use anything from pure salt to blue alkaline crystals to try and keep their sidewalks clean. Almost none of them are good for your footwear.
Water (and its frozen forms, snow and ice) isn’t actually that hard on leather, on its own. As long as you’ve been good about polishing and conditioning your shoes regularly, you don’t have too much to fear from pure snow and slush.
What will be damaging is slush with road dirt, salt, and chemical melt all mixed together. Remember that the leather is skin — just as your skin would be damaged from having chunks of dirt and harsh chemicals rubbed into it, so too will your shoes be damaged. Salt stains are permanent, and go beyond just discoloring your shoe; the harshness of the chemical mixture will also dry, crack, and warp the leather, shortening its lifespan irreparably.
Avoid salt damage by cleaning leather shoes immediately in the winter!
The easiest way to avoid any kind of salt or chemical damage is to give leather shoes a wipe every time you come in from the snowy outside.
Use a pocket handkerchief, a paper towel, a rag, or just a bit of toilet paper from the men’s room in a pinch, but get the slick of snow-melt off the leather. It’s almost certain to contain damaging runoff as well as plain old water.
Winter is also a good time to be more rigorous in your conditioning and polishing routine. Wearing shoes in the snow and then taking them into warm buildings creates a cycle of soaking and drying that can cause the leather fibers to swell and split if they haven’t been conditioned with oil.
Leather conditioner keeps the leather supple, and regular polishing gives an extra layer of protection that keeps most of the wet and dirt from ever soaking in. Conditioning once or twice throughout the winter should be plenty; polishing should be more of a monthly or even bi-weekly habit depending on how regularly you’re wearing your shoes.
Winter Wools and Fabric Moths
Fabric moths are the enemy of all wool clothing. More specifically, their larvae are — the moths themselves are harmless, once hatched, but they love to lay their eggs in wool and other natural hairs and fibers, and the larvae that hatch from the eggs live on the fibers themselves. The result for us is holes in the weave that can’t be fixed.
Winter is not a time of safety from fabric moths. If anything, it’s a great time for them — the garments they like to nest in are warm and protected all winter long. The cold outside is no protection for clothes while they’re hung up, and even if you do take them outside it’s unlikely to do much.
Researchers have studied the freezing effects on moth eggs, and found that the temperatures needed to effectively kill the eggs are well beyond what most commercial freezers can sustain, and need to be maintained much longer than any of us will stay outside in the bitter cold.
All wool and natural-fiber clothes are at risk. Rarely-used ones are moths’ favorites, so check suits that don’t see much use or old, mostly-discarded scarves particularly closely. You don’t want one forgotten stocking cap in the corner of the closet to become the start of an infestation that spreads to your good suits.
Moth prevention requires careful storage and treatment:
· Dry clean all your wool and hair clothes before storing them for long periods. Dry cleaning kills moth eggs and larvae effectively.
· Seal rarely-worn clothing in bags with a moth repellent (either a natural oil like lavender or cedar, or the conventional “mothballs” made from PDB or similar chemicals).
· Regularly-worn clothing like suits or jackets can be protected with a quick brushing when you take the garment off and storage with some space between it and any other clothes.
· Hang all wool items with space between them to prevent the spread of larvae or eggs.
· Vacuum the closet floor and baseboards. Dust often includes human and pet hairs, which encourages moths to settle and lay eggs in dusty environments. A clean closet is a much more moth-proof closet.
Most mothballs contain hazardous chemicals, including neurotoxin, so always be sure to store them well out of reach of children.
Water Damage, Mildew, and Other Winter Hazards
Apart from road salts and moths, the biggest wardrobe danger of winter is its natural tendency to be wet.
Winter clothes get wetter than summer clothes, typically speaking — there’s snow and ice melt from the ground, frequent precipitation from the sky, and sweat from wearing layers of heavy clothing. The end result is clothes that spend a lot of time being damp.
Damp has two main dangers: it can damage the shape of the clothing, and it can encourage mold and mildew growth.
Mold and Mildew
Tiny organisms that grow in damp places — and there are a whole host of them — aren’t always noticeable, but can have serious respiratory effects on human beings. Mold spores are a very common allergen, and can thrive in winter, especially on underlayers that are protected from cold even when worn outside.
To avoid mildew and mold growth, make sure your clothes are being washed regularly and thoroughly dried before storage. Slightly damp T-shirts or underwear in a warm, enclosed drawer are an excellent breeding ground for common molds.
Anything that has a slightly “stuffy” odor to it has probably started developing mold or mildew. Send it through the washer to deal with the smell, and the dryer on a “hot” cycle to thoroughly kill any living spores. Wool clothing can be dry cleaned for the same effect.
Storing Wet Clothing
Wet suits, jackets, and trousers made of wool can’t be dried in most conventional dryers, meaning they have to be air-dried if you take them off damp.
The big danger there is that wool loses its elasticity when wet. It’s very easy to distort a wool garment when its wet. Creases will become permanent, and stretching stays in place after the garment dries. Unfortunately, direct heat will also damage the wool, breaking the fibers and turning the whole garment brittle.
Therefore, the best way to dry wool is with a lot of patience and a little flat space:
· Lay the garment flat on a soft surface like a bed or covered ironing board.
· Carefully tug the edges out to smooth any creases
· Let the garment thoroughly air-dry before folding or hanging
If you must hang a wool jacket while wet, make sure to use a thick wooden hangar with a natural shoulder-shaped curve, rather than an angular wire hangar. The jacket may still stretch slightly downward, due to the tug of its own weight, but at least the shoulders won’t distort.