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What Is Dry Rot in Vintage Clothing?

Dry Rot on a 90s vintage black T Shirt

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Have you ever taken on a vintage piece of clothing, only to hear a distinct cracking sound as you are putting it on? The size technically fits – but as you are looking down at the piece, you see a distinct rip, like you just “hulked” out with the shirt on you. What’s happening?

Under normal circumstances, materials shouldn’t be able to rip that way. Luckily (or unluckily) for you, this is not proof that you suddenly developed some sort of superhuman strength. It just means that your piece of clothing may have fallen victim to dry rot.  

What Is Dry Rot?

Dry Rot is a term used to describe t-shirts that no longer have any fabric integrity or flexibility. The shirt will tear with the slightest stretching of fabric. But for new t-shirts, specifically the black-dyed ones, dry rot is a huge problem and it is due to the sulfur based dyes that were used in the production process. In these new old stock (NOS) t-shirts, the black sulfur dye eventually becomes insoluble and highly acidic. This problem is mitigated if the t-shirt is washed over the years.

A common misconception is that dry rot is due to a fungi that eats away at the fibers of the clothing. But when we speak about vintage clothing and t-shirts specifically, it is actually the dyes used in the clothing that are the culprit.

Dry rot is way less common and almost non existent in new old stock white t-shirts. Other color based t-shirts can experience dry rot as well.

Be Aware of What Fabric Your T-Shirt Is Made From

It’s generally certain materials that repeatedly fall victim to dry rot. You should be very cautious when buying 100% Cotton T-shirts or 50/50 Cotton-Polyester Blends. Jerseys made from 100% synthetic materials like nylon or polyester generally don’t experience dry rot, so you are generally safe to purchase a NOS 90s jersey, such as a vintage soccer kit.

For those of you who are more visual learners, YouTuber F as in Frank has great resource on all things dry rot…

How Do You Test for Dry Rot?

The easiest way to test for dry rot is to tug in different areas of the fabric, especially around the seams. Usually, you should already tell if the seams and material are seconds from breaking, as the material will simply break down. If it forms a hole when you tug, then you have a garment affected by dry rot. 

Dry rot, especially in the late stages, also leaves a kind of grey or white dust, so you may want to try running your fingers over the material. It is most common around the seams. Pieces of clothing that were affected by dry rot will also have a distinct smell – like mold and mildew, but more unpleasant. 

How Do You Prevent Dry Rot?

Sadly, there is very little you can do about a piece of clothing that has fallen victim to dry rot, as the material has already been compromised. At most, you can only stop the dry rot from spreading. Here are some ways to prevent it from developing in the first place.

  • Wash the new t-shirts. While this may seem like you are devaluing a new item. It is a good practice to launder deadstock t-shirts so that the dry rot issue is less likely.
  • Before putting the clothing in storage, you will want to properly dry them first. This will remove extra traces of mold and mildew.

Essentially, careful laundering and storing of the items will prevent dry rot from forming, so make sure not to leave the clothes in a neglected state.

The Bottom Line

Dry rot is the bane of vintage clothing. Very few have managed to find a solution, and despite the efforts, you may not be able to bring the fabric back to the way it was. This is why it’s essential to prevent it from forming in the first place, by properly caring for your vintage clothes.

FAQs About Dry Rot

One wash is enough to prevent a new old stock (NOS) vintage t-shirt from dry rotting.
No, unfortunately dry rot is irreversible. Once it sets in, there is no saving your vintage garment.
Dry rot is when clothing fabric becomes very rigid and rips and shreds very easily, essentially the garment is decomposing and the fabric has lost all pliability and flexibility. Dry rot in vintage clothing, specifically black t-shirts, is common in new old stock t-shirts that have been dyed using a sulfur based dye.

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