The Easy Way to Wash and Reshape Vintage Hats

One of the most polarizing topics in reselling is whether or not to sell dirty gear. On the one hand, sure, some people like to clean it their way and may even request that you don't. Most, however, expect a wearable item fresh out the box. And if you're asking $20-$40 for a hat online, it better be in the best shape it can be to make the sale legit.

Before getting after it, understand that vintage hats were made in many different ways. Some were full cotton, others a polyester blend. The higher end ones, those tend to have wool* or corduroy builds. Each piece is unique and often requires different techniques to get it looking its Sunday best. The following process is the ground-level, basic way to turn a cheap thrift store or garage sale find into a profitable inventory item or personal flex.


What You'll Need

  • one dirty hat
  • one clean bucket
  • two old hand towels
  • one soft bristled brush
  • one bowl
  • pair dishwashing gloves
  • OxiClean
  • custom built crown crutch* (optional)

Where To Start

Step one, inspect the hat. Any mending or repairs (including replacing the snapback or strap) need to be done before you clean it. If this is a foam trucker, make sure it’s sturdy enough to withstand a thorough cleaning; if it’s rotted and flaking off, trying to wash it will just end up in disaster.

Keep Going

Step two, fill up your bucket with hot tap water and add OxiClean per label directions. OxiClean works best if you’re using warm to hot water (but not boiling). Dunk the hat, stir it around, and let it soak for about an hour.

Here’s where cleaning gets tricky though. If you let it soak too long, you risk ruining the bill (especially if it’s cardboard) or bleeding the colors. Cheap vintage hats — especially Disney ones — are notorious for transferring color because the technology and cost just wasn’t there yet to provide colorstay results. To speed along the stain-lifting effect, take a soft bristled brush to the dirtier areas. Less is always more here.

Don’t stress too much about how it looks now. Thin cotton hats will appear almost transparent and certain vintage sweatbands may have different colored foam on the inside of them making them appear filthy. This all goes away after the piece is dry. Just take care of them when scrubbing, 30 to 40 year old fabric needs extra soft love.

Next, rinse off the hat thoroughly with cool water. You don’t want any of the OxiClean to be leftover, especially on the sweatband. Buyers may have sensitive skin and if they sweat residual cleaner out it’s just kinda amateur and irresponsible.

After it’s good and rinsed, you have the option of inserting a custom built crown crutch (*plastic mesh for crafts works great and you can cut many different sizes for different hats and reuse them over and over). Use this to keep the front of the hat standing upright throughout the drying process. It tends to give it a nice crisp appearance after. You wouldn’t use these on dad hats or foam truckers, but with any kind of cotton or wool blend standard cut like ours it works just fine.

After you're good with the crutch, roll up a few hand towels and shove them into the hat. Some people also use plastic bags or shirts. Whatever works for you, just be mindful of the tags and sweatband so they’re not creased during dry-time. Shove the whole setup onto a tall bowl or something else fairly rigid to work out the creases and form the hat into a professional looking fit. As it dries, this will be the form it takes on.

This is also a point where you can spray a cheap maximum hold hairspray onto it, which helps stiffen the fabric. Best option here is alcohol-free hairspray. If all you have on deck contains alcohol, don’t use it on white hats — the alcohol will yellow the fabric. We opted NOT to spray this one because of that.

Now it’s simply sit and wait. If you’re trying to get these pieces out with a quickness you can put them in front of a box fan or use a hair dryer. If not, give them a day or two au naturel.

With only a few minutes of actual work this 1990s Feed The Children promotional charity heater went from a filthy $0.25 garage sale find to a valuable vintage piece.

Tips & Tricks

DO: take extra time to evaluate each hat before diving in. Can it withstand being dunked? Will the colors bleed? Is it even worth it?

DO: mention that it has been washed and reshaped when listing for sale online. If any fixes have been made, mention those too. 

DON’T: use OxiClean on wool! High alkaline detergents and stain removers often harm the fibers in wool.

DON’T: use a washing machine or dishwasher for vintage hats. Ever. You run the risk of all hell breaking loose and destroying them entirely.