Allow me to tell you a tale. A couple of years ago, I had a dress made to measure.
This sounds like the kind of story that ends “…and £600 might sound like a lot, but it’s an investment, darling!” but I promise it isn’t – it cost £75 from Lofty Frocks, who make custom orders from a huge library of vintage material (I recommend fellow fabric-fanciers follow their Instagram @LoftyFrocks; it’s a joy).
My dress wasn’t fancy, but it was the stuff of dreams – a full-skirted sundress made from soft, stripy St Michael bedsheets in 80s ice-cream shades. It fitted like a glove, even down to my request for bonus boob room, so that the waistband sat on my waist, rather than hovering somewhere vaguely around my armpits. It wasn’t edgy or especially on trend, but it was a proper birthday party of a frock, the kind other women will cross the road to ask you about. And I was saving it to wear in Italy.
I had ideas that, on my summer holiday, I would wear this dress and become the woman I’d always wanted to be – a kind of Anita-Ekberg-meets-Debbie-Harry with hints of the Baroness from The Sound of Music. I’d wear it to a gelato parlour, complementing the candy colour scheme, then probably go and be devastating for a while on the back of a Vespa. But, sadly, instead of becoming the woman I’d always wanted to be on holiday, I remained the woman I always am, which is a woman who spills. Within half an hour of its first outing, my dress had pesto down the front. This is why I can’t have nice things.
It’s OK, though – there’s a happy ending. Instead of writing it off as ruined for ever and smothering my pain in pasta, I suddenly remembered a tip I’d read somewhere. I legged it to the nearest pharmacy, bought a stately bottle of Italian talcum powder, patted it all over the stain and waited patiently for an hour or so. It worked. The oil was absorbed; the dream dress was saved.
(Little did I know I would fall out of love with the dress only a week later, when a small American child stopped me in the street in Florence to ask if I was Meghan Trainor, but that’s another story for another time.)
I’d estimate that, at any given moment, around 40 per cent of my clothes have food on them. If you’re nodding because you assume I have young children, I do not. I am just greedy, impatient and I often eat while texting. In a moment of beautiful poetry, I looked down as I was typing that last sentence and there was a satay-sauce smear on my skirt.
I had ideas that, on my summer holiday, I would wear this dress and become the woman I’d always wanted to be… Within half an hour, it had pesto down the front
And, of course, the most dastardly villain of all the stains is oil. All the best intentions and detergents can still leave you with a translucent mark, the type you won’t notice until you’ve already put on the top and left the house. Plus, our current love of healthy fats and handheld food means modern eating is both an oilier and drippier affair than it used to be (sure, your gran was chained to her mangle by the patriarchy, but she never had to get taco juice out of her favourite blouse at a festival with only Kleenex and gin tins to hand) – and summer is obviously the oiliest, drippiest time of all. Until pesto-gate, I’d kind of accepted oil stains as a delicious roulette that you sometimes won, usually lost. I just bunged them in the wash, prayed and started shopping for a replacement on ASOS.
But the thing you really mustn’t do with an oily stain, I have now learnt, is bung it straight in the wash. Heat of any kind – especially a tumble dryer or hand dryer – risks cooking the oil into the fabric and landing you with it for ever. Instead, you need to stay calm (breathe – are you breathing?) and find something to dry it out.
Even more useful than talc – because, let’s face it, you’re not going to have talcum powder handy unless an elderly aunt has recently been to stay – is dry shampoo, which soaks up grease on fabric in exactly the same way it does on your scalp. I’ve been known to carry these mini cans of Batiste (£1.50) in my handbag as a security measure against a particularly sloppy lunch. Baking soda works, too, and, failing that, salt or corn starch. But, then, when in the modern world would you have access to corn starch before dry shampoo?
You want to apply it liberally and leave it for as long as you can – at least a few hours and preferably in a warm place (“on your body” counts). After that, scrape the powder off and assess the damage. If enough grease has been mopped up, then give it a little scrub with washing-up liquid (careful using bright green liquid on a pale colour, mind, and don’t scrub delicate fabrics like silk). If not, cover with more powder and be patient. Don’t panic. Consider a bib in the interim.
Here’s a bonus tip: for non-oily spills, I swear by stain removal wipes (Tesco does a £1 pack), which once made me the hero of a bridesmaid emergency. The compulsive picnic-er’s best friend, they tackle sun cream, ice cream and even red-wine stains on the hop.
One could argue that stains are just friendly food ghosts. Even that satay-sauce stain on my skirt is giving me pleasant flashbacks to today’s lunch. But, fellow spillers, take comfort – you CAN have nice things. As long as there’s dry shampoo in your handbag, la dolce vita can be yours.
THE STAIN REMOVAL ESSENTIALS