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I haven't known that many people who always wore brand new clothing, although I have known a few who, as my mother used to say, "looked like she stepped out of a bandbox." Not me, even when I tried. lol

Rather than despair, however, I have always liked what a famous poet had to say long ago about what makes a woman appealing to him:

Delight in Disorder
Robert Herrick. 1591–1674

A SWEET disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

And, because my dolls are characters in my stories, they are rarely ever beautifully pristine, either. I like to show that they are real people wearing real clothing, not something brand new off the boutique mannequin.

Even so, most of them aren't dirty and their clothes aren't tattered. But, for my purposes here, I am going well beyond "a sweet disorder in the dress" to provide a compilation of distressing techniques I have used at one time or another over the years to show everything from faded to muddy.

(Many of the ideas mentioned in my tutorial on Aging Rooms can be used for dolls' clothing, too. It could be helpful to review that material, as well, particularly the section on Fabrics.)


So, let's see ...

I suppose my first piece of distressed clothing was a little scarecrow, similar to this illustration, that I made many years ago when my children were small.

Unfortunately, in later years when I tried to make clothing on my dolls look more realistic, they tended to look like that scarecrow - frayed edges too even, seams too crisp, neat patches placed randomly where no wear would actually occur - in other words, stylized, not realistic at all.

Well, after a lifetime of raising children, washing everyday, work and sport clothes, prowling the aisles of Goodwill and secondhand stores, and wearing old jeans, t-shirts and comfortable old cotton nightgowns, it occurred to me that I would have a better picture of what worn mini clothing should look like on my mini characters by just looking around me at both clean and dirty old clothing.

Not everyone who wears worn clothing is dirty, of course. My grandmother used to say, "You can be poor, but you don't have to be dirty." My doll character's clothing may be worn and faded, possibly greyed from years of use and improper washing, but still clean.

But if this character is dirty, I need to decide whether my person's clothing is just dirty from that day's activity, or is it filthy and stinky from a long period without washing? And with what kind of soil or use?

Here is a series of questions I can consider when dressing my character dolls:

1. Who wears this and what kind of work does s/he do?

Does this person work indoors or out? Does s/he get his/her hands and fingernails dirty doing manual labor? Or does s/he get dirty because of exposure to inclement weather?

2. How and where has dirt accumulated?

Picture the state of the laundry we sort: dirty and/or frayed collars and cuffs; grimy button plackets; sweat-stained underarms and necklines; baggy pockets with grime along the openings, "droopy drawers"; stained, raveled hems; grease, grass and other stains; seams coming apart; missing buttons, broken zippers, etc.

Now most of our dolls won't be this messy, but some characters, like a scullery maid on her knees scrubbing a stone floor, a cook or kitchen assistant, a stable boy, a bad witch, ec., will. Apron strings would not be starched and flat and tied in a perfect bow unless for a head cook or a maid in a wealthy household; instead, they would probably be wrinkled and uneven and sloppily tied, especially for a poor maid of all work or a scullery girl. By the same token, a cap on the head of one of these characters would be dingy and plain, not sparkling white and edged with lace.

3. How messy is s/he?

Is our character an untidy eater, with stains on her bodice, spots on his tie? Would this person wipe his/her dirty or wet hands down the sides of his pants or skirt? Would she pick up a skirt or apron tail to wipe or dry her hands? Would he or she wipe sweat from the brow with his/her forearm? Does he just never wash his clothing or take a bath?

4. What does this person carry around?

Wallet? A pipe or a book in a jacket pocket? A handkerchief, a scarf, a dust rag (no weight, but protruding from pocket or inside shirt cuff, maybe, like I sometimes carry my hanky or Kleenex). Does he or she carry keys in an apron or other pocket? Does the person wear a cap, a kerchief, a hat?

5. How and where does wear occur?

Think of the young people we see daily who walk on the hems of their jeans. Would our character have that tattered dirty look on his pants legs or the tails of her skirt? Would the person have outgrown some article of clothing? Would elbows or knees be poking through too-tight jacket or pants? Socks eaten at the heels by their scruffy shoes? A hole in a shoe showing a toe? Those who wear cloaks may have some bagging and/or wear on the back of the cloak where they have sat on it.

A man's hat might be misshappen, floppy, worn, dingy. Be careful about a big hole in a hat unless it seems reasonable that it wore that way naturally. For example, I remember my grandfather having a hole in a felt hat where his thumb fit as he picked it up. A woman's hat may have a bedraggled feather, a crumpled brim, a dirty ribbon tie ....

Is the clothing clean, but just faded? Or is the clothing dingy and gray from years of use?

If my character isn't dirty, but his/her clothing is too bright, sometimes all I have to do is use the wrong side of the material. Or, I can dye it with tea or coffee (tea is more pinkish; coffee more sepia), or paint over with a very light coat of watery white. I can use a bleach pen (very carefully) to lighten areas where sun would have faded (although be aware that it may continue bleaching over time; ask me how I know).

A trip to the clothing racks and shoe bins at Goodwill stores is a priceless lesson on wear and tear on clean garments.


Here are some things I have tried to show aging and wear, not necessarily original with me. And many of the techniques used in my General Room Grunging tutorial are applicable here, as well.


Colored chalks or powder, even eyeshadows, create a dusty dirty look on both dark and light fabrics. For some characters, it can be used all over the clothing.

A Pounce Bag works well to suggest fading or dirt. Used by artists, it's a few cotton balls placed in a square of loosely woven fabric, then sprinkled with charcoal powder and tied up. Costumers use pounce bags - filled with various talcs - to make clothes look soiled. They just smack these bags against whatever they want to dirty up.

I learned about pounce bags from one of my former students who had his own theater at one time. Over the years I have made and used my own form of pounce bags with cotton balls, baby powder and various chalks, depending on what I am working on. For some I use cheese cloth, if I really want lots of powder; for others I have used loosely woven old fabric scraps. Just cut a square, sprinkle on some powder or scraped chalks, tuck in a cotton ball or two, sprinkle more powder or scraped chalks, tie tightly. Keep a fairly longish "tail" to hold onto, and pounce away. Experiment first on various pieces of fabric or other items to see what looks you get.

Sometimes all I need is a q-tip or makeup brush to dab on some powder or chalk. Remember that the inner, shadowed part of a pleat or gather or fold will be darker than the outer. Use a Q-tip to apply chalks for darkening.

To suggest ingrained dirt, I wet the fabric then rub on chalk or powder and rub it in.

Have you ever noticed the shoulders on a garment that has been hanging too long in a closet? Dust has settled there over time and even when we brush it off, there is discoloration and fading. In the old days when men wore suits, including a vest, all the time, even to work, their clothes sometimes had this look, which my mother always referred to as "rust." Sometimes I go back and add another layer of ingrained dirt on shoulders, then really rub it in on knees and elbows.

A bit of thinned white paint rubbed on with a finger doesn't necessarily show white; it just looks grubby. I have used this technique mainly to show soil spots on upholstery.

I discovered by accident once that floral spray works particularly well to give a dusty look and to dull color. Sometimes I use a spray bottle of very watered-down paint. Frankly, what I use often depends on what I have closest to hand. Practice on scraps of various fabrics first to see the effects of all these techniques.

NOTE: When I refer to spray bottles for these purposes, I am referring primarily to small travel size ones that I have found at dollar stores and drugstores.

I keep one large spray bottle of water for general use, but the others hold only a few ounces and don't take up too much room among my already crowded collection of paints and stiffeners and such.


Fabric saturated in a glue and water mixture can be draped and pinned to suggest the drooping of wet fabric. Acrylic paint can give a wet look; spray bottles of dirty water washes in brown, black and gray suggest a bedraggled, wet skirt or a wet raincoat or cloak.

Mix a bit of sand, even coffee grounds, in some tea, coffee or dirty water wash and spread it on with a small brush to suggest wet dirt or clods on shoes and lower pants legs or skirts.

Drops of tea work for sweat.

Paste shoe polish rubbed in certain areas can suggest grease.


Dirty water washes in various color combinations also work for specific stains. Even if the wash looks pretty dull in the cup when you mix it, it may still be too bright on "new" clothing. Adding a bit more grey, brown, water and/or the opposite color will dull it down. I don't measure; I just sort of fiddle around. Use small paintbrushes or q-tips, toothpicks, even toothbrushes. Spatter some dirty water for stains or use a Q-tip to dot a watery splotch, etc. Practice, practice, before using on a finished garment!

Grass stain: very dark green with some brown

Sweat stain: watery yellow, brown, tan

Mildew: pale grey

General filth: dark, cold brown

All of these tend to work better with light colored clothing. On blacks you really have to experiment. I have accidentally gotten glue on black clothing, tried to wipe it off, and it sure made it look dirty!

There are all kinds of products available for our use with fabrics, including things to tone down or dull colors; each has a place in our dollmaking or fabric treatments at some point or other.


Clothing and fabric items get snagged, pulled, unraveled and holey. For all of these, I generally do the treatment first, then apply the dirtying techniques. Sometimes I just age the entire piece, then prick the hole, etc. It all depends on the look you are trying to achieve.

For intance, denim threads show white when ragged, so you would want a lighter look.

Scissors, scraping with a razor blade, and using sandpaper, even a pin, can make clothing look ragged and worn. For a hole or tear, poke a hole with scissors or a sharp pick, then pull out threads around it; trim as necessary. Remember that a hole primarily appears from pressure, as by an elbow or knee, or from long use, so make sure its location is logical.

For a tear, pick at some of the threads with a pin, cut upward jaggedly into threads; the more uneven your tear, the better. For a longer ragged edge, occasionally I have just held fabric against a straight edge and torn, rather than cut. Sometimes I gather it up tightly, then snip and cut roughly in wads. You need unevenness; otherwise it just looks like fringe.

I also have a small wire brush that works to ravel edges. Go easy; once again, practice on scrap fabrics before you work on a garment that is already made.

Remember, too, that using a wash after creating the wear can give a quite different effect.


Fabric gets worn and thin from wear and washing. To show long term wear, sand lightly the seat of pants, seam lines, knees (notice it's just below the knees where the wear is), elbows, pocket edges and lower pant legs.

Real denim rarely works for miniatures because it is too thick. It requires very strong manipulation.

For example, because of contest rules, I had to use real denim when I made Mother Goose's totebag.

It required an immense amount of work to look even remotely the way I wanted it, and I wasn't about to try to age it, too! You will notice that I didn't try to age or dirty her clothing, either. I was making a contest entry under time constraints, which was difficult enough because I HAD to use certain items to fit the criteria.

On the other hand, I used a very lightweight denim to make Armah Dilla's jeans, and since she was manager of The Texas Tourist Trap curio shop, I wanted her to look neat and professional. The thinner fabric was much easier to work with, although I made several pair before I was satisfied (those red top seams were extremely difficult to do on such small items).

Even so, it required lots of manipulation and free use of Fabri-Tac glue to get the wrinkles and folds of Armah's new jeans. (And by the way, her vest is made from one of a pair of leather gloves that I wore for many winters when I was teaching. The gloves were naturally aged from use; I didn't do anything further except to go over the vest lightly with eyeshadows on a q-tip here and there. See more on leather below.)

Whatever fabric you use for denim, if you don't want your mini jeans new, Google for images like this one if you don't have a pair of your own. You can try the aging measures listed here, and even try a white or beigeish wash. Bleaching can be effective in some instances.

Sometimes I spray or use the pen on the fabric first, allow to dry, then make the clothing; occasionally, I spritz after the garment is made. However, I tend to use a spray bottle of bleach or a bleach pen mainly for ghosts, witches and monsters.

You can also dip a piece of clothing into a coffee bath or watered-down paint and let it drip dry. This gives a darker concentration at the bottom, which would suggest natural fading above, and also the effects of really dirty shirt cuffs, or skirts or pant legs that have dragged through dust, dirt and dampness. Drip drying must be done carefully to avoid having glued seams come loose. Pull and pin folds to hold in place on a pinning board, then stand upright to drip dry. I use insect pins and stainless silk pens.


Saturating a piece of clothing then allowing it to dry allows the fabric to droop and sag more convincingly. This can be done by spritzing water or hair spray or other stiffener, or with steam.

You can also lay a garment that will not be on a doll almost flat or over the edge of a bed or chair (cover surface with plastic wrap first) and kind of pouf it up here and there (for baggy knees, etc.) and scrunch and pin wrinkles and folds, spray lightly with water, stiffener or hair spray and let dry. Then remove the plastic wrap, and glue or pin your garment in place.

Cardigan sweaters and light jackets that aren't brand new in a gift box look much more realistic with a bit of bagging, for instance. I have been frustrated at times with the stiffness of a beautifully made sweater or jacket, knowing that if it were actually tossed on a bed or chair, it would flop. Instead, its sleeves and body laid there straight as a board without manipulation.

If the person carries a wallet, put something hard like a folded piece of cardboard to suggest the wallet inside the pocket, then sand with an emery board; leave object inside when you give your pants a coffee bath, or when you apply steam or fabric stiffener to set natural folds and wrinkles. Let dry, then remove object.

This process works when you want to make any pocket (or any kind of a fabric bag) slightly droop from use. Weight distorts fabric. Put something inside the pocket like a bead to weight it down, spray or dampen, and let dry. Occasionally some strategically placed pins help hold the droop in place while the fabric dries. Most of my real life tote bags, if I examine them, have slightly sagging hemlines, even with nothing in them. If I had thought about it at the time, I might have done more of this sagging and bagging with Mother Goose's totebag - or maybe not. lol

For baggy underwear - "droopy drawers" - use this same technique.

Also, remember that sometimes one corner of a pocket has been pulled loose and hangs down; sometimes something sharp like a pen or pencil has poked through the bottom and a thread or two hangs down from the hole.


Leather can be aged with sanding, washes and crackle finishes. Shoe polish rubbed in certain areas can suggest grease on leather, as well.

A light over all sanding with the finest of sandpaper removes the gloss from shoes and boots. An emery board works to scuff the back of the heel, the outer sides and the toe of shoes. If the scuffing looks too raw, add a light wash of color over it. Sometimes a wash alone is enough to make shoes look used.

Uncle Buster's hat was made from white leather and painted with brown acrylic. It was aged further with a wash and manipulated while the leather was damp from glue and paint. If I were to do this hat now I would probably sand the top seam to show wear, use paste shoe polish to suggest a sweat line above and below the leather band, perhaps darken the area on either side where the thumb and fingers catch hold, the center of the front of the brim where the fingers grab as it gets pulled down as the hat is brought lower on the forehead ...

The bandana is definitely grunged! (Those blurry greens are from a tree limb outside Uncle Buster's cabin!)

On the other hand, I wish I had known then what I know now when I grunged Uncle Buster himself:

You can't see it clearly here as Uncle Buster pours hot water for his bath, but I did try grunging him. (I wish now I had tilted his kettle more realistically downward!)

Unfortunately, when I made Uncle Buster I didn't realize how much that seam would show. Since I also glue clothing on dolls instead of sewing it as I did with Uncle Buster, I would make that outfit with the seam more toward the back and really press hard with my iron to flatten it out. Then I would use my aging process and a Sweat Wash around the necks, cuffs, under the arms, along the button hole plackets, etc.

Nowadays his underwear looks dirty in real life, but it doesn't look worn and baggy at the knees, elbows and seat. Also, now I would probably not use brand new fabric AT ALL for worn underwear, which is why I keep a couple of my husband's old worn thin stained t-shirts.

(My grandson Joel used a piece of one to make the shirt on his zombie.)


There are obviously many methods to accomplish wear and tear; to show aging and dirt. These are simply what I have tried over the years.

Sometimes one treatment is enough; sometimes distressing is required. Usually the dirtying comes after the distressing, but not always. It depends on the garment and the character who is wearing it.


If clothing has gotten to this state naturally while your character was wearing it, then the person probably has accumulated some grime, too. Use a wipe-off stain, chalks on a q-tip, a pounce bag, a wash, or a combination of any or all of these on faces, hands, exposed feet or legs, etc.

Hair is a whole other issue, to be dealt with another time. In general, though, powder works nicely to dull shiny tresses.

I hope this information helps you in your quest to make your character doll and his or her clothing look a bit more real.

A reminder, too, that the suggestions in my tutorial on grunging rooms may have useful ideas, as well, particularly the section on Fabrics. It can be found in the Tutorials pages here.

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