Ask a Clean Person: Something Winter This Way Comes, Part One

This is the first in a two-part series about the particular challenges Old Man Winter delivers unto our precious belongings each year. Do you have questions about caring for your cold-weather items? Email me!

I have these GREAT winter boots that I purchased about three years ago. And by great, I mean fabulous. The tread is still like new, and the leather outside and lined inside make my feet so warm they sometimes get almost sweaty. The sweat isn’t the issue, though, it’s the faux fur that is around the opening at the top and kinda pokes out a little bit by the buckle. After stomping around for three winters, the faux fur is beginning to look less like the driven snow it travels through, and more like the soot at the bottom of my fireplace. How do I restore my boots’ purity without destroying the leather?

I have a friend who has been known to go into actual fits of rage when she reads this column and sort of storms around shouting at anyone who will listen, “HOW DOES JOLIE KNOW THESE THINGS?!?!” I mention her today because I’ve been killing myself laughing all week long at the absolute melter she’s going to have at the hands of this answer: cornmeal.

Yup. We’re going to use cornmeal to clean your faux fur, we sure are! Here’s the deal: cornmeal will absorb dirt and oil and general crud that’s collected on faux fur. I don’t know how or why it does this, I just know that it does. The best approach is to dump a cup or two of cornmeal into a brown paper sack or spare plastic bag or really any receptacle big enough for your boots that can be closed up, then put the boots in, fur-side down, and shake shake shake shake shake. Then leave the fur to sit in the cornmeal for a few hours, before wiping it away with a dry cloth.

If the notion of Shake’n’Baking your boots isn’t to your liking, you could clean the fur using baby wipes, or if things are really dingy you can make a low-water OxiClean paste and apply it to the fur with a toothbrush, which will allow you to clean the trim without damaging the leather.

If the fur is matted post-cleaning, use a slicker brush (you know, the thing you used to use to brush your cats before you got rid of them) to gently comb and fluff it.

I have one winter coat that I like to use every day, but a couple in reserve for different outfits or special occasions and so on. I pulled them all out this year and one of them is smelling a bit musty — like old pits, not super smelly, but like it’s been sitting in a closet for a year. And now the new coat is starting to take on the eau d’armpit as well. How should I clean them when they’re big and bulky and made of wool(ly?) material? I’m perhaps a bit irrationally afraid of putting them into the washer, and I’m also afraid if I leave them to air dry they just … won’t.

Oh well no, you’re not to machine wash your heavy woolen coats, mercy no. (You can’t see me, but I’m clutching my pearls.) You may either dry clean them — and if the coats are stained, you should bypass Go and the two hundred dollars and opt for the dry cleaning option — or you can employ one of several at-home stink-removing techniques.

Option 1: Powders

Borax, baking soda, or activated charcoal are all great options for odor-removal, but of course they’re powders so we need to talk about how to use them without getting your coat all dusty. The easiest thing to do, if a bit of a space-suck, is to put the coat in a plastic garbage bag or garment bag, lie it out flat, and insert a bowl filled with whichever product you’re going with so that it sits upright. Then seal the bag and let the coat chill out for a few days. You could also do this in a lidded plastic storage container.

A word about activated charcoal: after spending more time and sending more abusive emails maligning the relative manliness of my dude friends than I care to admit, I discovered several things. (1) Charcoal briquettes aren’t what you’re looking for when it comes to odor removal. (2) Activated charcoal, sometimes called active charcoal or activated carbon, can be purchased in plant and pet stores. (3) You can buy it on Amazon too! You’ll want to look for something like this.

But but but! Let’s just make this super easy on ourselves, yes? Buy one of these nifty things, hang it around a hanger (it’s got a little hook, see?), put your coat on the hanger, put the coat inside a garment or trash bag, seal it up, hang it in your closet for two days and that’s that. Fun, right??

Option 2: Steam

Steam cleaning is another good option, for two reasons: (1) steaming will help remove any lingering odors, as well as get wrinkles out; (2) you can add a scent to the water tank that will help to infuse the coat with something lovely smelling that will serve to mask anything unpleasant. So if you’ve got a steam cleaner, go to town! Steam both the exterior and the interior of the coat (turning it inside out will be the easiest way to get at the lining).

Option 3: Air

Another thing that will work — yes it really will! — is to hang the coats, inside out for maximum odor-getting-outing, near an open window (or outdoors, if you have a secure space in which to do such a thing) for a day or two. The problem with this, of course, is that this is December, so it’s already cold out and having the windows open might prove unpleasant to you unless you’re a reptile or a penguin or are currently living in New York City where it will apparently just be a balmy 62 degrees until the end of time. (NOT A COMPLAINT.) Brrrrrrr. Hello December!

Option 4: Avoid a Scolding

Okay but now I need you to come sit with me in the formal living room for a Talking To About Proper Coat Care: ladies! Ladies. Are you really telling me that you think it’s absolutely fine not to clean your coats in any way at all? Like, what? Sometime in August that winter coat you put away in April will just POOFTA! miraculously render itself clean of all the crap you got on it while wearing it on the subway, through storms, skiing, holiday shopping, holiday returning, at bars, at house parties, etc etc etc etc etc because GOD ONLY KNOWS WHAT YOU CRAZY BITCHES GET UP TO IN YOUR WINTER COATS. OH NO NO, I WASN’T ASKING, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW. (You’ll tell me anyway.) Yes, you’re telling me just that, and I’m telling you that you are wrong.

I know this is upsetting news, but you’ve got to clean your coats at the end of the season. Generally, the best thing to do is brace yourself and bring anything wool to the dry cleaner (next week we’ll talk about cleaning your parkas, so hang tight for that). Yes, it will cost you a pretty penny. But! It’s an annual expense, not a regular one, and when you consider the cost of a coat, spending $20 a year to maintain it really isn’t too terribly much. So from now on, at the end of the colden times, I want you to gather up your coats and march them down to the dry cleaner. Then I want you to pick them up. THEN I want you to bring them home, remove them from the plastic, hang them on proper hangers, and put them away.

I recently purchased a beautiful pair of suede boots, and am realizing that here in upstate NY it’s about to be winter. I don’t know where exactly you’re from, but for me, winter means salty slush. The main problem I have with salty slush is that it soaks into my boots, and when it dries, it leaves crusty salty residue behind. Any tips on how to clean/prevent these weird salty stains? I’d toss them in the washer but, you know, suede.

I’m from Boston. (Don’t you remember the time I told you that I have all the sophistication of a 12-year-old boy and that’s why I giggle uncontrollably every time I see that stuff you wash your floors with, you know… Bona?) Anyway! That is to say: I know from salt stains. And you, my fair slush queen, need a suede eraser. And a scepter made out of a snowglobe, but we can talk about that later.

Also, have you considered using a suede protector? Because you can totally do so even if you’ve already worn the shoes, it’s not too late! You should clean the shoes first, then apply the protective coating. Kiwi makes a product specifically for suede and nubuck, but you can also use their Leather Protect All if you want something you can use on other shoes.

Since I have you here, a brief word on getting salt stains out of regular leather: in news that will surprise exactly none of you, white vinegar will take salt stains up off your boots. Mix it with water (ratios vary — some recommend 2 parts vinegar to 1 part water, some 1 to 1, some 3 to 1 … take your pick!) and apply sparingly, i.e. don’t soak the shoe, with a rag or cotton ball or paper towel. Then wipe clean with a dry rag/ball/towel, repeating as necessary until the stains are completely gone.

Previously: Wite-Out, Confetti, and Even Nastier Boots.

Jolie Kerr is not paid to endorse any of the products mentioned in this column, but she sure would be very happy to accept any free samples the manufacturers care to send her way! Are you curious to know if she’s answered a question you have? Do check out the archives, listed by topic. More importantly: is anything you own dirty?

Photo by serre86, via Shutterstock