Article by Claudia Folts, founder and owner of Tutu.Com

As anyone who has ever purchased a custom-made tutu can attest to, tutus are high maintenance. These beautiful garments will be sweated in. They will be expected to hold up under movement conditions that no mere well-made-by-the-best-designer in the world article of clothing would ever be able to stand up under. And yet, tutus are made out of mostly delicate fabrics. Though crinoline net and nylon tulle are inexpensive fabrics, they are thin, fine, delicately lightweight and used mostly by the bridal and crafting industries. One simply has to expect the high-maintenance aspect of dealing with such lightweight, easily torn fabrics.

On the plus side, nylon nets and tulles are quite easy to clean. Being nylon, these fabrics can be washed, by hand or machine, in cold to warm water. Some nets and tulles fair better in the wash process than others. The stiffer ones, which are the ones with the most stiff finishing fluids used on them, appear to fair the worst. These are the nets of which urban tutu legends are based - the holy grail sought after by many who are naive enough to buy into the myths of finding the perfect tutu net, rather than learn and discover ways to successfully work with what is currently available. Often, these holy grail net myths are promulgated by those who know better in order to keep the up-and-coming tutu makers from knowing the truth. When all that super stiff sizing is washed out, the stiffest nets can look like old dish rags, soggy and limp. The difference in the stiffness of the net does not show up nearly as much when one uses the nets with less stiffener on them. In those cases, what you see is pretty much what you get, and they don’t have the added detrimental bonus of off-gassing the formaldehyde often used in the finishing process, especially on nets manufactured in China and other countries with less strict laws. Considering the fact that, depending on exactly HOW you choose to make a tutu, you can make an excellent-quality tutu that will last no matter how stiff the net you choose to use starts out as, it follows that common sense should dictate that you use a net that is easy to clean without the worry of it losing the initial stiffness that was the prerequisite that attracted you to its use in the first place. Stiffness can be re-applied, seasonally, or as needed, using starch or lacquer sizing.

Often, the immediate use of the tutu dictates the necessity of the type of net used. No one is thinking about having to clean it when there are more pressing, important issues like, will the costume work within the choreography? Will the fabrics cause the dancers to have dangerous miscalculations leading to injury?

The major, national and international ballet companies with solid budgets, use high end, expensive, natural fabrics, especially silks, in many of their costumes.  They do not wash/clean these fabrics often.  To clean the crotches, they tie the tutu layers up and swish the crotches in a bucket with cold water and a mild detergent.  To get rid of odor, they thoroughly spray the tutus and bodices with vodka, mostly on the linings, but also on the outside at the under arm areas, and anywhere there is noticeable odor.  Some bodices and men’s tunics are dry cleaned occasionally.  These companies have two to three “home seasons” a year.  They do not tour all the time and have the larger budgets needed to use and replace-when-needed, expensive, high-end fabrics.

The wisest advice of all when dealing with the construction of costumes for dance is this: Wash all fabrics and even trims and appliqués before cutting/using them. This way, you hopefully will allow them to shrink as much as they are going to do so and have headed off any unpleasant surprises. Some people object to doing this for several reasons: 1. It removes the sizing, making things look less crisp; 2. More often than not, you will have to properly press the fabrics, and pressing is a necessary skill that is, in many cases, being purposely forgotten; 3. Washing fabrics and trims takes time, a commodity not often allowed for by directors, choreographers, and other clients who do not understand the necessity for it.

Another thing that often goes unsaid is this: Sometimes the most expensive, gorgeous, natural fabrics are not the best choices. For a couture gown - yes, of course. For a ballet costume, not always. A fabric chosen to be used by a designer for a specific gala performance at a major ballet company is most likely not the best choice for a touring company that does 50 performances in as many days in as many cities. Sometimes a less expensive, pre-shrunk or non-shrinking fabric is a better choice. Often, these days, something with stretch which will hug the form naturally and allow the dancer to move to the fullest extent of their possible range of motion within the choreography and balletic technique is exactly what is needed.

The Russians pretty much figured this out years ago. The Americans are in the middle of realizing that it is just as important to have the possibility of a full range of movement within the tutu ballets as it is within the contemporary ballets. Although in the classics, the movement is purer, closer to the epitomé of classic and traditional, arabesques are still expected to be higher, cambrés fuller, and change of weight and direction seamless. Bodice fabrics that hug the body naturally allow for more freedom of movement. Often, these newer fabrics can be cleaned much easier, too.

There is no definitive answer to the question of exactly what fabrics are best to use, only opinions. We tend to use whatever we can find that is going to work best for the design and stays within the client’s budget and own aesthetic sense. Ballet Artistic Directors are a funny lot. Often, they cling to the past even stronger than an Altzheimer’s patient who has lost their short-term memory. They want their dancers to have what they had, train as they trained, wear what they wore. If natural, woven fabrics, boned to within an inch of the dancer’s ability to take a shallow breath is what they had back in their day, then insisting on it for their dancers, cements, often sub-consciously, in their minds, the legitimacy of their own careers. In the tradition-bound ballet world, the only things deemed worthy of change are those things tied to the newer, contemporary movements dared to be brought into conscious repertory by the newest choreographic generation.

In a genre so tradition-bound, it is interesting that the Russians more easily see the importance of body-hugging fabrics being used in the classics as well as in the contemporary pieces, without the need for steel boning and multiple fittings designed to allow the costumer to force certain fabrics to fit the body. It is still assumed by many of the top costume shops that bones in bodices are a must. After all, they keep the fabrics smooth-looking from all angles, and when used Center Back in a bodice, make it much easier to fasten and unfasten during quick changes. But none of this has anything to do with the needs and comfort of the dancer. Seems like many of the shops need a reminder that, as costumers, we are part of the dancer’s support team. Our job is to make her feel beautiful and secure and comfortable. Yes - I said, “Comfortable.” I cannot tell you how often I have heard a costumer say things like, “She will just have to deal with it,” or “Suck it up. This is the way it is.” When did it become more important for the costumer’s aesthetic and convenience preferences to outweigh the dancer’s current needs? Has no one noticed that female dancers are much stronger through the middle of their bodies now and tend to need less help to support themselves for pas de deux work than they did twenty and thirty years ago? In reality, they tend to physically need less steel in their bodices these days than dancers in the previous generations.

I predict that the American ballet costuming world will follow the Russians lead as more and more brocades, taffetas, silks and satins are made with a mixture of stretch fabrics. Already, more and more are becoming available. With this evolutionary process, we often make bodices out of stretch fabrics, but line only the sides with a compression-stretch fabric like powernet to allow the dancer more freedom of movement, but still maintain the integrity of the garment. We flatline the center fronts and backs with a herringbone-weave, 100% cotton fabric known as “Coutil,” to keep those pieces stable, not allowing them to stretch at all. Coutil is a tightly woven, non-stretch fabric specifically used in corsetry for its high density and resistance to stretching. Bones can be put in just like in completely non-stretch bodices, if wanted.

How you clean a tutu and bodice depends on so many factors. It used to be that most fabrics did not wash well, so all tutus were just “spot-cleaned.” Crotches were washed out by hand, make-up and sweat stains were gently dealt with by using the few specialty wash products that were out there. Cheap vodka was, and still is sprayed on the fabrics to neutralize the odors. We use it full strength since alcohol dries faster than water and does not tend to leave spots like water does on some fabrics, but I have heard that some people cut the vodka 50-50 with water.

If you have taken the time to pre-wash your fabrics, then you will not have to guess whether or not a certain fabric is washable, or whether or not it is going to shrink when sweated in. This saves a ton of anxiety. Even if we have pre-washed our fabrics, we tend to dry clean bodices and men’s tunics when needed because they come out looking crisper and less worn. All of our decorations, though washable, may not be dry cleanable. Those trims with plastic or acrylic stones do not stand up well under high heat. They will need to be removed before dry cleaning, or, in those cases, you may prefer to simply hand-wash the garment.

Nylon net and tulle skirts, both classical and romantic tutus should never be dry cleaned. The heat will affect the nylon in a negative way, stretching, weakening and softening it beyond repair. There are several ways to wash classical tutus:

  1. Both types of tutu can be washed by hand in a bathtub, barrel or kiddie pool with cold water and a mild detergent. Some Oxyclean can be added to the water, first dissolving it well in a cup of hot water, then adding it to the wash. Simply swish the tutu around in the water, let it soak a while, swish some more, then rinse well and hang to dry, upside down for a classical tutu and inside out for a romantic.

2. I learned from Costume designer, Christopher Vergara, years ago, who, at that particular time was designing for and touring with, the Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, that classical tutu skirts could be washed in a washing machine. Yes - you heard that right. If you are using any of the hoopwire sold through, then you don’t even have to remove it because our plastic-coated metal hoop is treated to be anti-rust, so even the spot where the ends have been cut will not rust and leave stains on your tutu when it gets wet. To wash by top-loading machine, simply fold the tutu up towards the top side, in half and gently place in the machine. If you have a large machine, you can probably do two at once. Add a mild detergent and wash on the gentle cycle. Most of the time, it is best to remove the bodice and either wash or dry clean it separately. If you are not removing the bodice and it has steel bones in it, then you will need to remove the bones to keep them from causing rust stains on your bodice. For front loading machines, often you do not have to fold the tutu in half. Wash on delicate, with cold water and mild detergent.

As to romantic tutus, I have washed them in the machine on the delicate cycle, but find that they tend to wrinkle quite a bit and look better when hand-washed. The wrinkles can be steamed out, but it is a time-consuming process and you need to be very careful not to over-do the steaming and stretch the tulle.

With men’s tunics, we tend to wash the undervests by hand in cold water and mild detergent and dry clean the outer tunic.

For Poet’s shirts, made from the Double Georgette or Kalahari Crepe that we carry, and dance boot tops made with heavy jumbo spandex, we machine-wash on delicate with cold water and mild detergent.

For Empire Dresses made by us or with our pattern and instructions, it is best to remove the under-leotard and wash it either by hand or machine just like any other leotard, as long as you have used a good-quality, 4-way stretch, nylon-based Spandex. The complete dress can be dry-cleaned, or, if the skirt has been made to be removable, it can be washed by hand in cold water and mild detergent, and the bodice can be dry-cleaned, or possibly washed separately from the skirt, also by hand in cold water and mild detergent.

How to Pre-Wash Fabrics and Trim

For Trims and Appliques:

Wash by hand in the sink, using warm to hot water and mild detergent. If they are going to shrink, you want them to do so now, before they are sewn to a costume.

For all natural and synthetic Fabrics:

Be sure to pay attention to any special instructions about a particular type of fabric. We serge-finish the raw edges of the yardage before washing. Bodice and tunic fabrics are thrown in the washing machine and washed on either delicate or normal. Since the object is to take care of any shrinkage in the fabric before it is used, I wash it on warm or hot, rinsing in cold.

If a fabric is ruined by pre-washing it, then, in most cases, you have no business using it for a ballet costume, the exception being a costume for a Principal dancer for which you have a large enough budget to constantly fix or replace the fabrics. Margot Fonteyn’s “Ondine” costume comes to mind. When I visited the costume shop at Covent Garden, I was shown this beautiful costume. I was told that the skirt, made of the lightest silk mesh, floated like no other fabric ever could. But it had to be constantly replaced after almost every performance due to its delicate nature. It would often be in shreds after performances.

We do not generally pre-wash nets or tulles. We wet them if we are going to dye them. In that case, we cut out the tutu layers first, fold them up until they are about two or three inches wide and safety pin them so they won’t be wrinkly when they come out of the dye bath. We then dye the pieces in a pot on the stove. Although nets tend to dye most colors in cold water, we do use some heat because the colors stay better when dyed using heat. We do not boil the water as too much heat is not good for nylon and tends to ruin the integrity of the fabric.