Varsity letterman jackets (we called them just “letter jackets” back in the day) were traditionally made with a wool body and leather sleeves, with embroidery on the wool and patches sewed onto both body and sleeves.
Both wool and leather are quite sturdy and not difficult to maintain, although if you’re just pulling your wool and leather jacket out of the closet where you dumped it thirty years ago the day before you left for college, you might not agree at first. Leather dries out and cracks, and any residue of dirt or grime attracts more dirt and grime over time. The same happens with wool, and all the worse luck if moths found their way into your closet over the years. Dry, cracked, grimy leather can be rehabilitated; moth-eaten wool cannot.
How to Rehabilitate and Maintain the Wool Body of your Varsity Jacket
If the wool body of your letterman jacket isn’t moth-eaten, it’s not complicated to rehabilitate and maintain it. Contrary to what you were told in high school, your jacket isn’t dry-clean only. You can wash it on gentle in a short cycle, with eco-friendly soap and two or three dye-trapping sheets to keep all the fabric colors where they belong. Hang it to dry out of direct sunlight.
After that first wash, which is mostly to get all the dust off, look closely at the wool body and spot-treat stains with a plant-based, biodegradable stain solution, then wash again.
Once clean, wool stores fairly well, but remains woefully in danger from all kinds of moths and other pests. Mothballs are toxic and you’ll never be able to fully rid clothes stored with them from that awful naphthalene scent, but fortunately, Martha Stewart has tons of tips for keeping woolens safe from predation.
How to Rehabilitate and Maintain the Leather Sleeves of Your Varsity Jacket
Leather is super easy to maintain! In the photo above, you can see that the leather sleeves of the letter jacket on the right don’t look bad at all, despite the fact that the jacket has been hanging, untouched, in a closet for 25 years. There are a few suspicious wrinkles but no cracks, no stains, and the color hasn’t faded.
If the leather sleeves of your letterman jacket haven’t cracked, then all you need to do after that gentle wash is condition the sleeves with your choice of store-bought leather conditioner.
Leather conditioner can also sometimes disappear small cracks, but if your leather is very cracked, you’ll probably need a professional to rehabilitate it.
The Tragedy of Vinyl Sleeves
If you chose vinyl sleeves instead of leather for that long-ago letter jacket, however, you’re completely out of luck. Vinyl, while it looks great when it’s new, is actually a poor-quality textile, ages terribly, and is archivally unsound for long-term preservation. A vinyl-sleeved varsity jacket that’s been alive for longer than a decade is reaching the end of its useful lifespan. Visit it again even a few years later, and those vinyl sleeves will be breaking down, the fabric oozing a chemical that manages to somehow be both sticky and oily. There is no permanent recovery from this state.
That condition perfectly describes the vinyl sleeves of that varsity jacket on the left in the above photo. You can actually see some brown staining on the grey vinyl in that photo–that’s all chemical residue that has trapped even more dirt and grime. It’s tacky, leaves a film on anything it touches, whether that’s your hand or whatever has been next to it in storage, and doesn’t want to be removed.
You can temporarily clean this residue off with time and elbow grease. You’ll need a solvent, such as rubbing alcohol, Goo Gone, or a non-toxic stain remover intended for removing oils and inks. It takes time and care to go over every centimeter of both sleeves with cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol, but the result will be a clean and non-sticky surface… for a while.
Because, alas, there’s nothing that you can do to solve the overarching problem of old vinyl weeping its gross chemical tears. You can keep treating the symptoms and keep the jacket from touching anything else in storage, but eventually, unless you’re someone who is extremely important and you can one day donate your varsity jacket to a museum and let their professional preservation department deal with it, that vinyl is going to end up in the landfill.
A Second Life for Your Old Jacket
If you want to keep your letterman jacket, consider replacing vinyl sleeves with a sustainable option. Denim, corduroy, and canvas are all sturdy neutrals that are animal product-free and are long-lived and easy to maintain.
If you don’t necessarily want to wear your jacket again, upcycle the non-vinyl components into something that you’ll love to live with. I absolutely adore this varsity jacket pillow! You can also remove just the school letters and other patches and sew them onto a keepsake blanket. You can even cut off the appliqued monograms and applique them onto the blanket, as well, or use them to embellish a denim jacket.
I really wish that there was a way to restore that old vinyl, as my high school letter jacket, unseen and unworn as it has been for decades, is nevertheless precious to me. I’m currently in a bit of a kerfuffle about it, actually, because I don’t really want to display it via upcycling, I don’t fit into it anymore so replacing the sleeves doesn’t seem worthwhile, and yet just stuffing it back into the closet and making it a problem for Future Julie, Even More Nostalgic Than Current Julie doesn’t seem like a great solution, either.
Y’all, what would YOU do with a treasured letterman jacket that you won’t wear but don’t want to get rid of and is actively oozing toxic substances?!?