One of the wonderful things about fencing is there is so much to learn and experience. An essential element of fencing that is all too frequently overlooked with the uninitiated is the care and maintenance of one’s fencing uniform — including appropriate cleaning. Although the idea of washing laundry may seem very elementary, there are some tips that are better learned before mistakes are made that affect the appearance or safety of your protective equipment, and which may simply make the process easier. This post is offered in the spirit of helpful suggestions, especially for the newcomer.
To begin with, be sure to read and follow the care instructions from your equipment manufacturers. Your uniform provides critical protection so take care to not jeopardize it. What follows is what I do with my equipment — follow at your own risk.
Damp Uniforms and Steel
An important item to remember is that a uniform, even worn for a short period, when closed up in a fencing bag with a steel weapon, creates an ideal situation to promote corrosion of your weapon and rust stains on your fencing whites. Perspiration contains salts which will react with ferrous material and can leave orange stripes across your gleaming white jacket. To avoid this, make the effort to separate your uniform from your weapons as soon as possible after you leave the salle. A blade protector made from PVC is inexpensive (or easily made) and it can help reduce exposure to salts and moisture while offering some protection from bending a blade around a mask in the confines of your bag.
To Wash, or Not to Wash
Although there are some hardcore fencers out there who own multiple jackets, enabling one to use a jacket while another is in the laundry, this is simply not practical for most. Neither is washing a jacket twice a week which would also shorten its lifespan. However, a single jacket is a workable situation.
The Lighter Treatment
Jacket, Plastron, and Glove: After a relatively less rigorous fencing session, I spray my fencing jacket and plastron with the deodorizer sold in the U.S. as Febreeze, making sure to lightly spray the interior and underarm areas. Febreeze contains alcohol and a deodorizer derived from corn. It works wonderfully. The jacket is placed on one hanger, and the plastron and glove are placed on another hanger equipped with a spring clip to grip the cuff of the glove. Both are hung where there is very good air circulation to facilitate quick drying. Mine are hung in a room with a ceiling fan operating on low-speed. If one does not ensure good ventilation, especially if humidity is high, you will likely have the unpleasant discovery of soured equipment.
Mask: After a fencing session, it is important to make sure your mask is adequately dried as well. Some people may choose to occasionally spray the interior with a disinfected such as Lysol, but I generally avoid this. I have a place where I am able to set my mask mesh-side down and expose the interior of the mask to good airflow in order to dry quickly. Some people hang their mask by placing the tongue over the edge of a drawer until dry.
A Thorough Cleaning
Frequently, a fencing session at the salle results in soaked fencing whites and necessitates a thorough wash.
Washable Gloves: Many washable fencing gloves used heavily dyed fabric on the palms or back of the hand. If washed with a white jacket, one runs the risk of the color bleeding into the jacket. One can generally avoid blue or pink splotches on your jacket if the glove is removed immediately at the end of the wash cycle. However, I wash my glove separately.
Jacket: I make sure the Velcro collar closure is closed as though the jacket was being worn to avoid the hook side of the Velcro from snagging on fabric elsewhere. In addition to laundry detergent, I use two other products that are of great help: Borax and a hydrogen peroxide based bleaching agent such as Oxiclean. Borax is an excellent laundry deodorizer that also softens the hard water we have in our area, thereby boosting the effectiveness of the detergent. The hydrogen peroxide in Oxiclean helps whiten the jacket without any concerns that comes with chlorine bleaches. The latter are very corrosive and can cause rust/oxidation to quickly develop on the jacket’s metal D-rings and can cause individual fibers in the fabric to become embrittled and wear, resulting in thin material or even holes.
I wash my jacket and plastron with cold water and use the longest wash cycle which starts with a 15-minute soak and ends with an extended spin. As soon as the wash cycle is complete, both jacket and plastron are hung up to dry as described above. Air-drying eliminates the massive amount of wear that comes from tumble drying. Also, my jacket contains a cotton blend. Some jackets, especially those marketed to first-time fencers, are mostly constructed of a cotton canvas which is very susceptible to significant shrinking if washed or dried with heat.
Mask: A decision I am very happy with is purchasing a mask with a removable liner. The padded liner is held in place with Velcro and easily taken out to be washed. I wash mine by hand with a mild detergent (such as Woolite), making sure to squeeze the solution throughout the padding then thoroughly rinse. The liner is then hung to dry in a well ventilated area.
Not all masks are as easily cleaned, and even those with a removable liner will eventually get the bib soiled. Fencers have a plethora of ways in which they clean masks. Fencing forums even have descriptions of using the top rack of a dishwasher for masks, but this seems a rather drastic step to me and I doubt the extreme heat is good for adhesives or other materials. Others use a five-gallon bucket for a complete dunking and rigorous hand agitation. When I need to wash my mask, I go a less-intense and more conservative route with a gentle hand-washing.
A careful hand washing enables one to limit the amount of water exposure to the metal components (such as the mesh or rivets) and reduces drying time. I carefully dip the bib in a wash tub with mild detergent, set the mask on a towel, then use a cloth and/or soft brush to scrub the bib before rinsing. If needed, a hydrogen peroxide based bleaching agent such as Oxiclean can be brushed on the bib and allowed to sit (an old, sterilized toothbrush works well). This helps whiten and remove any stains. After rinsing, I blot everything with a dry towel and set in a well ventilated area to dry.
Vintage Masks: Some vintage masks have a padded leather sabre band wrapped across the crown of the mask (modern masks have rubber bumper/pad in lieu of leather). If I had a vintage mask with leather band, I would only wipe the fabric bib with a cloth dampened with a mild soap solution to carefully keep the leather separated from the water.
An Important Note About Sunlight
Although hanging up your fencing uniform in the sun to dry or simply air out may seem like a good idea, be judicious about this. The ultra violet in direct sunlight can have a very deleterious effect on some fibers and pigments. Fibers can be susceptible to breaking down with very little exposure. Some mask manufacturers expressly state to avoid placing masks in direct sunlight. if you are going to hang your uniform up outside, do so only where there is indirect sunlight for the duration, and limit the time exposed.
Hopefully this information will be of some assistance to you, or perhaps you know a newcomer whom could benefit from sharing. If you have other helpful suggestions, please feel free to share in the comments below.
In the future we will look at the basic care and maintenance of steel weapons.