When I buy vintage clothing I want to know that it is vintage. If I see a super 1940s knit and it turns out to be 1980s, that’s fine, as long as I’d known that when I’d bought it and it was priced as 1980s – I don’t want the non-vintage wool pulled over my eyes!
Labels are a great way to date clothing quickly when you’re out shopping. Looking at zips and thread types requires a fair bit of knowledge, particularly when you’re looking at something that may have been altered or repaired well after the time of making, but for the most part, labels don’t lie. All it takes is a flash of a Woolmark and you’ll know that 1940s knitwear isn’t what it seems.
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Important! Below is our guide to dating with labels. Before we start, please read these three disclaimers!
1. All of the images shown here are illustrations of original labels, not the original label. This was done for clarity in seeing the differences between label versions, the finer details aren’t particularly important. While every effort has been made to replicate original typefaces on union labels, they aren’t exact so please don’t get hung up on the exact shaping of a letter!
2. Labels can tell you the earliest possible date your clothing was manufactured, but not the latest. When a new union label (guide here) was introduced manufacturers would use up their rolls of the old label before starting on the new rolls. Similarly, we know when drying symbols were officially added to care labels but the process of all manufacturers introducing the change could take a number of years. Marks and Spencer didn’t add care symbols to their St Michael clothing until 1968, two years after the symbols were introduced. With that said, consider the dates as being “from 19xx”. Our St Michael dating guide is here.
3. Having said labels don’t lie, please bear in mind there will always be exceptions to the rule, such as a pair of pedal pushers I bought from River Island in the summer of 1999 which have no dryer square despite the symbol having been introduced in 1980. There can also be little variations in design, such as the inclusion of the ° symbol despite its absence from the official British Standard system, or a different iron shape. Where I’m unsure about the date of a change, I’ve made that clear (and I welcome additional information/corrections).
Care labels started to appear on clothing in the 1950s at the same time as washing machines were becoming popular and modern synthetic fibres started to be used. The first labels were predominantly text-based and not standardised. In the UK the first standardised symbol-based system was created in 1966 by the Home Laundering Consultative Council, which evolved over the next few decades before we eventually opted to use the International Standards (ISO).
Also shown here are EU, US and Japanese care label systems, but not in as much depth.
UK care labels
We’ll start with a summary of the evolution of the UK care labels, before showing the full sets.
The most obvious changes to spot here are the swap from wash numbers to temperatures and the change to an outlined hand going straight down into the tub.
Below are the key changes you can use to date a care label. The additions of temperature, dry cleaning, bleaching and ironing symbols were made in 1976. The addition of the dryer symbol was made in 1980. The removal of the washing number was in 1986 and the additions of the striped bleach symbol and hand dry symbols were made in 2012 (there is a curious exception here, detailed in the 2000s section below).
1960s – 1970s
Although Europe were using iron, dry and bleach symbols from the late 1960s, the first UK system only included wash symbols in white on a coloured or black background. The rest of the care instructions were written, and as you’ll see from the variations below (all from 1960s garments) there was no standard layout.
In 1976 the UK introduced the ironing, dry cleaning and bleaching symbols. The background colour was removed, and washing temperatures were added to the tubs.
The above two examples of care labels on St Michael garments are both using variations of the late 1970s care symbols. Take a look at our St Michael label dating guide to find out more about the other details on these labels that helped us to narrow down the time of manufacture.
In the 1980s care labels got the British Standard (BS2427:1980 followed by BS2427:1986) and for a few years, a rather spindly appearance. The drying symbol makes its first appearance and the pointy hand changes to a more well-rounded hand, similar to what we still use today.
A few years later, in 1986, the symbols are revised again with the wash numbers removed. We also see single and double underlines appearing on the wash tubs and dry cleaning symbols, to indicate the need for ‘reduced agitation’ during washing. Notice that the double underline is a broken single line, rather than the two layers of lines we have on newer labels.
1991 marked the date of the first International Standards Organisation (ISO) system in Europe, with the UK system merging with this in 1994 (BS EN 23758:1994, ISO 3768:1991). There’s no notable additions or removals (except for temperature dots on the dryer symbol), only little variations to the design. The order of symbols at this time is wash, bleach, iron, dry clean, dry. This is the order registered internationally with the WIPO (trademarks) and I have several items of clothing purchased from the late 1990s to mid 2000s with this order.
On a side note, in researching this feature I came across a website selling vintage football shirts and found several from the 1980s with the >2004 symbol order and iron shape. I was most confused until I read through the descriptions and discovered they were reissued designs. Where as in this case the seller was highlighting this, care label knowledge certainly would have saved someone from a mistake purchase from a less scrupulous seller.
In 2005 the order of the symbols was changed, requiring labels to show them in process order: Wash, bleach, dry, iron, dry clean. The best change of all (as far as I’m concerned!) was made in 2012 when the sizing of each symbol was made much more consistent, each symbol being squared off. I am confident that designers around the world could now check the washing instructions of their clothes without wincing.
The other big change, which I believe to have taken place in 2005, is the inclusion of natural drying symbols (dry in shade, flat dry and drip dye). I am a bit confused about this, having found conflicting information, all from reputable sources, suggesting 2005, 2012 or 1970s. I’ve detailed the conflicting information at the end of this feature.
Natural drying symbols aside (which I rarely see on clothing anyway) the changes to note are the change from a broken underline to a two layered underline (2005) and the re-shaping of the symbols (2012). Pictured here is the 2012 version, the 2005 version (with different wash tub waves and iron shape) is pictured in the EU section below (dated as 2004 as they introduced it ahead of the UK).
That brings us up to present day in the UK. Now a briefer look at Europe, the USA, Canada, India and Japan.
While we have already shown the most recent version of labelling used in Europe (the 2012 ISO standard), here’s the earlier incarnations. The Europeans got there first with care symbols, with a handful of countries joining together to create four care symbols in 1958-1960. These remained in use until 1985 when we see a more familiar design come into use, with the addition of the dry symbol.
While I have seen it said that the order of symbols wasn’t changed until 2004 (when a number of trademarks are registered in that order), the first trademark registration is in 2002 so I’m not entirely sure when the first usage of the new system would have been.
Where the European symbols most obviously differ from the UK is in the do not bleach symbol, which up until 2012 was a solid black triangle (see US section for an example image).
I am sorry to say I do not have much information about the history of Japanese care labelling, except a vague mention that they’d adopted care labelling fairly early on. The first system shown below (top row) is comprised of 22 symbol variations, one of each type is shown here. My source material was not the clearest so I am very sorry if I’ve not drawn the characters correctly. I am told that sometimes certain symbols (bleach, dry) will be omitted if they are not relevant to the garment so don’t presume that a partial label is a sign of an earlier version as it is in the UK. Japan aligned with the International Standards in 2014, the new symbols (also shown below) becoming enforced in December 2016. Therefore it is fairly safe to say that anything with the old labelling system has to be older than 2017.
India first published standardised symbols in 1997, based upon ISO 3758:1991. The first revision they made of their standard was in 2009, to reflect the updates made in ISO 3758:2005. The foreword to the publication states that the Indian Standard is identical to ISO (pictured earlier).
USA & Canada
The USA was a very late arrival to the care symbol system. They first made affixed care labelling (text-based) mandatory in July 1972. It wasn’t until 1993 that they introduced symbols.
Points to note on the US system are the solid black symbols, the no-steam iron symbol, the wring symbol (like the pre-2014 Japanese system) and the use of dots in place of or alongside °C on washtubs.
Across the border, Canada devised their own traffic light system in 1970 with the usual five symbols coloured green, amber or red. °F was used for washing and ironing temperatures. In 2003 that the system was updated for consistency with USA and International standards.
The order for displaying the symbols is shown below and as shown, a label may not always include all five symbols.
I hope this overview of care labelling systems has been informative and not too complicated. Why not download our printable guide to have handy the next time you’re shopping?
Conflicting information on the introduction of hand drying symbols
Detailed below are the three conflicting sources I have come across, all of which are reliable. Have a read through and see if you agree with me that they were introduced in 2005.
2012: In 2019 Intertek (a worldwide quality assurance company) published a guide on care label requirements in a number of different countries. It states, “The third edition ISO 3758:2012 has been published and replaces the previous version of the standard (ISO 3758:2005). Key changes are the addition of symbols for natural drying processes…”
I believe this to be a mistake. The foreword of ISO 3758:2012 states, “This third edition cancels and replaces the second edition (ISO 3758:2005), of which definition 2.4.2 natural drying was revised. Symbols for natural drying processes were added in the new Table 4 and Annex C of the 2005 edition was deleted.”
2005: In 2009 the Indian Standard of care labelling (IS 14452:2009) was published, and in the foreword it is stated that it is identical with ISO 3758:2005. In the annex symbols for natural drying are included with an annotation that the “test methods used to determine or confirm natural drying care instructions are described in ISO 6330:2000…” So the symbols were almost certainly in use in 2005, and possibly even earlier if such care instructions were being described in ISO standard for textile testing.
1970s: To throw a bit of a spanner into the above, or into the dryer, I have seen line drying symbols used on Marks & Spencer (St Michael) clothing from the late 1970s. One of these labels is on the piece of knitwear pictured further up in this article. It belonged to my mum, so I can be sure it is definitely original!
If you know anything more about the introduction of natural drying symbols I would love to hear from you.
Useful links (will open in a new window):
ASTM D5489 – United States standards
IS 14452 (2009) – India standards
ISO 3578:2012 – International standards
BS 2747:1986 – British standards
Global Brand Database
Intertek Care Label Recommendations
Vintage Fashion Guild
Dress and Textile Specialists