Cleaning & DIY Tutorials
Cleaning is a necessary part of life. The Sylvanians and Calico Critters gather dust, grit, grease, finger/skin oils from play, wear and tear as much as people do. However, compared to other toys, they can be a bit difficult with the cleaning process. To many, the Sylvanian Families (and Calico Critters) are seemingly defiant to being cleaned. However, it's definitely possible!
DO NOT CLEAN YOUR SYLVANIANS WITH ACETONE, BLEACH, HARD BRUSHES, TAPE*, MAGIC ERASER, RUBBING ALCOHOL OR WATER. Because they are vinyl figures they do not bend as much as other toys might. However, this also makes them somewhat vulnerable. Heat, humidity and bright sunlight are not the Sylvanian/Calico Critters' friends! This article here explains well.
Disclaimer: What you are about to read is various situations I've faced and the results of my experimentation (and a bit of science). The information is not necessarily a hard and fast rule, and individual results may vary. I'm not responsible for the loss of your figures or any damage done to them. By proceeding to do as written on this page you automatically consent to this. With that disclaimer over, here are the scenarios I've run into.
Before we discuss actual cleaning methods, here is as concise a rundown on damage scenarios which you may run into. Knowing what you're up against will help save your Sylvanian if saving it is at all possible!
Fur Loss a.k.a Flocking Loss
Sylvanians are coated in adhesive over the plastic to which fibers, called flocking, have been sprayed and via the power of electric currents in production, are made to stand on end. Fur loss is a difficult issue to accept with Sylvanians, especially those who have been loved until their fur has fallen off in patches/entirely/exposed to other factors (below).
What it looks like: bare, exposed plastic or shiny areas under the fuzz
Remedy: Fur loss unfortunately is a fact of life, especially with Sylvanians who are really old (ie: 80s).
It IS possible to re-flock your Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters, but requires adult supervision, a bit of electrical rigging/knowhow to create a static applicator (unless you buy one..) and flocking powder. View the DIY section below to learn more.
Mildew & Mold- and Soil/Stains
Mildew and mold happen in wet, humid environments (up to and including attics, basements, and ill fortune such as accidents, flooding, etc- you name it). The musty "basementy" smell- for those of you without basements, it's a sharp, rank, acrid sour note which hits your nose and can seem to go down into your chest, usually preceding mold- and can cause allergies, asthma, and respiratory issues to flare up. Even if you have none of those, can still cause you some symptoms like the aforementioned, except that upon getting more fresh air, the symptoms can resolve themselves). Mold and mildew are both things to take seriously. Get a respirator and use it when dealing with these things- up to and including afflicted Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters figures.
Know what you're dealing with. Putting moldy and mildewy critters in a freezer bag and slinging 'em in the fridge doesn't get rid of the spores. It only deactivates them. Don't keep your good figures close to the afflicted critters; the mold and mildew spores can multiply- and they travel based on air currents when exposed to air.
Note: if you've got playset items made of hard plastic, you can just dunk 'em for several hours in a 50/50 solution of water and white vinegar in a large tupperware bowl, and rinse them off later on. That works! If only cleaning Sylvanians and Calico Critter figures were that easy... Onward to cleaning those!
Round One, Fight!- The Bath
Good luck! Your clothes should now be nice and fresh! :) This worked beautifully for me.
To bathe your figures which smell mildewy or may have mold, put a tupperware bowl of good size into your sink. Add some good laundry detergent, and do not use rubber gloves or latex, nitrile, etc. You need your fingers for the sensory input for this; the surface of the gloves would keep you from such as well as further agitate the flocking towards coming off. Agitate the water with a stick/chopstick/hand- whatever generates a lot of foam. The foam is your friend; the water is not save to produce those great heaps of suds.
Work swiftly. Apply some of the foam and with your fingertips, rub the foam and bubbles into the figure's fur and flocking. Do this a few times- and keep an eagle eye on your figures. If they start to look like little bits of fuzz are pilling up (think how fleece makes little lint balls when used), then pat dry with fresh paper towel immediately. Repeat as necessary to dry off. I noticed that it took mere seconds for the fur to get lathered up with my fingertips/brushed with toothbrush on dirt stains/rinsed under water before being patted dry- about ten seconds in all. Longer than that led to the first signs of the flocking pilling up.
Evaluate the results of the first bath when the figures are dry. You won't smell the mildew/mold as much but it may still be present. Your next concern is to let the figure air dry. It doesn't take long, so keep checking. You can use 10% benzoyl peroxide (acne medicine available at drugstores) to brighten white fur, but it will lighten other colors- so mind what you do with it and where- and yes, you'll see light spots from its use even against ivory flocking, as I've found out. Benzoyl peroxide works well enough on stained areas- rub it in with your fingertips. You can use a really soft toothbrush to scrub the figure lightly for a few seconds while you're washing it too; it can usually handle that.
The rinsing process should only take a few seconds. It's going to affect the flocking and adhesive. The water will drench your figure and start working against the adhesive/flocking, so have paper towels ready in abundance. Run the figure under a small stream of water. You'll see the fur growing darker-colored. Squeeze the figure inside paper towels, do not rub, and pat dry. Let it air dry. If you had mold stains and a white figure you'd used the peroxide on, it can sit in the sun and that will brighten the fur up. If that doesn't work, it's on to round two!
Round Two, Fight!- Deodorizing
Okay, this entire page has been the result of days and days of experimenting and research into cleaning- a friend gave me a big bunch of figures from a Craigslist ad which neglected to say that they stunk of mildew. Lysoling twice did not help! You may have better luck than I with that; the label says it kills mold and mildew but the scent remained.
Freezing doesn't kill mold/mildew; only deactivates it while frozen, unfortunately. So while some folks say it's possible, science and research online showed otherwise. (If only it were true.)
I did try to Febreeze my lot with extra-strength spray after two failed attempts with Lysol disinfectant spray, and I've packed half of the lot into a box with layers of salt and baking soda between all of them. (Do not do this until/unless your figures are bone dry! Salt and baking soda become encrusted into fibers and clumps if damp- not what you want on your critters!)
Round Three, Residual Cleanup - Redressing
Re-inspect your critters for any unwanted scents or spots you might've missed, then begin to put their clothes back on! Re-dressing your figures will be a headache or a breeze, depending on if you took photos. It also helps if you use the internet to look at the families and make sure everyone had been wearing the proper clothing in the first place. In my case, I found that one of the mischievous Thistlethorn mothers had stolen Mrs. Chestnut's green dress, much to my delight! (Such a sneaky little mouse. Unless they dress-swapped. Who knows?)
Keep your fuzzies in plastic bags labeled with their clothing so you'll know who's who (or make a written list or somesuch), but do what you can to protect them! Everything you've done so far is hard work. Play with 'em, dust 'em now and then if they were out on a shelf, do photoshoots with them- whatever you'd like!- but a little TLC now and then will help them survive the decades. Keep them dry and away from pets, roughhousing kids (use your discretion!), and away from mold, mildew, and other allergens if possible.
Enjoy! I hope this compilation helps. It's been a work of love!
I've run into several critters whose tails have been super-glued back on, such as Thistlethorn mice with their vinyl-plastic tails. Please recognize that the superglue -does- spread into the surrounding flocking, for better or worse.
Transplanting parts isn't too difficult, though some individuals might give you issues. I did a leg transplant between two mice as a test, and the joints are flexible vinyl like the rest of the figures. The only thing to be cautious of is any potential flocking loss when firmly gripping the limb and pulling it out/pushing back in.
If your love of Sylvanian Families and Calico Critters inspires your creativity, there's almost limitless possibilities.
To Strip the Flocking Off Your Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters
A good solid soak in hot water will loosen up the adhesive under the flocking on your figures. For older figures, even a few seconds in water can cause the fibers to fall out, the adhesive to curl, and fingernail/toothbrush action can strip the adhesive right off.
You can also soak it in rubbing alcohol to help dissolve the glue somewhat, or use bleach in a jar for two days or so (sealable glass jars work great, like mason jars) and kept out of reach of pets and children where it can't be knocked over- and if you can label it, that helps also. DO NOT MIX BLEACH WITH RUBBING ALCOHOL; rinse if you use one before the other. The underpainting/painted-on markings on Sylvanians/Critters won't be affected by removing the flocking and adhesive with either bleach or alcohol. If doing the bleaching technique, the adhesive and flocking can be removed under running warm water. Please avoid inhaling bleach and stay cautious when working with it. Consider using a respirator.
Re-flocking a.k.a Re-furring Your Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters
If at all possible- before considering re-flocking your figure, consider if retiring it and re-purchasing it is possible. This directly supports the manufacturer of our beloved toys- and helps keep their production. Sentimental value and the kindness of Epoch after asking how to repair them due to lack of information on re-flocking on the internet is what drove me to investigate repairing my figures (as well as buying new figures of different types, etc, reigniting my love for them. Re-flocking can help, but don't expect it to look factory-fresh. Sentimental figures you can't just leave in a sorry state before retiring them deserve to be given a bit of dignity and love. In some parts of the world, beloved toys are given a funeral service (though if you must dispose, do recycle, don't bury). If you're a parent, I leave this up to your discretion; if you're a collector, it's up to you.
Disclaimer aside, to re-flock your figures you're going to need flocking powder. The Sylvanian Families & Calico Critters' flocking colors USUALLY ARE CUSTOM COLORS, and most flocking companies don't have exact matches. The only exceptions would be white, black, and very possibly ivory. The best thing you can do is match the fibers and prepare the base (as below). You must use a respirator- and have paintbrushes, toothpicks, white glue (I believe acrylic-based adhesive such as Pros-Aide may be best, though my first reflocking attempt used white bookbinders' PVA glue), acrylic paint, a plastic bag, a box, and electrostatic applicator. I bought my Soft Flock fiber flocking here. Nylon flocking can be found here. I do believe nylon fibers may be what Sylvanians/Calico Critters use as the fur pile (length) is longer and softer, but this was what was readily available for me- and it's fairly soft. Newer figures have an improved choice of fiber flocking. If you happen to have your thermostat set to 68', it is at this temperature which helps the fibers react better when given the static treatment. Since it's presently summer at the time of writing and I did so successfully in 80' weather, I'm not too worried about it. :)
Preparing the Figure:
Apply Your Glue:
Begin Flocking Process:
After the flocking is on, DO NOT brush your figure off, blow on it (which sends fibers into the air for lungs to get sick from- ask me how I know), or touch it for at least 24 hours. Ensure that the fibers are sticking up; with enough power from your applicator, it should. If you're not using a battery-powered applicator, then you'll wind up with a figure whose fibers are flowing every which direction and laying flat- ie; on, but not soft and fuzzy. It'll feel hard to the touch due to the adhesive underneath.
Customizing Your Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters
Overall good advice which has been done before by many and generally agreed upon (which does or doesn't work):
Do not use alcohol or markers. Alcohol runs right through the flocking farther than where you'd ever want it to go, and destroys the adhesive underneath (and the flocking to an extent). I used Mr. Sketch markers for 'underwear' as a kid 29 years ago (ugh, dating myself there) and the pigment stuck into the vinyl to this day, even after removing the flocking. Again, marker pigment rubs off on everything. Not wanted.
Do not use RIT dye. Dyes use vinegar for synthetic fabrics/fibers and salt for natural fibers; the dye won't take to the figures and you'll have a mess.
Transplanting Limbs/Head Swapping
Heads and body part swapping is indeed possible, though use of a hair dryer to provide gentle heat to the figures may be necessary. Some figures may be more averse to it than others. Make sure the flocking colors match (unless you have better plans... :) )!