Cleaning Your Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters Figures

1. Intro & Disclaimers
2. Fur Loss a.k.a Flocking Loss
3. Mildew & Mold- and Soil/Stains
4. Round One, Fight!- The Bath
5. Round Two, Fight!- Deodorizing
6. Round Three, Residual Cleanup - Redressing
7. Sylvanian Surgery- Replacing Parts
8. Redoing Flocking
9. Customizing/Painting

1. Intro & Disclaimers

I am not, by any stretch, the end-all-be-all authority on cleaning Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters. What I have compiled is my experiences and others' findings (with permission). 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.

Time is unkind to Sylvanians and Calico Critters. They gather dust, grit, grease, finger/skin oils from play, wear and tear. These figures can be well-loved but also deserve some cleaning now and then.

They can be a bit difficult to clean due to their flocking- the fuzzy stuff on them. At first glance, some seem defiant to being cleaned! The good news is that it's still possible.

~Do not clean your figures with: acetone, bleach, hard brushes, tape, magic-erasers, rubbing alcohol.
Iffy: tape, water. Some folks have used 'invisible' light cellophane tape and some low-grade brown paper tapes to remove lint. Some of the flocking 'fur' lifts off also. Be careful and lightly touch it to surface dust on the figures. Not every tape has the same adhesive strength!

Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters' bodies are vinyl. They don't bend as much as other toys. This makes them durable to play, but heat, humidity and bright sunlight can adversely affect them. For older figures, the adhesive layer under their flocking can be very weak and peel off easily when exposed to water. A thin rinsing for 2-3 seconds doesn't affect the adhesive layer if you immediately pat the figure dry (avoid rubbing) with paper towels and quickly. See part 4 for the details.

Here is a concise rundown on damage scenarios which you may run into. Knowing what you're up against will help save your critter, if saving it is at all possible!

2. Fur Loss a.k.a Flocking Loss

Fur loss is an inevitable part of Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters life. At some point or another, it can and will happen- from being knocked or rubbed against a hard surface, a careless fingernail, or soaked overlong in a tub.The flocking has been sifted over the figure, standing into place via the power of electric currents in a temperature-controlled environs to promote electrostatic cling during manufacturing. The adhesive used must conduct the electricity easily as well. Areas of fur loss look plastic and 'shiny', and are bare in troubled spots. Noses, undersides of feet, handpaws and sometimes elsewhere on the body, such as where clothes snaps/velcro/clothing rubs are areas with heavy usage.

Re-flocking requires its own section. See section 9 below. It requires a bit of electrical rigging and adult supervision. It is not likely to ever resemble the previous appearance, and for the time and effort replacement is easier. However, if you're committed to a much-loved figure, it may be worth it to you to re-flock.

3. Mildew & Mold- and Soil/Stains

Mildew and mold- both of which are considered allergens- happen in wet and humid environs, such as attics, basements, floods, etc. A "basement" or "musty" smell is mildew. It's a sharp, rank, acrid sour note. It can cause respiratory issues like allergies & asthma to flare up when smelled. Both of these are things to take seriously! Buy a respirator from a home-improvement or hardware store, and use it.

Know what you're dealing with. Putting a molding or mildewy critter or critters in a freezer bag does not get rid of spores. It deactivates them. Don't keep your good figures next to the affected ones. Mold and mildew spores multiply. They travel on air currents once exposed to air.

Side tangent: For hard-plastic playset items, dunk them for several hours in a 50-50 solution of water and white vinegar in a tupperware container. Rinse them off after. The vinegar is a weak acid and it works.

Continue on to Section 4 and 5 for soiled and mildew/molded figures.

4. Round One, Fight! - The Bath

To clean your figures, first remove their clothing. Take a photo with your phone for reference on how dirty they are and whose clothes belong to whom. Otherwise, make a detailed note of the clothing with a notepad and pen/cil. You'll thank yourself later.

Wear your respirator. The sprays mentioned can agitate the lungs, even the laundry detergent! You can spray down the mildewed/dirty clothes with Lysol for a few minutes or a Febreeze Allergen-reducer spray if need be. Throw it into a clean sink with some laundry detergent. Let them sit for a few minutes to a few hours. The clothes are too small and fragile for a washing machine. The single-stitching and tiny buttons can pop right off. Hand-wash with super-warm to hot water, and press dry between layers of paper towels. Do a smell check to see if they still smell. Look for that mildew/mold smell. The nose knows!

If washing by hand doesn't work, you can get a small kitchen cooking pot, baking soda, and salt. Use two cups of baking soda with two cups of salt, but be aware that the colors might run- so this works best on whites that have grown dingy over time. Fill with enough water that the mixture is on the bottom of the pan; stir as need be. Let the clothing be boiled for a few hours. Let it sit until the water is cold, strain, and scrub down with Dawn degreasing dish detergent one last time under the shower or faucet. Make sure the salt and baking soda solution gets out of the fibers. Press dry again, wring the clothes out, and let air-dry on kitchen skewers/chopsticks until dry. Your clothes should be nice and fresh- it worked beautifully well for me.

Now, onto cleaning your figures. Look them over for the worst of the most-concentrated amount of mildew/mold smell or the damage. Those will be spots you need to focus on when doing the bath.

Put a tupperware bowl of decent size into your sink. Add some good laundry detergent. Do not use rubber gloves, latex, nitrile, etc. You need your fingertips to provide sensory input for this. Gloves would keep you from agitating the flocking enough and the surface of the gloves can also provide too much friction against the flocking. Agitate the water with a stick, chopstick, or by hand- whatever generates a lot of foam. The secret to this is not the water (which can loosen the adhesive). It's the foam!

Work swiftly. Apply some of the foam with your fingertips to the figure's flocking. Do this a few times, keeping an eagle-eye on your figures. If it starts to look like little bits of fuzz are pilling up (like fleece lint balls), use less pressure, do a brief rinse, pat dry with fresh paper towels immediately, and use a hair-dryer on low if need be in order to dry the figure off before the foam settles. I personally noted that it took about ten seconds for the flocking to be lathered up on dirt stains. Longer than that led to flocking loosening from the figures.

Evaluate your results when the figure is dry. You might not smell the mildew/mold as much over the soap's fragrance, but it will return if you didn't get it all. Let the figure air dry. To brighten snow white fur, you can use 10% benzoyl peroxide (acne treatments from drugstores). This also works on ivory-colored fur but can make lighter patches, so definitely keep them out of sunlight while using this treatment against dirt or tea stains, etc. 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!

5. Round Two, Fight!- Deodorizing

A friend helped me acquire an entire lot of figures from a Craigslist ad which was too good to pass up. The ad of course didn't say that they stunk of mildew. Two rounds of Lysol didn't help. Nor did a few shots of allergy-reducing spray! I packed the lot of figures into a box with layers of salt and baking soda between each one. ONLY do this if your figures are bone dry. Salt and baking soda become a crust into flocking fibers if damp- not what you want.

My findings were:

Febreeze Extra Strength: inadequate.
Seventh Generation Disinfectant: thymol-based; semi-effective.
Febreeze Air Anti-Allergen: it works!

6. Round Three, Residual Cleanup - Redressing

Hopefully by now your critters are fresh and clean-smelling, or packed under baking soda and salt. To remove these, just gently vacuum or wipe with your fingers. The figures will look pale until the baking soda clears out. Re-inspect them for any unwanted smells or spots you may have missed, then redress your figure/s. If you forgot or didn't make notes/photos of your figures dressed, feel free to look online to re-identify their proper clothing.

Keep the figures in plastic bags labeled with their clothing so you know who's who, make a written list, etc- do what you can to protect them. Everything you've done with them is hard work! Play with them, dust them off now and then, do whatever brings you joy! A bit of TLC now and then helps them survive time. Keep them away from pets, mold, mildew, and anything that can stain them. They might still fade under bright light.

7. Sylvanian Surgery- Replacing Parts

I've run into many critters whose tails were super-glued back on, suhc as Thistlethorn mice with vinyl-plastic-cord tails. The superglue does spread through flocking, for better or worse.

Sometimes a critter is missing a leg, arm, or tail. At worst, an entire body or a head! The good news is that the joints are flexible vinyl like the rest of the figures. Flocking loss might occur from applying force to your fingertips when pushing replacement limbs in/pulling or twisting out.

Whisker Replacement involves using a thimble to protect your finger, a needle, and a monofilament. Please refer to the following URL made by the lovely Lady Lollipop for a how-to on whiskers. https://www.ladylollipop.co.za/cheetahcustom.html

In the case of tails, people have successfully used pipe cleaners, shed/carded tufts of their pet's fur, wool, and pompoms with a bit of glue by hollowing out the hole on the rear-ends of their figures and replacing them. To dye them, a weak solution of acrylic paint and water can be applied and allowed to let dry before gluing.

8. Redoing Flocking

If at all possible, consider re-purchasing your figure and retiring your current one. This directly supports the manufacturer and helps keep their production; or, you can purchase another secondhand in decent shape from another person. I had a figure of sentimental value which led me to ask Epoch on how to repair it. They were super-friendly and explained that repair wasn't possible, but I still needed to try in order to sate my curiosity.

Re-flocking does not restore your figures to factory-fresh condition. The work you choose to do is to give the figures a bit of love and not to leave them in a sorry state after having them for so long. In some parts of the world, beloved toys are given funeral services - though, if you must dispose, do recycle, not bury. If you're a parent, I leave this up to your discretion.

If you're a collector, it's up to you.

That aside, you need to know that Sylvanian Families & Calico Critters' flocking is of different colors and even fiber type than commercially-available flocking powders available for purchase.
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).

Real talk: flocking is horrendously messy, gets everywhere, and can make you sick if you inhale it, for days. Using a respirator isn't an option! You need paintbrushes, toothpicks, and a gluing agent. I have tried acrylic-based Pros-Aide, PVA white bookbinder's PH glue, acrylic paint, a plastic bag inside a box as a liner, and an electrostatic applicator. I bought my Soft Flock out of nylon, though I suspect Sylvanian Families uses velvet flocking. The feel is different.
The fiber used by the manufacturer is longer and softer, but Soft Flock 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. Colder may even be better.

Stuff Required

Respirator (before you open the flocking packet, put it on)
Flocking powder
Box (to line with plastic bag which will help contain the fibers when working with them)
Plastic bag (don't plan on using this for anything else after- flocking fibers are tiny! Throw it out carefully and wash your hands a few times!)
Static applicator
White glue or acrylic-based Pros-Aide adhesive
Acrylic paint, toothpicks, paintbrushes (one small round, one wide round were what I used to apply the white glue)
Sylvanian Families or Calico Critter figure
Metal sewing needle or safety pin (to stick into the figure in an inconspicuous spot after gluing, but before applying static)

Preparing the Figure:

The flocking looks better as an overall figure application versus patched. Strip the figure of all its old fur if need be. Wash with warm to hot water, soak it in rubbing alcohol- both water and alcohol will help loosen the adhesive. Do not use acetone. It affects the vinyl figure.

Optional Base Coat With Acrylic:

You can repaint the bare figure with acrylic paint, but it might eventually scrape off, even under the flocking. This step is only necessary if you're doing a specific color. Ensure that you make any markings where you want them to be.

Apply Your Glue:

Ensure that your electrostatic applicator is loaded with flocking and ready to go. Apply glue over the section you're working with. If working with markings, you can apply the same light color even over darker areas (which Sylvanian Families/Calico Critters readily employs as a technique; ex, the rabbits with spots use the same light flocking even over the spots and ear-tip color underneath), unless you really want differently-colored flocking (which is what I did for my first re-flocking victim, a raccoon), or have special plans laid out for the critter's design.

Begin Flocking Process:
Insert the needle into the glue on the figure and ensure it stays in place. Keep children and pets away, if applicable. Turn on your static applicator and begin the flocking process.

After the flocking is on, DO NOT brush your figure off, do not 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. Don't mess up the work you did by touching it, especially if the glue is damp under the flocking but feels dry on surface level.

9. Customizing/Painting

Overall good advice which has been done before by many and generally agreed upon (which does or doesn't work):

DO NOT...
Do not use Sharpies. The pigment bleeds onto figures and can turn red, green, or other odd colors with time- on the plastic. The marker pigment will rub off on everything.

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.

On my previous version of this website, I was strongly against the use of RIT dye, and over time it seems I am erroneous in this consideration. I had speculated that the dye wouldn't take to the figures, but thanks to a kind friend, JonnysSylvania on the Sylvanian Families forum, has graciously allowed me to issue credit for their RIT-dye-altered Darkwing family (how clever- making bats from kangaroos!). Jonny's process was to use warm, NOT HOT, water with the dye mixed in- as much or as little as desired. Jonny then continually turned the Darkwing figures front-to-back-repeat a few minutes on and off for about twenty to forty minutes, and informed me that it takes longer for more saturated color to take to the fibers. After this, the figures were removed from the dye bath, and rinsed under the faucet before being set on paper towels (regular towels do stain from the dye). Also, the result was that the Darkwing family turned out beautiful and soft, unlike the process of the acrylic paints' drybrush technique. The dye around the joints- the neck, arms, legs, and tail- don't color as easily as the flocking is thinner where the joints connect and move. It is currently (2021) unknown how long the flocking and new color will hold up, and the Darkwing family is designed for display only. We can only speculate to keep the figures dry to prevent stains from forming anywhere. Jonny also noted that the newer the critter figure is, the more even the dye job will be, although older figures can still be given a new degree of life. I am grateful for Jonny's experimentation, and hope to try this technique out for myself some day!

DO...
If using dye is not your preferred comfort zone, some of us on the Sylvanian Families forum have used acrylic paint dry-brushing techniques, which you may want to try out! When using this method, do use many layers very lightly so as not to clog the fibers on the figure- you don't want unwanted paint clumps in the fibers as it won't come out and will harden them.

If using airbrushing, the acrylics can produce decent results, but please work at a low PSI as not to flood the figure with the water/acrylic mixture (and ensure your paint is properly mixed so it won't clog the machine, etc). Airbrushing works best for smaller details, but be mindful of using masking for the areas you want to paint and distance. It is worth noting that smaller areas work better than whole-body modifications with this.