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Vintage Fabrics: How to Care for Old Textiles

Antique tablecloth - appliquéd embroidered windmill

Antique tablecloth - appliquéd embroidered windmill

The use of vintage fabrics can add interest to any home. Whether your decorating style is quirky, eclectic, classic, traditional, bohemian, minimalist, or organic, antique textiles lend a note of individuality and create a feeling of warmth.

Vintage fabrics transcend fashion trends and incorporate history into the home design. Antique table linens, curtains, lace, cushions, and quilts, when used properly, create an ambiance by giving a room a unique quality. As interior decorators add an authentic note to a room with architectural salvage, you can display vintage fabrics and antique textiles to personalize your home decorating style.

This article will share instructions and tips on the following topics:

  • Reusing damaged pieces
  • Building a vintage fabrics collection
  • Decorating using these fabrics
  • Washing vintage fabrics
  • Cleaning with Oxiclean
  • Storing your textiles
  • Cleaning antique quilts
1940s Tropical Barkcloth - lipcovers recycled Into curtains

1940s Tropical Barkcloth - lipcovers recycled Into curtains

How to Reuse Damaged Pieces

When deciding how to use vintage textiles, take a good look at the materials you have on hand. A complete piece should not be cut down or destroyed. Antique textiles are valuable both economically and historically, and they should be left intact to ensure their value.

However, damaged fabrics can be recycled for new uses. The quintessential use of recycled fabric is, of course, a patchwork quilt. If you have vintage fabric remnants, damaged sections of old clothing, slipcovers, or whatever, you can cut them up to create your own piece of patchwork.

Patchwork style does not have to be a large, bed-sized quilt but lends itself to a variety of uses. Small pieces of leftover material can be pieced together to make pillow covers, pillowcases, table runners, chair cushions, storage bags, baby blankets, or a cozy throw for a cold winter night.

  • You can cut down old curtains and slipcovers or stitch together old tea towels to create cafe curtains for the kitchen.
  • Make small curtains to hang in front of open shelves or under a sink.
  • Recycle small pieces of vintage fabric to use as a tablecloth for a small table.
  • Small pieces of antique fabric or a vintage handkerchief are great for making sachets.
  • Bolster covers: Cut two long strips slightly longer than the bolster pillow and sew, adding circular pieces at each end.
  • Decorative pillows look beautiful when made with old fabric or fabric pieces.
  • Wall hangings: You can display old fabric by draping over a rod, or framing a small piece, or a collection of old handkerchiefs.
  • Cloth napkins made from old textile scraps are a charming reusable alternative to paper napkins.
  • Cloth tote bags can be made from damaged vintage towels and tablecloths.
Antique Sampler

Antique Sampler

Building a Vintage Fabric Collection

Perhaps you have vintage fabrics that you have inherited from family members. In the old days, young women came into marriage with a well-stocked trousseau. From a tender age, young girls learned the domestic skills of needlework, creating beautiful hand made and hand-embellished textiles like table cloths, napkins, pillowcases, quilts, etc.

Such handmade textiles were high quality and durable so many of these fine antique textiles are in good condition today. Beautifully crafted textiles were often saved for special occasions. They lasted a long time and have been passed down through families as treasured heirlooms.

If you do not already own old fabrics, you can find them at:

  • antique shops
  • flea markets
  • yard sales
  • estate sales
  • on websites
  • at auctions

High-quality textiles, valuable due to their age and condition, are sold at high-end auction houses. Such museum-quality textiles should not be used for functional purposes but should be displayed and stored according to recommendations by experts.

1970s quilt - a Wwld mix of color

1970s quilt - a Wwld mix of color

How to Decorate Using Antique Textiles and Vintage Fabrics

Old textiles add interest to many of today's decorating styles. Just don't overdo it to create a fussy look. Your home may end up looking like an antique store.

  • Mix and match patterns in a similar color range: For instance, if you use reds you can mix stripes, florals, toile, and old plaids in shades of red.
  • Old textiles create warmth in a room full of new furniture, or a room with a minimalist style.
  • Plain colored walls make the best backdrop for using a variety of patterns and prints.
  • Use warm colors or bold prints in a room with white walls to create a cozy environment.
  • Bring out the vintage fabrics at special times of the year. Reds; red and green, or green and white add an old-time feel to your Christmas decorating scheme.
  • A few cushions or pillows made of vintage fabrics give an outdoor party and old fashioned look.
  • Use patriotic colors (red, white, and blue) for Memorial Day or Independence Day gatherings.
  • Weddings: Vintage fabrics give you the 'something old.' A small cushion for the ring bearer can be easily made from an old satin remnant.
  • Don't use too many different 1970s prints. Overdoing the bright colors and geometric patterns will create a jarring look.

To cover pillows or cushions, sew a flap so that you can remove the fabric for laundering. Or, you can finish the pillow off with old buttons, ribbons, or make ties. Use vintage edging on reproductions of vintage fabrics on pillows to add an authentic look.

Old embroidered tablecloth

Old embroidered tablecloth

How to Wash Vintage Fabric

If you need to clean a very old piece, it may be best to take it to a restoration or antique textile expert. You can find advise by calling your local museum or contacting a museum that features an antique textile collection.

  • Do not wash old fabrics in a machine or put them in the dryer.
  • Gentle hand washing is best for old fabrics.
  • Avoid harsh chemicals, detergents, and bleach when laundering antique or vintage textiles.
  • Use soap flakes or gentle cleaners like Dreft or Woolite.
  • Stained table linens can often be cleaned by just soaking in cold water.
  • Squeeze lemon juice onto a stain and set the fabric out in the sun to remove stains on white linens. Do not place printed fabrics in the sun; they may fade.
  • After washing, place the fabric between two towels. Gently roll and squeeze. Do not wring.
  • Dry flat.
  • If you must iron old fabric, use a pressing cloth between the iron and the vintage textile.
Old built Before cleaninq

Old built Before cleaninq

Is OxiClean Safe on Old Textiles?

When an old textile is very soiled or stained, sometimes the milder cleaners just won't do. Shown above is an old quilt that I had hanging on a backroom wall. It had not been cleaned for over 20 years and had been exposed to cigarette smoke.

I decided to try a bit of OxiClean and look at the difference. If you want to clean old fabric with OxiClean, here is what to do:

  • Determine the kind of fabric you have. Do not use OxiClean on wool, silk, acetate, older rayons, or tailored garments of the past.
  • Dissolve the OxiClean in warm water in a tub.
  • Add the fabric and fill to cover.
  • Allow to soak for 30 minutes.
  • Gently swish the fabric in the water.
  • Rinse with cool water.
  • Do not twist or wring, but gently squeeze out water.
  • Dry flat.

You can see the result in the picture below. What a difference!

Old quilt after cleaning

Old quilt after cleaning

How to Store Vintage Textiles

When not in use, store antique fabrics carefully, Never keep them in the basement where humidity can cause mildew.

  • Store old textiles in a dark place that is not subject to temperature extremes (like an attic crawlspace).
  • Roll, do not fold old fabric. Folding puts wear and strain on the fibers and may weaken them.
  • Store old dresses or blouses by hanging on a padded hanger or rolling in acid-free tissue.
  • Wrap delicate fabrics in acid-free tissue paper, roll, and store.
  • Or wrap in unbleached muslin if you want to keep an old piece of material in a cardboard box or wooden drawer.
  • Do not allow antique textiles to come into contact with wood. If storing vintage fabrics in a cedar chest, or press closet, line shelves with paper or wrap fabric in acid-free tissue paper.
  • Do not store in plastic bags or boxes. Old textiles will last longer with some air circulation
  • Storing old fabrics in a cardboard box is okay if you wrap fabric in acid-free tissue or muslin, or if the box is made of acid-free cardboard.
  • Add a dried lavender sachet (you can make a lavender sachet from an old scrap of fabric). Lavender is a natural insect repellent. Plus it will make your antique textiles smell great! Besides, that's how they stored fabrics in the old days!
1940s tablecloth

1940s tablecloth

Antique quilt circa 1886

Antique quilt circa 1886

How to Clean Antique Quilts

  • Inspect and repair before cleaning.
  • Do not dry clean or machine wash - both the machine and dry cleaning chemicals can damage old fibers.
  • Air out.
  • Vacuum: Tie a thin cloth over the vacuum hose attachment and pass lightly over the quilt without allowing the vacuum to come into contact with the quilt.
  • If you must wash, check for color fading by moistening a white cloth and rubbing over each section. If color transfers onto the white cloth, do not launder.
  • Do not wash in hard water as it could cause mineral stains.
  • Hand wash in cold water, in a bathtub with 1/2 cup of white vinegar and Woolite or Dreft. Move around gently. Drain, rinse, repeat until the water is clear.
  • Place wet quilt on a large, white sheet outside. Turn frequently to dry evenly.
Mid 20th Century House Dress

Mid 20th Century House Dress

Questions & Answers

Question: My brother and I have inherited multiple quilts made by our great grandmother in the 1960s. They were never used but unfortunately, they were stored folded in plastic bags within a cedar chest (with mothballs!!). Any recommendations for cleaning the yellow fold lines?

Answer: Yellowed lines can be spot cleaned with a mild solution of OxiClean and water. Rinse well, by hand and dry out on the lawn. You can also make a saltwater solution to clean the whole quilt. Dilute 1/4 cup sea salt per one gallon of warm water. Rinse and lawn dry. Lemon juice in warm water can work as well. Rinse and lawn dry.

Do not use bleach. Do not dry clean. Overexposure to bright sunlight may bleach out bright colors.

The reason to spread the quilt out on the lawn is so that the fabric is not pulled or stressed by hanging on a line.

© 2010 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 13, 2017:

Hi Brenda - wow, that is really old! Antique garments should not be stored in plastic, on hangars, or in a cedar chest. Avoid humidity, excess dryness, sunlight, heat or cold. Do not store your dress in an attic or basement. Remove any metal hooks or buttons. Store in an acid free box, wrapped in unbleached muslin. When you fold the gown, pad sleeves and folds with unbleached muslin. Handle while wearing white cotton gloves. Do not attempt to clean this yourself or take to a regular dry cleaner. Antique garments need the special attention of a conservator which is quite expensive. You might consider contacting a museum for more information. There are many books available on the conservation of old textiles. This sounds like quite an interesting project. I once owned a black lace bodice from the 1890s. It was in perfect condition and was purchased at a thrift shop. How I let that get out of my hands....but I was just a stupid teenager at the time. When I think of all the vintage garments I used to have, I could kick myself. But having such a precious keep sake is wonderful. I am glad that you have the sense to cherish this wonderful dress.

I am not sure what you mean by deterioration. If you mean that pieces are missing or shredded due to dry rot, there is not much you can do to reverse it. What's gone is gone. But you may succeed in preserving what is left. Good luck to you!

Brenda on July 12, 2017:

I have my grandmothers wedding dress from 1800's. It is navy satin with lace inlays. Some is deteriorating and was wondering what to do

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on October 22, 2014:

Fl;ourishAnyway - those old homemade quilts are so beautiful and wonderful keepsakes. They must be very precious to your family. For repair, I'd Google Textile Restoration or Textile Conservation and see if there are any professionals in your area. Also, the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals may be able to refer you to someone in your area. Good luck, I hope you find someone to help you. But I can't say what it would cost.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 21, 2014:

My father's mother died tragically when he was a teen and the only things he was left of her are several homemade quilts. The Oxyclean suggestion will be very helpful in cleaning one of them. Do you have any advice for where to find a qualified person to repair another of them that's damaged/torn and how much is a reasonable price? It's a twin-sized, simple log cabin block style pattern with mismatched fabrics (because the family was very poor). Thanks for any help you can provide. It would mean the world to him if I can help him with this.