Buying and Cleaning Vintage Linens
I am nuts for vintage linens, needlework, embroidery, fabric, and similar textile pieces, I think I’ve made that clear. One of my favorite things to do is shop for it, either online or at secondhand stores. For me, cleaning vintage linens goes hand in hand with buying them, and its what I’m thinking about when I’m deciding whether to buy it or not. I begin with the same basic process for any vintage fabrics and linens I buy, which I cover this in my “Sewing Clothes Into Quilts” class, but I wanted to talk a bit using an actual example. (Note: Definitions can vary, so to be clear, I am defining vintage in this post as 20 years or older.)
I have a huge appreciation for the amount of work that has gone into these vintage pieces (says the person who has yet to finish the piece I started several years ago). Any kind of embroidery or needlework done by hand takes time and care to create. Regardless of where or how I find them, a thoroughly cleaning is the first, most important step. My textile science classes in college are really where my fascination with this subject started. I am one of those weird people who actually LOVE the challenge of cleaning these pieces. Thoroughly cleaning a piece can really transform it!
I was the only eBay bidder on this one (yay!), which means I got it for a very reasonable price, frame and all. The piece arrived exactly as you see it in the photo above. I could tell from the listing that the colors were nice, and it felt like it could easily be more modern in the right frame and on the right wall.
Its easy to see this piece has been stored and framed for a very long time. The cloth seems to be traditional cross stitch Aida cloth, is most likely cotton. This tells me that washing it will create some shrinkage. I was always taught to hand wash finished projects stitched on Aida cloth because it allows the weave to shrink up a little bit. This one was not washed, the edges are unframed and very straight.
Out of the frame, the piece is visibly discolored and yellowed on the front, around the needlework. It was wrapped around a piece of mat board and taped to the back with masking tape. I’m assuming neither were acid free. The cloth didn’t seem to have dry rot, a form of mold that eats away at the fabric, leaving it unusable. (Something that is impossible to determine when buying online.) Onward!
There are often two lines of thinking when it comes to pieces like this. First, a reluctance to thoroughly clean vintage these pieces at all, for fear of completely ruining the piece. Or the second, it gets thrown into the regular household machine wash load. Neither option is a good one. I have washed many of pieces of needlework and the following method hasn’t failed me yet. I’ve never had an instance where the color of the embroidery thread or yarn bled (but always test a small corner area if you’re really worried).
How to Clean Vintage Linens
For cleaning a single piece like this, fill a sink or bucket with lukewarm water and a bit of shampoo. Yep, shampoo. It is a very gentle cleanser and, in my opinion, is kinder to natural fibers like cottons, wool, etc, than laundry detergent. Better than detergents like Woolite. (I hand wash my sweaters in shampoo as well.)
To give the piece a good, initial clean, submerge the cloth into the lukewarm sink water with just a teaspoon of shampoo, gently moving it around to saturate the cloth. Soak for 10 minutes, then rinse with lukewarm water.
Next, refill the sink again and add Retro Clean. This particular product is made for cleaning vintage cloth and needlework, and targets the discoloration and mildew stains, while not attacking the individual fibers as harsher detergents do. This is important, as vigorous manipulation and hard detergents can weaken the fabric. The key for this product to work well is exposure time, and I left this piece in the solution for 4 hours, occasionally moving it around in the water.
To rinse, let the water out of the sink and refill it with lukewarm water, but hold the cloth to the side. I often add a tbsp of white vinegar to the rinse water, a natural deodorizer. Gently move the piece around in the rinse water for about 5 minutes, then drain the sink, repeat if needed. Gently squeeze out excess water while its still in the sink.
Spread it flat on a clean white towel, roll it up in the towel, and press on the roll to help get rid of more excess water. Lastly, unroll it and dry it flat.
Here is how it looks after (above). Much brighter, the thread colors are vibrant, and most of the yellowed areas are now gone. It smells nice and clean and there are no residual harsh chemicals left in it to break it down over time. (Note: If a piece doesn’t clean up this well, I will repeat the process with a longer soak time.)
The final step is framing. Wrapped around a piece of mat board cut to size (11″ x 14″), acid free this time, and secured with acid-free tape. I love the tramp art feel of this frame.
Here’s another piece of vintage crewel work I’ve cleaned the same way. I hope you try it, it really works! Please get in touch if you have any questions, firstname.lastname@example.org.