As collecting, displaying and decorating with handwork and textiles becomes more important, “perfect” vintage textiles are becoming much more difficult to find. Chances are, when you are able to locate a perfect piece, it will be extremely expensive. Less than perfect pieces of vintage embroidery, clothing, doilies, quilts and coverlets are very easy to find, and are much less expensive than their “mint condition” counterparts. Vintage pieces have also stood the test of time, and are very durable. Frequent laundering has made these pieces luxuriously soft, and fading and minor flaws only add to their charm. You can make a variety of new projects from these slightly flawed pieces.
Part of the fun of working with vintage pieces is selecting just the right items for a project. I like to maintain a stash of linens in my studio. That way, when I am ready to work on a project, the right items are on hand. Most of the items I use are one-of-a -kind, so it is difficult to go out and purchase to order. I generally have to buy an item when I see it, and save it until I need it. Here are some things to keep in mind as you shop.
Things to look for:
Look for items that have are in fair to good overall condition. Examine the piece carefully and check for stains, yellowing, or tears. You should also smell any piece you are considering buying. Some odors, like the slight mustiness of storage, will come out. Others, like smoke and mildew, will not. If the piece is in less than perfect condition, look for salvageable areas. Small stains and tears on a handkerchief render it unusable, but the same small tears and stains on a bedspread leave plenty of usable material for crafting and sewing projects. Don’t be distracted by perceived flaws like incomplete trim or missing buttons. These items are not for use as-is, and their less than perfect shape allows you to cut into them without guilt, and also allows you to purchase items at a great savings.
Some specific information on the various types of vintage linens, and some pointers for selecting each:
Hankies are great for making smaller projects, or for adding a splash of color to larger ones. Handkerchiefs come in a huge variety of colors and styles. They can be embroidered by hand or machine, printed with floral or other patterns, or trimmed with crocheted or lace edges. Children’s and souvenir hankies are also available, but are prized by collectors–they are often more expensive than “regular” styles. When you shop for handkerchiefs, look for pretty, clean pieces in colors you like. While a perfect crochet or lace edge is nice and gives more options, hankies with imperfect edges can often be used for sewing projects.
Be on the lookout for sets or singles. Sets of three to four hankies can sometimes be found in the original packaging. If you see a handkerchief with your initial, or the initial of someone close to you, buy it! These will come in handy when you need to add a personal touch to a project.
Hankies are still a great bargain. I have spent anywhere from .25-5.00 on a single handkerchief, depending on the quality and how much I liked it. Buying hankies in a “lot” at auction often yields a lower per-piece price.
Embroidered accessories like placemats, table runners, pillowcases, and napkins were often made for home décor. They almost always feature “pretty” images like flowers, animals, and monograms, and add a great handmade touch to your vintage linen projects. They can be used for small to medium sized projects, or to add a special touch to larger ones. Embroidered accessories can be purchased in groups, or as single items. Buy embroidered accessories in matching groups if you are planning a quilt, or a series of items that match. If you are working on a single project, like a pretty accent pillow or accessory, a single piece is all you need.
“Cutter” Quilts, Bedspreads and Sheets
Quilts, bedspreads, and sheets work well for any sized project. They are large enough for covering furniture, making or backing new quilts, or creating matched sets of items. When you purchase these items, check the entire surface for flaws. Most “cutter” or craft” quality items will have some flaws, usually small tears or stains you can work around.
Making a quilt takes a huge amount of time and commitment. Sadly, the art of quilting was unappreciated for many years–and many great quilts suffered as a result. Poor treatment, inadequate storage methods, and shoddy care have damaged many quilts beyond repair. While quilts damaged in this manner may be unusable for the originally intended purpose, they are perfect for crafting. Damaged, or “cutter” quilts are sold whole, in pieces, or as tops only. Look for cutter quilts at independent quilt stores, quilt shows, as well as the venues listed below. Most of the cutter quilts in my collection were purchased for under $50, and large scraps can be found in the $10.00-20.00 range from most sources.
“Orphan” quilt blocks can also be found from a wide variety of sources. Orphan blocks are single quilt blocks, or a small set of quilt blocks that were never incorporated into a larger project. The original quilt maker may have decided not to complete the project, or may have leftover blocks when she was finished. Either way, the resulting blocks, or “orphans” work great for smaller projects.
Bedspreads are wonderful to work with. They provide a great quantity of fabric, for a minimal price. The types I prefer to purchase are either vintage cotton printed spreads, or cotton chenille spreads. A full sized chenille bedspread in “craft” condition will yield about four yards of fabric, for about $20, or about $5.00 per yard. New chenille of the same quality is about $25 per yard–a substantial difference in price!
Sheets and pillowcases
Vintage sheets and pillowcases are usually soft cottons, often with pretty vintage floral patterns or ticking stripes. Sheets and pillowcases are great for a variety of projects–especially when soft, draping, fabric is a must. Use a pretty vintage sheet as a backing for a quilt, or as the lining for a jacket. Expect to pay under $3.00 each for sheets and pillowcases in good condition. Many of the sheets in my collection were purchased for under $1.00 each.
Vintage clothing works well for a variety of projects. Clothing items are especially suited to memory projects. Use “special” items–baby clothing, flannel shirts, ties, scraps of dresses and aprons–even t shirts–to personalize your projects. Don’t forget the details–lace and embroidered collars and cuffs, pretty buttons, smocked dress fronts, etc. Use special clothing pieces from your own family, or snip accessories from vintage finds.
Things to avoid:
Your eyes and nose are the best judges for what to avoid–stains and odors are the big culprits with old linens. Be sure to give everything a good looking over. Unfold and examine any item you are interested in purchasing. Minor flaws can be worked around, but you need to look the whole piece over to be sure it is in useable condition. If you have a chance to handle the item, crush the fabric lightly in your fingers. If it crackles at all, do not purchase it. Lastly, give it a sniff. Smoke, water, and mildew odors are next to impossible to get out. Avoid items that are damaged beyond repair either by age, poor storage, bad odors, staining, or major flaws in embroidery.
Watch out for linens that have been excessively starched. They may feel crisp when you purchase them, but starching can make the fibers brittle and too fragile to work with. Items that smell of bleach may be a very bright white but often retain the bleach smell after repeated washings. Heavy use of bleach also damages the fibers, often resulting in damage when the fabric is washed or exposed to sunlight.
I also avoid using true antiques or collector’s items. Save these for display to accent your creations. Not only are antique or collectible quality pieces expensive, they are usually too beautiful to cut into. There are so many less than perfect items out there, I prefer not to cut into an item that is in collectible condition. This is a personal preference, so if you find the “perfect” pieces for your project, and don’t mind the extra expense, go for it!
Although many less than attractive linens are salvageable, true “uglies” should be avoided. Unusable items include linens with ugly or harsh colors, awful fabrics, lumpy texture, huge, unattractive patterns, and fabrics that feel terrible to the touch. If you do not like the initial piece–color, texture, embroidery etc, you will not like the finished project! It is sometimes hard to decide which piece to start with–these are often one of a kind items, so some reluctance to cut into a piece is normal. Don’t work with pieces you don’t care for just because you don’t want to wreck the “good” stuff.