I started a collection of vintage linens last year. So far I’ve amassed a buffet drawer-ful of tea towels, delicate doilies, lacework, and my prize, a 40s-era tablecloth in aqua with hand embroidered flowers. Lovely. When I see a pile of textiles peeking out of a drawer or on a bottom shelf in one of the local antique markets, I am compelled to investigate. I have to rifle through and unfold everything, admire any handiwork and, of course, check for stains.
In my few months of collecting, I’ve done a little research on how to find and care for vintage linens. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
Finding vintage linens:
-Scour thrift shops. You’ll get the best prices there. On the flip side, you won’t get any background on the item and you’re more likely to encounter stains and excessive wear.
-Visit your local antique shops and flea markets. Sellers who rent booths in an antique store or at a market generally keep their wares streamlined to offer the best of what they’ve come across at estate sales, tag sales, etc (antique shops more so than flea marketers).
You may get some more information about the item and you’ll find less stained and worn linens there. Also, many sellers at antique shops know how to care for vintage textiles and you’ll come across less stained and worn pieces. And once you find a seller you like, you know where to find more of the pieces you’re looking for.
-If the owner is the seller, be sure your linens are coming from a non-smoking home. If it doesn’t say in the item description, ask. You’ll regret buying anything that smells like smoke, no matter the fabric. That stuff is difficult to clean.
-Ask how the seller stores her wares. As discussed below, lots of exposure to sunlight, as well as being wrapped in red tissue paper, or, say, kept in a spot near the seller’s cat box–all bad.
-Make sure you can see the item clearly from all angles in the photos. If you can’t, ask the seller to examine the item for stains for you, or ask them to email you better pics.
-As with all items, buying on ebay and other bidding sites will get you more product for less money, but not necessarily the quality of a well-curated online shop like the ones you find on etsy. Incidentally, both are great resources for vintage linens.
Storing and caring for vintage linens:
-Store your linens in a dry spot outside of direct sunlight. As with any fabric, consistent exposure to the sun will fade and/or distort the color. Keeping linens in the dark will preserve their color.
I did recently buy some pieces that I intend to frame and hang on the wall. They are delicate lace pieces and colorful, and since I don’t want the colors to fade over time, I’ll be rotating them with other art to give them a break from the light. It’s the best idea I could come up with, but if you have one, I’d love to hear it! Vintage linens make great, affordable art.
Linens should be kept away from moisture, so a sealed storage space is best–a cabinet, trunk, or drawer will do. But keep them out of the bathroom you shower in. The steam will will affect them, fading the color and even distorting the size, stretching and shrinking your linens over time. Take extreme care if you plan to store them in an attic or basement.
-Don’t fold your linens when you put them away. Creases will wear into the fabric. I don’t recommend ironing creased linens either because you never know how the heat will affect them. If you’ve found a way to do it well, let me know. I have a couple of tea towels that could use a flattening.
Instead, roll your linens into a cylinder.
-Wrap each linen separately. White tissue paper is best. Colored tissue will, over time, bleed onto the fabric. And if wrapped up together, fabrics of different colors will bleed onto each other.
-Stack linens horizontally, not vertically. The weight of other linens will smoosh (for lack of a better word) and crease the pieces underneath.
**Forget everything I just said. Go ahead and use your vintage tablecloth. Collections aren’t meant to be kept away where you can’t see them. Amiright?
If you’re not concerned with wear and tear, vintage textiles make great project pieces.
Do you have a textile collection? If you have any tips, do share!