Working With Vintage Cloth

I have been working with vintage cloth pretty much exclusively for quite a while now. (And at the rate my stash is growing, even the new cloth will be vintage by the time I get to it.) I still have a bit of a thing for Alexander Henry patterns, and contemporary Japanese prints, but I'm trying to limit acquisitions to old cloth.

Jude Hill has some particularly evocative writing about old cloth.
I thought I would share some of the things I've learned - working with delicate, worn fabric possesses some different challenges.

1. Launder with care. Old cloth may come to you with stains or musty odors. First, check for the strength of the fabric. Run your fingers over it, gently pull at any suspiciously worn spots. If it feels like it's going to give way, it doesn't mean the cloth isn't usable, but it will need special care. I give thin, tender or delicate fabrics a soak in a basin with Orvus paste ( I get a big jar from a veterinary supply shop) suds, rinse with a minimum of handling, and roll it in a towel before drying flat.

Cloth that seems strong just goes in the washer and dryer - if it's going to fall apart, I might as well know - then I will proceed to step 2.

Cotton loses its strength over time, especially in dry conditions. It will give way first along creases and folds, which is why it's recommended that quilts be refolded a different way each time. This is also why it's good to check the spools of thread you inherited from Great-Aunt Margie before using them to sew - otherwise you might be frustrated with the thread breaking on you too often.

2. Reinforce. When I have a piece that is very shabby but I still want to use, I might back it with new cloth. I prefer cotton batiste or muslin - any thin, firm cloth will do. If I'm not concern about archival quality, I might (horrors) use Heat'n'Bond or fusible web to fuse the layers. If it's something I think I might sell (and I do have a few things in museum collections) I will use tiny handstitches to tack the fabrics together.

3. Emphasize the signs of age. I love to highlight a piece of cloth that has been mended. It feels like a way of honouring the care that someone before me took, and I believe mended cloth has the power to speak. it might tell of thrift, or poverty, or love. Just as the lines on our faces reflect our experience, so do the signs of wear on cloth.

Alternatively, you might want to:
4. Embellish or cover up the flaws. Holes and stains can be embroidered or appliqued over. Sometimes top dyeing can even out or enrich discolouration.

5. Know your fibres. Fabrics age in different ways. Cotton, as mentioned, tends to weaken and break along folds, whereas silk just rots - the whole fabric can go. Wool and other protein fibres, especially angora, are susceptible to moths and felting. Along with knowledge of the nature of different fibres goes:

6. Appropriate care. Light, heat and moisture are the biggest enemies of cloth. Think of how window curtains will fade and even fall apart on the side of the fold that is exposed to light, while the side facing in will be okay. Protect finished pieces if you want them to last - rotate the quilt collection, hang embroideries away from direct light.

And enjoy the character and imperfections. Appreciate the enduring nature of cloth. Become sensitive to the organic life force of cloth.


  1. This is interesting. I was particularly struck by your comment about emphasizing the mending in old cloth. Also, a comment about silk rotting--I may have this wrong, and you probably know more than I do. But I remember reading that silk that rots is a product of the late 19th and early 20th century when it was treated with some sort of chemical in the dyes or processing that causes deterioration. Older silk lasted much longer. Also, apparently linen lasts longest of all. Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. hey thanks, and great post. i have stack of old batiks and ikats from thailand , bali and burma. my son bought them while traveling this year. they were shipped by boat and i cannot describe the smell when i opened them. so far so good, all are in good condition. i will be using them soon!

  3. Yes, old silk was often "weighted" with metallic salts to make it seem heavier and of better quality. These salts cause the fabric to disintegrate. But any silk, being a natural protein, will degrade over time, particularly if it is exposed to light and/or moisture. Silk dresses are especially vulnerable in the underarm area, where the metallic salts of anti-perspirants can cause damage.

  4. Great list of considerations, Heather! A comment though: overdyeing old fabrics can sometimes cause stains that you didn't notice before to stand out like sore thumbs. And sometimes it's hard to choose an appropriate dye if you aren't sure of the fibre content. Speaking from experience here...

  5. Anonymous3:18 PM

    Thanks a lot for that post! I brought some old Sarees from India, your advise will be very helpfull if I ever make them into something.


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