Cloth Care : Washing Vintage Fabrics and Quilts

Conventional wisdom says to handle all old fabrics with great care, hand washing and/or dry cleaning when necessary, and I have used all methods of cleaning when it comes to my stash of vintage fabrics.  When I was younger, maybe high school age, I was really into finding vintage fabrics and turning them into clothing, accessories and other useful items.  I would carefully soak my finds in tubs of Woolite or Ivory Flakes, rinse, roll in a towel to wring out and hang to dry.


I have even used the dew method for cleaning old quilts and the sun method for removing stains.  The dew method involves laying your fabric or quilt out on a nice patch of grass in the evening to collect dew at dusk.  You leave it overnight and into the next day when it should be dried by the rising sun.  Supposedly this cleans the quilt.  I read this in an old craft book many, many years ago and only employed it a few times.  For me, the quilts just never seemed clean enough for comfort.  The sun method has worked pretty well and is a process I would use for items that I knew I would not be trying to really use. Something like a quilt that is only intended as a wall hanging or fabric to be framed, etc.  Basically you wash your fabric by whatever method you prefer, then you set the item out in the bright sun to be bleached.  In order to remove a specific spot you would fold the item up and under the spot to be removed and using paper, cardboard or other fabrics, block the area around the spot.  That way only the stain is exposed to the sun’s bleaching effect and in time should lighten up.


I have heard of also adding a few drops of very weak bleach and water or hydrogen peroxide and water mixtures to the stained area in order to speed the sun process up.  In the one time I tried the bleach version of this method I ended up with a much lighter surrounding fabric than I would have liked.  The bleach and sun removed the stain and the time worn beige of the fabric, making the repair obvious.  If you do this by mistake you can sometimes correct it by giving the area a swipe with a paintbrush full of tea or coffee stain.  Just enough to put the yellowy, beige color back into the fabric.


To be perfectly honest, I typically just put items into a washing machine on the delicate cycle with a cold water setting and let ‘er rip!  (No pun intended!)  After washing I hang to dry, or in the case of heavier or more difficult to hang items I will drape them over chairs on the back deck to dry.  Then it’s to the dryer for fluffing and wrinkle control and to the ironing board if the dryer does not remove the wrinkles well enough.


I know I just hit a cord with vintage fabric folks that can be heard as a collective scream all across the internet.  My straight forward approach is due to the fact that most of my stash of fabrics gets used in new creations.  I figure that if the original unused fabric cannot stand up to a gentle washing then it will not work in anything I make.  I want the new owner to be able to wear/use and then wash that item.


Over the years I have also come to grips with another aspect of loving and using vintage fabrics.  They will eventually wear out and I am ok with that.  Understanding that a time will come when they no longer hold up is just part of the fun of using them. (Cue the theme from the Lion King- Circle of Life).  They will disintegrate at some point, but as long as I enjoyed using them I am fine with them coming to that end.  For too long, some fun, gorgeous, funny and fabulous fabrics have just collected dust in my stash closet.  So, when the idea hits I try not to hesitate to get them out and in action!

Are you a Creator or a Curator?  How to do you use your vintage fabric stashes?



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