Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Thrifting & Caring for Vintage Textiles

Last weekend, I purchased this pair of enchanting crewelwork fairies. Hidden under a pile of debris in a secondhand shop, they begged me to take them home and I am so glad I heeded their call. They need a little freshening up, but once that is done, they will find a welcome home in one of my children's bedrooms.

There were a few slight discolorations, but the pieces looked to be in good condition otherwise. Still, before I did anything, I consulted with a friend and former colleague, Joie Shirk-Brasington. She is a gifted seamstress and needleworker, and is very knowledgeable about the history of, as well as cleaning and caring for, vintage textiles. In response to my questions, she shared with me a series of articles that she wrote for her local museum newsletter on this very subject. I am sharing with you a slightly edited and abridged version of her articles, in the hopes that it will help you properly care for your heirloom linens and textiles.

All items need to be immediately assessed before welcoming them into your collection. The first thing to do is determine what type of fiber you are dealing with. Different fibers require different handling and care. If the textile is pre-1930's, in all probability it is a natural fiber, such as silk, cotton, linen, or wool. Rayon and man-made cellulose fibers weren't developed until the 1880s and were not manufactured commercially until the 1920s. Synthetic and man-made fibers like nylon weren't invented until the late 1930s.

Once you have determined what fiber your textile is made of, you need to carefully check the item for signs of mold, pest infestation and damage, and soiled spots.

Any textile that has an orange, red, black, or grey spot on it may have been exposed to mold spores. These stains are unfortunately permanent.

If the fabric is wool, it may carry the larvae of the clothes moth or carpet beetle. If you spot the carcasses of these bugs, or small, clean holes, then the item is contaminated. The wool must be processed to rid it of these pests. Do not purchase items with any signs of infestation, unless of course, you absolutely must have it! At the very least, inspect every item before purchasing so that you will know what course of action must be taken before adding it to your collection.

Once you have determined that there are no infestations, a gentle cleaning is in order. Always keep in mind that the least amount of intervention is best, in order to protect the old and delicate fibers of vintage textiles. Never place any vintage textile in the washing machine or dryer! Also avoid dry cleaning old woolens because this process depletes the wool of its natural lanolin, thereby making it more brittle. Rather, with wool or silk, place the item on a table and give it a light vacuuming with a screen support to avoid sucking up any frayed or fragmented areas. Make sure the suction is as light as possible.

If the fabric is linen or cotton, give the item a soak in the tub with a gentle soap and cool to lukewarm water. Dish soap or Orvus Paste will work well. Never use harsh detergents that use bleach. Give it a gentle rubbing to remove discolorations or spots, but only if the item is in stable condition. Next, rinse it two or three times to remove all soap residue. Hang to dry, supporting the article evenly and with adequate support so as to not stress any particular part of the textile. Never wring the article. If it is extremely delicate, you can lay flat to dry.

Hopefully, these tips will help you select and clean vintage textiles of all kinds. Joie has been kind to also offer up some suggestions for ongoing care and storage of vintage textiles, and I will publish those in a separate post.

As for those crewelwork fairies that I purchased--I freed them from their ugly frame prisons, carefully separated them from their cardboard backings, gave them a gentle bath to remove the glue residue and dust, and hung them evenly to dry. They look pretty amazing now. I need to find pretty  new frames for them before hanging them up in my daughter's room. She's been having a spate of bad nightmares lately, so I'm hopeful these pictures will give her many happy dreams of a woodland fairyland instead.

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