Antiques 101: 10 Tips for Collecting Vintage Linens

Combining form and function, vintage linens are an inexpensive way to add a little character and charm to any room in your home.

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

Photo By: Marian Parsons

What to Collect Now

Antique linens and textiles have long been on the list of desirables for collectors thanks to their quality workmanship, versatility, and usefulness even in a modern household. Which textiles are "hot" in the market changes through the years, though. Which ones are hot right now? Look for grain & feed sacks, European textiles (flax, hemp, linen), quilts from the 1800’s-1930’s, ticking stripe, monogrammed and embroidered linens and woven coverlets. Quality is key: select pieces that are in good, useable condition.

Where to Find Antique Linens

Antique markets and stores are a great place to start but if you’re looking for something specific, an online antique marketplace or auction will give you access to a larger inventory from all over the world. There's an abundance of linens available from the 1940s-1960s that can be bought for pennies, so be specific about what you’re looking for and don’t overpay for common vintage linens.

Check for Condition

The desired condition of antique linens is a matter of preference but if you intend to use them, they need to be intact enough to survive washing. Some staining is common with vintage linens but holes, tears, threadbare areas and fraying can be signs of deteriorating fabric and an indication that a piece isn’t going to be functional for long. If you’re looking for material for sewing projects or "cutters", these imperfections can result in a deeply discounted price. Just make sure you have the sewing ability, the time, and the inclination to follow through on that project.

Cleaning Tips

Some textiles will be washed and pressed by the dealer, but oftentimes, they're sold as is. Old fabrics and linens are often musty, dirty, stained and/or yellow. As a rule of thumb, I will not purchase a piece if it can’t be thrown in the wash. To remove stains: Soak the textile in a tub filled with hot water and an oxygen-activated detergent (not bleach). Keep draining and adding fresh water and detergent until the water is clean (or relatively clean). Wash in the machine on the delicate cycle, then dry on low or line dry. Drying linens in the grass on a sunny day will also help with whitening. Smaller linens can be boiled on the stove in water with a little bit of vinegar added to get them extra white and super soft. Note: Some antique fabrics were dyed using vegetable dye and/or indigo. In those cases, the dyes might run when washed. If you’re washing a colorful textile, like a quilt or fabric, try soaking one corner in a small bowl of water and detergent to test colorfastness.

Hardworking Fabrics

The best thing about antique linens is that they’ve survived a long time, demonstrating their durability and longevity. These days, a terrycloth towel rarely looks nice after 5 years of use, but antique hemp and linen will remain durable and beautiful through decades of daily use. Don’t be afraid to put these textiles to the test.

Which to Choose for Daily Use

Old textiles that are ideal for using daily are linen towels, pillow cases, napkins and quilts. Check to make sure the fibers are strong and in good condition, then enjoy the pieces you collect by interacting with them regularly.

Reinvent, Reuse and Upcycle

Sadly, some antique textiles are too far gone to use as they were originally intended. Those pieces are perfect candidates to reinvent into something useful. Coverlets and quilts can become pillows, upholstery, tote bags and even pin cushions. Even the smallest scraps can be put to use as keychains, Christmas ornaments or sachets.

Find New Purpose for Old Pretties

There are some antique textiles that are beautiful but seemingly useless by today’s standards. What do you do with an antique petticoat or an old feed sack? These can be repurposed into beautiful and unique pillow covers. If you can sew a straight line, you can turn an old monogrammed tea towel into a pillow that'll add a lovely finishing touch to any space. And, don’t feel bad about cutting and sewing pieces like these. If you can make them useful, go for it.

Display Creatively

There are many creative ways to display antique textiles. Of course, tea towels, napkins and tablecloths look beautiful in a neat stack on an open shelf, but you can also use them as wall art. Put antique baby dresses on hangers or mount them in a shadow box. Hang a quilt or coverlet on a specialty quilt hanger. Frame an old piece of tatting or needlework. Displaying linens in this way brings rich texture and character to an interior space and is also a sentimental way to put family heirlooms on display.

Prevent Sun Fading

In addition to keeping an eye out for rips, tears and deteriorating fabric, sun fading is a concern with antique linens, especially colorful fabrics and quilts or delicate materials like silk. Keep old and valuable pieces out of direct sunlight or, better yet, get UV coatings on your windows to protect all of your furnishings and textiles.

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