Sewing with Vintage Fabrics

retro posh

My Seamwork Akita top is finished, and I’m busy editing the video. I’ll be publishing it on my YouTube channel on January 30. Click the button below to hop over and subscribe so you can quickly find all my videos.

As the pandemic has worn on (and worn us all out) I have spent more time watching videos on YouTube. I even signed up for a premium account, so I could skip all those pesky advertisements. I am particularly fascinated by the channels that feature sewists who focus on historical garments and costuming. If I suddenly start showing up in 19th century dresses, you will know why.

Photo Credit - Albany Institute of History & Art: Raspberry Dress with White Beads, Marie and Josephine Virfolet, New York City, ribbed silk, silk satin, glass seed beads, 1867, gift of the estate of Maurice Moore, in memory of his wife, Mary DeCamp Banks Moore, 1972.95.7 Photograph by Michael Fredericks

One reason I love using thrifted and vintage fabrics is that the textile industry is, sadly, a significant environmental polluter – both in the production of fabrics and garments and in the amount of waste that is produced by unused/unwanted fabrics and garments. Although I do buy new fabrics for specific projects, if I can get my hands on fabrics that might otherwise end up in a landfill, that is what I prefer to sew with. Below I have outlined some basic tips for working with vintage fabrics.

Let me know if you find these useful or if you have any questions!

Vintage Fabric Tips

What does “vintage” mean? Generally, any fabric produced more than 30 years ago is considered vintage. Fabric produced more than 100 years ago is considered antique.

1. Know your fiber content and care requirements.

Vintage fabrics are typically wovens such as cotton, linen, wool, silk, polyester, or rayon. How you iron or launder the fabric is dependent on the fiber and fabric. Always test a swatch before laundering or ironing a piece of vintage fabric!

a.      Most cotton and linen fabrics can take a hot iron and warm water.

b.      Polyesters and rayons require a cool iron and cold water, although some may need to be dry cleaned.

c.      Wools tolerate a warm iron with light steam but require a cold-water wash or dry cleaning.

d.      Silks can take a warm iron and may or may not be cold-water washed. Some silks, especially multi-colored silks, may need to be dry-cleaned.

e.      Vintage fabrics with texture usually need to be dry cleaned.

f.       For washable vintage fabrics, handwashing is recommended. Machine washing on a gentle cycle with a detergent for delicate materials may be possible, but you need to test a swatch first.

g.      You don’t need special soaps or detergents. Products like Dreft or Woolite work well. Fels Naptha laundry soap bar can be used for stains on washable fabrics, especially cottens and linens.

h.      Machine drying is not recommended for any vintage fabrics. Cottons, linens, and sturdy polyesters can by hang dried. Delicate polyesters, rayons, wools, and silks should be dried flat.

i.       Any fabrics with embroidery, beading, or other embellishments require extra testing and care. Velvets should always be dry cleaned.

2. Know the age and condition of the fabric.

For example, a 1960s polyester can still be used confidently in a garment if it is in good condition, meaning no holes or worn spots, while a 1910s cotton is probably best used for decorative projects that won’t get a lot of use. Vintage wools should be inspected for damage, including moth damage. Wools in excellent condition can be used in most any project. Wools with damage can be felted or used in decorative projects. Silks vary in quality and condition, so inspect each piece and decide how it might best be used.

3. Test for colorfastness.

Don’t skip this if you plan to wash or wear the fabric! A 30-year-old polyester is probably colorfast. A 60-year-old silk may not be colorfast. Follow these simple steps to check for colorfastness:

a.      Cut a small swatch from the fabric.

b.      Fill a small bowl with warm water and add one or two drops of detergent.

c.      Add the fabric swatch to the bowl and swish it around.

d.      Let the swatch sit for 30 minutes.

e.      Remove the swatch and lay it down on a white paper towel or white cotton cloth.

f.       Inspect the water to see if it is discolored by the fabric dyes.

g.      After 10 minutes, inspect the paper towel or cloth to see if any dye bled from the swatch.

h.      If the swatch was multi-colored, see if the colors bled into each other.

If the water is clear and no dye has bled onto the white paper towel or cloth, the fabric passes the colorfastness test.

4. Use an appropriate thread.

a.      All-purpose polyester thread works for cottens, linens, polyesters, and rayons.

b.      However, for a true vintage project, use cotton thread for vintage cotton and linen fabrics.

c.      Use silk thread for vintage silks and wools. Silk thread is soft yet durable and won’t damage the delicate natural fibers of vintage silks and wools.

5. Store vintage fabrics properly.

a.      If you will be storing the fabric for an extended period, wash it before storing; this ensures any oils and dirt have been removed. If the fabric can’t be washed (a velvet or wool, for example), use your vacuum, and give it a good once over. Beaded or embroidered fabrics shouldn’t be vacuumed and may not be washable.

b.      Fold fabrics gently or roll them to prevent creases. Rolling is the preferred method for the oldest, most delicate fabrics since creases cause friction that can damage the fibers.

c.      Store your vintage fabrics in a drawer. Tightly sealed wood boxes, plastic tubs, or plastic bags are not recommended; all of these contain chemicals and odors that may seep into and damage the fabric. In addition, fabrics need to breath.

d.      Wrap fabrics in unbleached, washed, 100% cotton muslin. Tissue paper and other types of wrapping papers are not recommended.

e.      Once wrapped, the bundle can be placed in an unsealed plastic or cello bag as long as the fabric does not touch the plastic. (Tip: An old cotton pillowcase works even better!)

f.       Discourage moths and moisture by maintaining a clean, dry, temperature-controlled environment. Airconditioned and heated homes with temps between 65 and 75 degrees are suitable home storage conditions.

g.      For best results, take your beautiful fabrics out of storage every once in a while and admire them! They will benefit from an occasional airing out.

When the video comes out next week, I will also have converted these tips into a printable that you can keep handy in your sewing room.