Sunday, January 26, 2014

Tips, Facts: Success with Vintage Textiles

One of Panoply's most popular resale items is our vintage textiles (we use the word linens interchangeably). We love vintage linens and will purchase in bulk any opportunity we get.  Generally, our success in selling our linens is in the pains & pleasure we take in preparing them for an attractive sale.  It is a multi-step process.  I want to share with you some tips in how we prepare our linens to ensure selling them, consistently and successfully.  These tips also apply even if you purchase vintage textiles for personal use and don't resell.  I've summarized products mentioned at the end of the post, for your convenience.
Vintage christening gown fashioned from pillowcase, trimmed with wide crochet lace
Buying in quantity, large lots, is the very best way to get the biggest bang for the buck invested in order to resell linens with a profit margin (unless you're lucky enough to have a mom, granny or other relatives who will give you their own private stashes for free).  It takes time, but through the years, we have found that auctions, estate sales, and cultivated relationships with a few good pickers have brought us the majority of our stockpile of linens.  However, when buying in large lots, you've got to take the good with the bad, and that sometimes means stained and soiled textiles, torn, or just plain crap.  We call those which are beyond repair crafters and/or cutters, or crap.

After we purchase, we sort & divide among the [Panoply] partners, so each gets a fair share of quality & condition. Then, the work of laundering begins, starting with the obvious task of sorting by type fabrics & colors, determining how fragile you think the textiles are and whether they can withstand being laundered together or not.  After sorting, the process of soaking & washing, repeating as necessary, begins. Generally speaking, we use OxiClean and/or bleach in warm or hot water for soaking (typically in a utility tub and overnight, if stubborn).  We'll also try pre-treating with other products like Awesome (The Dollar Tree, 20 oz.) or Whink for rust, ink or other dark stains.  If you have never used Awesome before, it's exactly as its name implies!  I use if for everything from laundry to countertops to even cleaning furniture (for resale, that is).  I have also used the lemon juice, salt and sunshine method without much success, mostly because it's weather dependent.  Another tip when washing textiles with bold color, to avoid bleeding:  wash in gentle cycle, cold water, and place a couple of Shout color-catcher sheets in the tub.  They're fantastic!  For grain and coffee sacks, I have one friend who recommends Purex crystals.  I have never tried Purex myself, but I did purchase repurposed burlap sacks from the friend, and I know Purex was great in removing the smell of burlap and softening its texture.
All in all, we figure if the textiles have lasted this long (40-90 years), then they'll probably make it through another strong soak and/or wash, and slight fading (not bleeding) is age and condition appropriate.  If holes or extreme fading result after soaking, we can always sell "as is" with condition notes, or bundle as cutters. Some folks (we're three of them) don't mind a few pinholes, especially in casual linens.  Washing in the machine or by hand is a judgment call, depending on how fragile the textiles appear after soaking.
Vintage pillowcases & sheet, freshly laundered, prior to ironing
Vintage hankies & fingertip towels, air drying
After soaking & washing, the next step is pressing the linens.  This is where the textiles come back to life, smooth, crisp, and smelling fabulous.  We generally use either spray Magic sizing or starch, but sister M also uses liquid starch sometimes.  We all use a steam iron (Rowenta is our brand of choice, such as this Rowenta model, or this Rowenta model, which I would like to buy).  None of us have an electric mangle iron (sisters M & J say we had one growing up, but it's only a vague memory for me, being the youngest - I never had the chore of ironing like they did), but I wouldn't mind owning one.  I actually saw one, once in an estate sale and another time in an antique store nearby (a floor model, larger than the portable one in the video link in this post).
Freshly pressed linens and vintage clothing
Only after all of this can the linens be listed, priced, and displayed for sale.  Or, fostered and/or hoarded.   In either case, if the textiles don't go into the antique mall immediately, they are stored in either drawers or cedar chests (with a protective cloth or tissue against the wood to prevent shelf stains), with lavender sachets that we make (see post on how we craft lavender sachets here).
Vintage baby dress, fashioned from old pillowcase
This batch of linens is a good example of Panoply's bulk purchasing and how the process of acquiring and readying linens for resale evolves. What I've pictured so far here is only about one-third of my share of a very large purchase made last May (2013).  Sometimes they accumulate, depending on our sources and when they contact us, and it gets to the point of needing to spend a good chunk of time to get them all sorted out.  This is another example of  what my January is typically all about - organizing.
Vintage fingertip towels, pillowcases, and sheet - ready for pricing
Linens as lovely as these are the hardest for me to want to give up and sell.  It's not the work I do in getting them prepared that makes it hard to let them go.  The work involved is really something I enjoy as an occasional project.  I love to see the linens all cleaned, smell their fresh scents, and I even love the mindless, routine approach to pressing them crisp again.  The hard part is letting go of what's slowly getting to be harder to find - the handwork of women past, who spent their days lovingly crafting these beauties for their homes.  It's always a special treat to see how women may have recycled what was once a feedsack into a quilt, or a pillowcase into a Christening gown!  Beautiful lace work, pulled threads, crocheting, tatting, embroidering, cross-stitching, needle-pointing - all little works of art.  Patterns and colors - even monogram styles - are often clues as to what period items are from, too.
Portion of collected quilts
I have quite the stash of quilts (photo above is a sampling of my personal collection) - the more faded and worn - the more charming and appealing to me.  That red & white quilt above (second from bottom) is an example of my washing in gentle cycle, cold water, and using a couple of Shout color-catcher sheets  - no bleeding!

I love the European textiles also, but those are few and far between the many other textiles we come across.  I do, however, have a decent collection of grain sacks, hemp and linen sheets, and French kitchen towels (torchons) from various sources I have found.  Not nearly enough, though.  I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal where a respected European dealer remarked that a woman (before WWII) was expected to have 30 years' worth of torchons in her dowry!  She'd embroider her first initial, then add the surname initial after she was married. The towels had various weights for various chores:  thin for glass, heavy for dirty work.  And, during much of the 19th century, most torchons were plain, without stripes.  The red stripes (most common) came first, and apparently an 'M' is a common monogram (Marie was a common name).  Green stripes not only faded quickly, but were considered unlucky.  Interesting.
Portion of collected grain sacks, hemp sheets and torchons
It makes me happy just to look at my growing stacks....
European grain sacks
...but I'm not afraid to use the textiles in my decor, or for their intended purposes.

Last year, I met and now cherish my friendship with Joy, from Savvy City Farmer.  If you don't know Joy, I encourage you to visit her, her blog, and her shop.  She is the quintessential farmgirl, refurbishing and styling finds, especially industrial and farmhouse kinds.  Last year, I mailed several vintage textiles and commissioned Joy to stencil them (for myself and my two Panoply sisters), including these new-old stock linen towels:
New old stock linen dish towels, stenciled
She also stenciled these vintage linen pillowcases  (the German enameled breadbox was sourced by and purchased from Joy also):
Vintage linen pillowcases, stenciled
Those stenciled linens were originally commissioned with the intention of resale, but those of you who are dealers know how that sometimes goes....we foster, or we keep.  I'll be keeping those, along with.....
Vintage grain sack with antique inspired linen towel layered over
And these....
Dish towels, with days of the week, in French, machine embroidered (not old but love!)
And these....
Vintage needlepoint pillows with yellow velvet backing
I also have this thing for the little crocheted potholders from the past, so I'll be keeping these too.....
Vintage potholders
And just to prove the homemakers from the past weren't all just boring little granny types, here's an example of a set of potholders we scoured from a three-generation estate.
His and Hers vintage potholders
Now, I'm no prude but, at the risk of offending readers, I won't post the photo revealing the creativity beneath the ruffle and inside the flap of the potholders above.  Suffice it to say they are anatomically correct.  The seamstress craftily used a little patch of mink on the left potholder, and created a tiny, stuffed appendage on the right potholder.  :)  Question is....which generation created those potholders? The one from the turn of the 20th century, the 1920's, or 1940's?  They're such a novelty item, I have to keep them. :)

I hope you can take away a few tips from this post, or at least an appreciation, for what a caring dealer does in order to prepare and provide a good stock of re-loved textiles.  Maybe you can use some of the tips for your personal use, whether it's textiles, or laundry in general.  Here's a recap of the products (with source links) mentioned, so you can easily review:
OxiClean - for soaking
Awesome (The Dollar Tree, 20 oz.) - for pre-treating
Whink - for pre-treating
Shout color-catcher sheets - to avoid color bleeding
Purex crystals - softens, cleans fabric such as burlap
Magic sizing - for ironing wrinkles
this Rowenta model - effective steam iron, 1600 watts
or this Rowenta model - pressure iron and steamer, 1750 watts, 33oz. water tank
electric mangle iron - video demonstration
we craft lavender sachets here - Panoply's solution to storing textiles
Joy, from Savvy City Farmer - Joy Frey Waltmire, commissioned for stenciling linens

Postscript, October 2015:  We have since tried a couple other soaking products, with success, and will add them to our list of products for pre-treating vintage linens:
Restoration Powder
Retro Clean

Do you love vintage and antique linens?  Do you use them or not?  If so, how - the original, intended purpose, or somehow repurposed?
(Note:  I was NOT compensated for this post in any way.)

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