Ravaged Threads: Acts of Terror by Fiber Fiends

Note: this column was to have been about fabrics with dual personalities. However, a reference book I need for this subject hasn’t arrived so that topic will be  postponed until April. Meanwhile, spend some quality assurance time with your vintage stash.

Are you guilty of fabric abuse? Is the Fabric Rights Protective League breathing down your back? Are you ready to take the pledge? Then this column is for you.percale with muslin and organdy with dimity which has a crisp finish. Establish agreed-upon definitions of vintage or old — to some sellers, 1980 is vintage — and how seller determined estimated age. Fortunately there are many knowledgeable sellers who will be glad to help you. Be leery of sellers who do not answer your email  or who have no idea what they are selling. For some unbelievable examples, see my favorite auction goofies at the end of this column.

If you have old plush, it is washable as long as it is cotton backed. Test if you’re not sure. Plush and fleeces other than cotton could be washed successfully but test to be sure. Remove lining before washing. Usually linings will be heavy sateen or twill and washable. Expect to lose some color.

Reams have been written about proper care and storage of fabrics. Tiptoeing around all the expert’s verbiage so as not to duplicate their advice, here are a few more pearls of wisdom learned the hard way. May my personal mishaps help you avoid some painful pitfalls.

Where to find vintage fabrics
The most prevalent sources today seem to be on the Internet, both auction and individual web sites. The selections are staggering and a windfall for fabric lovers. Besides poking around  estate sales and antique stores, don’t overlook second-hand and thrift stores; flea markets; church bazaars; doll shows; and classifieds in fabric, vintage clothes and doll magazines.

Collectors of anything tend tend to make three mistakes when buying– impulse, gotta have and the worst offender, nostalgia. I plead guilty to all three. Actually there is a fourth: disregarding common sense. It’s never around when we need it most.

To avoid post-purchase suicidal hysteria scenes in front of family and friends, your first step in buying is to inspect, inspect, inspect.

Hold fabric or garment up to light to check for pinholes and thin or worn spots; lay out to check for rust spots [foxing], browning at fold lines, fading or uneven color, severe creases and tears. The sheerer the fabric or denser the pile, the more difficult to detect pinholes and thin areas. Gently tug suspicious areas to test thread strength. Rust spots denote fabric rot and trying to remove them will cause fibers to collapse, creating holes. Discoloration, spotting and splitting could be signs of long exposure to sunlight; musty odor is an indicator of mildew. Dark flecks, uneven color or thread runs throughout could mean fabric is a second. Check for off-grain, crucial for straight-line designs, plaids and checks. Also check wrong side. Not all flaws or damage will be evident on right side.

While fabric is unfolded, especially critical if there is substantial yardage, look for evidence of insects — dead or alive — and insect damage. Telltale signs are brownish or bluish circles with fuzzy outlines or hard shells covered with fuzz. I went through a horrifying experience by not pre-inspecting, whipping open 15 yards at home for a look-see, littering my carpet with critters and immediately spraying the room to make sure we caught the live ones.

On wool, check for moth holes and odor; for silk, rayon and nylon, check for evidence of splitting, particularly at fold and crease lines, and for spotting. On velvet, check right side for shiny [matted] or bald spots and creases and crushing; back side for splitting. Be wary of creases which look permanently ground in unless that is the way fabric was intended to be.

Flawed fabric does not necessarily mean it should be shunned. Once you have assessed its condition, determine if you can mend or work around any flaws and that salvageable areas can be cleaned and used to suit your purposes. You will be better off steering clear of moth-eaten wool and damaged silk and rayon. If light creases are the only drawback in otherwise acceptable washable rayon and silk, those can be removed by washing.

I made the mistake of buying some damaged silk and wool as I only needed a small amount of fabric. What look salvageable on silk became one long split from origin of damaged area and on wool, micro holes frayed at the touch causing total disintegration. Also beware wool with a musty odor. There is no guarantee that smell can be eliminated. Sometimes brushing and airing outdoors or dry cleaning can remove it or laundering if it Viyella or a washable wool. Whatever methods are used for removal, wool should be in good condition for treatments to be effective.

If buying from an auction site, ask for a swatch if in doubt; nine out of ten sellers confuse plisse with seersucker.

Care & Cleaning
Fabrics should be clean before storing. However, if you buy for resale, you may want to hold off washing fabrics unless they are in absolute need of cleaning. Some customers may prefer an original finish and making their own cleaning decisions.

Be sure to test for colorfastness and wet fabric first to remove excess dirt. You may find fabric will need several sudsings. For any washable fiber, the best soap is a museum textile washing paste which de-acidifies and strengthens fibers and can be used in either washer or by hand. It can be mixed with sodium perborate, a natural bleach.

I will go out on a limb here. Experts say NO bleach! EVER! NEVER! Time for a common sense moment. I have used a drop [literally] of bleach with the above mixture where stains have been stubborn or have used a cotton ear swab dipped in diluted bleach to dry dab on stubborn spots.  This extremely weakened state of bleach is a one-time only occurrence. What is harmful are large concentrated doses of bleach which many persons overdo in the whitening process.

If your garment is an heirloom to be resurrected for each succeeding generation, reconsider your use of bleach or whiteners and consult a cleaning specialist to remove stains you have not been able to eradicate. Some friends I know have used denture cleaner as a whitener with great success. However the chemical ingredients don’t sound promising to long-term preservation. Blueing is another alternative but is tricky to use.

In addition to washing paste, there are many serious cleaning restoration products on the market; some excellent ones to be found in fabric and quilting stores. On some approved lists Biz and similar products are excluded; however many persons use them and nullify by re-washing in washing paste. I have used washing paste for 20 years and find it to be superior to other brands; but perhaps that is a biased opinion. Everyone should experiment to get their desired result.

Do not add softeners which  impart residue or film on fabric and leave it limp. Quality cleaners, because of their contents, will return fabric to its original state of softness. Once fabric has been washed, loosely fold and give a gentle squeeze; no wringing which will harm fibers. Place in towel and gently pat to remove excess moisture.

You can either air dry outside or in dryer. My preference is to soak and hand-wash pieces of fabric between 2 to 2-1/2 yards, a manageable amount, and dry outside in suitable weather. Larger yardages are put in washer, dried in dryer or outside or a little of both. For lace and trim, wind them wet around glass containers. They dry flat and retain original shape.

A friend shared with me half a plush cape from the 1890s; she machine washed hers except for final spin; being cowardly, I pre-soaked and hand-washed mine; both are satisfactory methods. It took many sudsings to remove decades of grime. My friend put hers in a dryer; I draped mine over clothes rack outside until partially dry; put in dryer to fluff until nearly dry and then hung outside until dry and hand-brushed. My drying method produced a softer plush but the difference was minimal. We both had beautifully restored fabric — mine was used to make a coat, bonnet and teddy bear muff for an 1890s doll.

To iron or not to iron is another common sense timeout. Ironing flattens fibers so that when fabric is folded it will cause sharp creasing. Asses your fabric. Many garments or fabrics can be hand-pressed such as plisse or lightly pressed with an iron such as seersucker and washable rayon, nylon and silk, then folded in acid-free tissue or rolled to avoid creasing. Refrain from using sizing or starch if fabric is to be stored as you want to keep fibers in a naturally relaxed state.

Stiff fabrics like organdy present a problem –sometimes I think organdy was never meant to be washed; wear it once and pitch. I found that a heavy steaming removed lumpy wrinkles though fine-lined ones remained. Later when I was ready to use organdy, I dampened and ironed with dry iron to remove any last traces of wrinkles. This method works for excellent quality organdy. Professional laundries do an admirable job of restoration and that is probably the final solution for organdy.

To get  rid of wrinkles in velvet, steam over a needle or velvet board. If that doesn’t work, a trip to the dry cleaners is necessary. A Wisdom column on fabrics.net offers some good velvet advice. Laces and trims should be laid face down on a towel and lightly ironed to prevent flattening.

Storage — where and in what
VINYL SUCKS. Literally. Fabric of any age needs to breathe and storing it in vinyl airtight containers causes fiber deterioration from chemical interaction and imparts awful odors over time. Ask any doll collector who has kept her plastic or vinyl dolls in vinyl containers only to find them turned yellow and orange and smelling like the creature from the tar pits. When vinyl attacks vinyl, then you know  the power of its appetite.

Acid-free products provide the best protection, although lately acid free has come under attack as not quite as pure as touted. Also acceptable are boxes containing rag content or linen stationery. They are sturdy and a nice size. If you know any printers, ask for their empties.

Beware cardboard gift or shoes boxes as they are produced from hazardous products. However, they can be made suitable by lining with acid-free tissue so that fabric will not touch cardboard. Another acceptable, surprisingly, is the hard acrylic type plastic that came out during the 70s and early 80s and seems to be making a comeback.

My preference is to make an envelope by folding a sheet of acid-free tissue in half and then folding again envelope style. It can hold up to several pieces of fabric. Each envelope is labeled to show type, age and origin of fabric. These are stored in cardboard boxes [stationery, acid free and lined] which are labeled to show type of fabric they hold. I am in and out of boxes daily so it’s very handy to reach for a box labeled, for example, dimity which holds all pieces of that fabric, each one in its own envelope. By whatever method, I have used safe, breathable products for protection.

For laces, ribbon and trim, many persons prefer to loop them. I find it better to wrap them around paper towel or toilet paper tubes which I cover in acid-free tissue and empty ribbon spools I’ve asked for at fabric stores. They are all stored in hard plastic stackable drawers which I bought in the late 70s. Drawers, lined in acid-free tissue, are so loose fitting that air availability is no problem.

Cotton sheeting is another excellent cover for garments or fabric too large and too bulky to fit in a box and they can be laid flat or hung. Be sure to check cotton wraps frequently to hose off dust accumulation even though you may have put another protective layer over sheeting.

If you are loathe to store wool in any of the mentioned methods and don’t want to put it in a cedar chest because of the aroma, do as we did back in the 40s and later. Moths do not like newspaper, hot or cold type print. We wrapped clean sweaters and other woolens in  tissue and then in newspaper and stored in dresser drawers or wherever there was space. Never had a bite!  And angora, during the wearing season, was always kept in a brown grocery gag in the refrigerator to prevent matting and keep those hairs perky upright. For some reason, odors do not penetrate brown bags. Whatever methods you prefer, moth balls are the enemy. It’s akin to inviting chemical warfare into your closet.

Where you keep your storage containers is also a matter of preference: closets or cabinets, any place as long as it’s away from direct sunlight, damp basements, hot attics and dusty garages.

Smoke Rings
Take with a grain of salt when fabric is advertised as coming from a smoke-free environment. This is an ambiguous statement. Fabrics can have had many ownerships — while the current residence is in all good faith advertised smoke free, it does not guarantee that previous environments were.

Those vintage fabrics we buy arose in those decades where nearly every household had at least one heavy smoker — grandma’s stash from the 20, 30s and 40s endured cigars, corncob pipes and hand-rolled Turkish tobacco, truly smelly concoctions. And probably grandma was an equal offender.

More fact than fiction, fabrics from smokers’ homes will likely be stored far from the main path of smoke, True, smoke floats. And if by some chance smoke has penetrated fabric, the offensive odor can be washed or aired out; it is not the same as smoke damage.

I always felt smoke-free was a misleading statement and had it confirmed by a friend who is a chemist specializing in environmental effects. In today’s hi-tech society, there are far more dangerous fumes clogging fabric pores than smoke and which we do not suspect nor have any control over.

Again, use common sense, particularly if you are allergic to or dislike the thought of smoke. I do not mean to offend those who use this statement in all good faith and  good will but merely to point out a lesser vulnerability which the unscrupulous have taken advantage of. You should be more concerned about what in or where fabric has been stored.

A complete line of conservation supplies including washing paste, sodium perborate, acid-free tissue, boxes and test kits can be obtained from Mini Magic in Columbus OH.  http://www.mini-magic.com    I will be happy to publish your sources once they register with fabrics.net

I hope my experiences and misadventures will help to benefit you in some way. Please share your experiences with us. Nobody knows everything but collectively we can learn from each other. On a final note as a collector, my newest addiction is the goofies I find on auction sites selling fabrics. May they make you chuckle as they do me everytime I read them….

Fabrics  we’d love to have

  • vintage fabric — it’s either toile or organza; nice for bedspread or bridal veil
  • old and lovely, a great fabric materical
  • vintage wool; has no motherholes
  • nice vintage fabric; it’s either lawn or chintz
  • lovely vintage fabric — half percale and half cotton
  • vintage sheer cotton fabric — this new medium weight poly blend is good for quilts
  • marooned sheersuckerer
  • shinny see through brochade satins
  • an old sheer that is so heavenly, just like its name — divinity

and these fabrics must have been manufactured by Phonetic Mills

  • moray
  • purcal
  • dotted swish
  • nanook
  • file rayon
  • illit
  • kannvis for outside; kanvis for inside; kanviss is grate anywhere

and finally, why the younger generation wears denim...
one of my friends who shares her love of lawn with me told her granddaughter Missy that she was going to make her a lawn dress to which Missy’s mother replied: “Why does she need a special  dress just to sit on the grass?”

About Joan Kiplinger: Joan was an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and had since been peddling fabrications ever since.

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