Rediscover your vintage linens

Posted Saturday, Jun. 07, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Vintage linens have so many uses beyond their normal intentions, but often lay stacked in a closet or drawer, unused and forgotten. However, something old-fashioned and seemingly outdated can be easily integrated into a modern decor. It just takes a little creativity and a fresh perspective.

Here are a few ideas:

Heirloom linens

I have this incredible old chenille coverlet for a bed that I located while on a road trip in a little town called Idalou, in West Texas. I had intended to use it as a bedspread, but discovered that it looked great draped over a summer party or picnic table. With its crisp white backing and puffy chenille pink dots, it practically screams “happy” and is a showstopper for a head party table. I don’t worry about spills. Instead, I use a lot of trays on it. You only live once, right?

Later, I realized it would work even better as a shower curtain. So, I used cafe curtain clips to hang it almost to the ceiling on a rod separate from the vinyl curtain that keeps water inside the tub area. It brings a bright and cheery color to the bathroom.

Textural, colorful chenille bedspreads are easy to show off as well.

When coverlets have signs of wear or holes that you can’t repair, use them for other projects. I once used a tattered chenille bedspread from my late grandmotherfor a slipcover on a small stool. Some of the bedspread’s pieces were good, some not-so-much. No problem. My advice is to use what you can and let the linen live on in a new life with a new purpose.

Shelf trimming

If you have embroidered and/or vintage linens that you love but won’t use because of annoying old stains or rips, you’ve probably suffered over them — refusing to get rid of these precious “works of art,” yet relegating them to a “death row” closet or cupboard. What do we do when they are rendered useless because of flaws? It’s time to rethink this strategy.

I once saw an artist in England who made shelf trims. They were embroidered strips of fabric that are adhered, tacked or nailed to shelving, cabinet shelves or cupboard ledges. I fell in love with the look and wanted to see if I could make something like this on my own using older linens.

It occurred to me that I could use the edges of embroidered, adorned tablecloths and linens that were damaged in other areas. Often a pillow case is worn in certain areas or stained, but the edges remain beautiful. Same with a tablecloth. The center of the cloth gets torn or damaged, but the hand-embroidered edges are still intact.

So, I gathered up my band of misfit linens and cut about a 2 1/4-inch strip of various linen edges with beautiful handwork. Shelf trim looks good at about 2-3 inches, generally, but you can size it however you’d like. Just iron down the top raw edge (about 1/4 of an inch) and tack, nail or glue the trim to the outside edge of a shelves.

For a finishing touch, add decorative tacks, pearls or pewter and brass heads — all easily found at most hobby and craft stores. They allow you to change out your trims if you want to later.

I had an old farm cabinet and I put a mix of linen trims on the outside edges of the old cabinet’s shelves. It transformed the cabinet. I didn’t feel bad cutting up the beautiful embroidered trims because I saved the good parts and was able to appreciate their beauty in a new way.

Special slipcovers

Small dresser-sized linens and hand-sized linen towels can be folded once and stitched together, leaving one end open to slide in an iPad or similar electronic devices. Beyond providing protection, it provides a chic new carrying case. This idea is easy to execute if you enjoy straight-stitch sewing. Just measure the computer or phone device and add about a half of an inch to allow for a seam. Cut this rectangular shape out and pin the two right sides together. Stitch three sides and leave the last one open. Turn it inside out and, voila, you have a new vintage linen case.

Vintage linen pillow cases, card table linens and table runners make lovely slipcovers because they often have such a heavy, elaborate embroidery design on the edges.

I had an older wood chair and wrapped a small embroidered linen around it, allowing the fabric to overlap. You cancustom fit slipcovers to your chairs if you are good with the sewing machine or you can close the top like I did by hand-stitching a few craft pearls on the top of the fabric to keep it gently closed. Decorative safety pins also work and make this a no-sew project.

Sometimes when the pillow case slides right over the back of a wooden chair, you can mark with chalk where you want the slipcover to stop, then cut it off and close up the seams with your machine or with hand-stitching.

If you have a collection of pillow cases or linens with similar themes, you can wrap the backs of a grouping of chairs around a dining table for a wonderful crisp, clean look.

Another idea for the pieces of old linens that have much wear and tear is to use them as gift wrap. Wrap a soap gift in a piece of an embroidered linen and secure it with a ribbon.

Sometimes small dresser-size linens or handkerchiefs in good condition can be laundered and used as gift wrap, too. In the end, the gift-wrap linen is a bonus gift.

An over-the-top idea

I love it when something inspires me to think beyond the box, and I will never forget one of the ultimate vintage linen repurposing projects I’ve ever seen. I was in a little town southeast of Fort Worth called Forreston at a place called the BonTon Vintage Market. It’s an antique shop and vintage apparel treasure totally worth a day’s sojourn. ( On this trip, I spotted the most amazing light fixture hanging from the historical tin ceiling. It was wispy and sheer, yet flowing and feminine. One of the owners, the late John Kauffman, had designed the piece using an antique hooped petticoat. It created the most appropriate and yet “unmentionable” lighting design I had ever seen. (As a bonus, I found some great table linens there, plus some cool retro clothing.

The lesson I took from Kauffman’s clever petticoat pendant light is that if you love something textile from the past, never stop thinking of all its possibilities.

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