Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Everything New is Old Again – Producing “Vintage” Fabric

One of my ongoing projects is trying to finish a quilt started by my grandmother in the 1940s.  After her death her oldest daughter took the unfinished quilt home with her, intending to complete it herself.  She attached a bright gold border, matching the gold inset between the blocks, and set it aside.  Years and years later, she gave it to me to finish, and I’ve had it about 10 years.  It’s a very humbling situation I find myself in – having the honor of working on a three-generation quilt spanning some 70 years, while at the same time, stretching my meager quilting abilities to their limits.

I was finally able to locate some 1940s reproduction fabric locally.  The problem is, it looks new.  I decided to tea-dye the fabric to give it a more “vintage” look, and hope that it will help the fabric, with its different patterns, blend in better with what’s already there.  I was a little leery of using tea to color the fabric, as the tannins in the tea will shorten the life of the fabric, but all things considered, I felt it would give me a better effect than using regular fabric dye.  I did a little research on the internet, got a general idea of what I needed to do, took a deep breath, and got busy.

For anyone considering doing something similar, I learned a few things this morning:

1) When brewing the tea, most of the “recipes” on the internet assume you want dramatic results.  If you want something more subtle, dilute your brew.  I used 16 bags of tea to 8 cups of water.   Still, it took only one minute of exposure to the tea to get obvious results.
2) Use a BIG container if you have one-yard pieces.  Don’t try to do it in a stockpot on the stove top.  Use something that will allow the fabric easy movement.  And get the fabric wet before putting it in the tea.
3) Test a small piece of fabric before doing the whole thing.  The first little swatch I tossed in the tea came out way darker than I wanted after 3 minutes. 
4) The wet fabric will look darker than it really is.  Dry before you make any adjustments to your times.
5) Immediately rinse in a sink of cold water, and be sure you rinse it thoroughly.  While most of the sources I consulted on the internet suggested drying and using the fabric after rinsing, I’m going to wash mine first.  I don’t want any unnecessary tannins eating away at my fabric, and I also don’t want any nasty surprises when the finished quilt is washed.


Hopefully the scariest part of this process is over.  The next challenge will be coming up with a design that “works” with what is there already, and with the fabric I have (yes, I bought fabric without having a plan).  Having a long, narrow quilt to work with, and no pattern, does present some obstacles.  I’m hoping my grandma and my aunt can give me a little loving “coaching” from above.


  1. I'm following this with great interest! The tea was a great idea!

  2. It's a lovely quilt. You didn't mention the dimensions other than long and thin. Is it wide enough for a twin bed? I've dyed with tea before. It fades fairly quickly, within a year or two, but that should give the fabric enough time to "settle" into place with the older fabrics in the quilt. I hope you have good success. Please show us the results!

  3. The blocks are 12" blocks, 4 high and 2 wide, for dimensions of 48 x 24. The border my aunt put on is about a 4" gold border. I may take the side borders off (ouch) and add a row of blocks on either side, then put the border back on. I didn't know the tea stain fades. You learn something new every day! And I'm sure learning a lot tackling this project! :)