BUYING & CARING FOR VINTAGE COTTON FABRICS

 

What color-addict doesn't love 40s to 60s vintage cotton fabrics – especially those  jumbo prints on BarkCloth and BarkCloth-Era fabrics.

 

So, what's BarkCloth?  BarkCloth is a textured, 100% cotton fabric, that has a rough or bumpy feel – hence the bark part of the name.  The thing that gives it its texture is the size of the vertical and horizontal threads and the way they're woven. 

 

BarkCloth comes in a variety of weaves - all with a bumpy feel (there's no such thing as "smooth" or symmetrical fiber barkcloth).  A person once said barkcloth has a "drunken" weave.  That seems like a really good way to describe it! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BarkCloth comes in all types of patterns or it can be a solid color too.  Remember BarkCloth is a weave,

not a pattern.

Before personal computers came along, we bought things in person and were able to see and feel for issues.  Now, with online buying, there’s no way to tell if an item has issues unless a seller tells you.  Hidden issues, even ones the seller might not know about, could be hiding underneath that wonderful pattern

Sounds like a pain, but it's best to ask your seller some questions first to avoid costly "mistakes".  (Don't forget that with vintage fabric, you're inheriting everything the fabric has been through in its lifetime - good and bad.)

The first thing you need to know is - fabric with a patterned print can hide a lot of things, so before you buy, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting.  Have your seller hold the fabric up to a light with the backside facing them (not the pattern) to look for physical issues.  This step alone will save you LOTS of money (LOTS!), but FIRST...

The first thing you need to ask your seller is - has the fabric has been recently washed – not dry-cleaned or hand washed but in a machine.  If it has and has no issues, buy it.  If not, here’s what you might experience:

Dry Rot:  Dry rot is maximum sun damage.  The cotton fibers have broken down completely and they feel like straw.  Gentle tugs on the suspected areas will start the shredding process.  Fabric with damage like this can’t be undone so I’d pass.

And unlike, “healthy” fabric, DON’T wash fabric with dry rot in your machine or you’ll end up with a sludge-fest that can plug your drainage system!

 

Dye Rot:  Dye rot is a type of dry rot that only affects certain colors - mainly yellows, greens and some reds.  If your fabric has holes in the shape of missing colors in the pattern, time will only make it worse.  Also, dye rot can’t be reversed so I don't recommend it.

Thinning:  Also caused by the sun, thinning can’t be seen in a photo.  You’ll have to ask your seller if the sides of the fabric feel as equally thick as the middle does. let's say.  Same for the top and bottom.  If you ever run across fabric that feels really soft like flannel on the reverse side, that’s the stage it goes through before making a hole.  I’d pass on fabric with last stage thinning.

Holes:  Most holes are caused by sun damage as well.  If the sun hits the same spot on your drapes for months or years, sun damage will occur on those areas and turn into holes or dry rot.  Sometimes holes are caused by incidentals like catching on a nail so holes aren’t always bad.  If the holes run along the sides, that’s usually sun damage.  Multiple holes throughout are bad news too.  I’d pass because the usable fabric you end up with might be slight.

Water Stains:  These are usually located at the bottom of a drape panel and are almost impossible to remove.  With water stains, you’ll see them outlined in a darker color looking something like a mountain range.  Water stains happen when the bottom of the drape comes in contact with moisture and acts like a wick.  An example would be like having floor length drapes and having your rug shampooed without removing the drapes.  If not caught right away, you’d be left with these mineral/chemical outlines. 

If you want to try to remove or lighten them, it’s best to try multiple soaks before washing in a machine.  If they don’t get better, they probably never will.

Regular Stains:  If stains don’t come out with a regular wash in the washing machine (before drying), you might have to soak multiple times and hang to dry in between soaks (don’t use your dryer to dry).  Stains always look worse when they’re wet - that’s why you should dry between soaks.

​I've used "Shout" stain remover on tougher stains and it's worked 50/50.

Dry Cleaning:  Stay away from vintage fabric that’s been dry-cleaned.  The chemical they use for cleaning is like rubber cement thinner and will eventually lead to a type of dry rot.  This process can’t be stopped.

Hand Prints:  Most mid-century cotton fabric is Vat Printed so it’s washfast (meaning dyes won't bleed in the wash and chlorine bleach won't bleach the colors out).  It’s usually marked so on the side but sometimes you’ll see “HAND PRINT” on the side instead.  The caution here is to find out whether any of the colors in the print might bleed in your washing machine.  There’s no guarantee if you don't see the word "Vat" as well so you’ll have to test Hand Prints first or ask your seller if the fabric has been washed.

Mildew:  Mildew is hard to remove with just soap and water so I use a small amount of chlorine bleach to remove mildew and cigarette smells & stains, etc.  It works perfectly.   I soak for about a half hour first in the kitchen sink with only water and about 2 tablespoons of bleach (mix bleach with water before adding fabric), then I wash in a machine.  I’ve never had this NOT work.  It doesn’t hurt cotton fibers - the trick is the amount used.  Chlorine bleach can be beneficial because it removes mildew organisms that, if left untreated, can lead to damage.

Fading:  There are 2 different types of fading.  There's fading from the fabric being in the sun too long or fading from repeated washings.  Sun fade usually only affects areas like the sides or part(s) of the pattern.  Wash fade is more uniform.

Dark Vertical Streaks:  If you see these on the front OR back of a drape or fabric, that's usually sun damage - just like us getting a sunburn.  They're vertical because of their pleats.  If a drape is hung in the same window for years without being regularly washed, these vertical streaks would tell me that damage has already set in and the life of the fabric might be short... BUT...

... these streaks could also be tobacco stains which might be just a long soak away from being as good as new.  This too depends on how well they were taken care of throughout their life.  It might be wise to ask your seller what they think the streaks are from if you're not sure... is it sunburn or staining?

BarkCloth & Era Widths:  Vintage (1930s to late 60s) cotton fabric isn't wider than 48".  If your fabric is wider, it's more modern.

Washing BarkCloth & BarkCloth-Era Cotton Fabrics:  If your fabric is sturdy and free from any of the above, wash in your washing machine and dry in your dryer. 

Storing Fabrics:  Store in zip plastic bags, vacuum storage bags, etc.  Make sure your fabric is clean.  Wash thoroughly but don't iron until you're ready to use it.  If you store in plastic bins, make sure you include some mothballs or real dried lavender buds to keep your fabrics fresh & cootie-free!  :)

 

 

 COMING SOON:  Photos of some of the different cotton weaves.

 

PS:  When talking about BarkCloth, it might be a bit confusing at first because there are 2 other types of barkcloth fabrics you might run across besides the cotton type I'm talking about here. 
 
First, there's the rayon based Hawaiian barkcloth and second, there's the tropical native barkcloth made from actual tree bark.
 
These fabrics are treated w-a-a-y differently than cotton barkcloth so make sure your fabric is cotton first!