Sewing On Vintage Fabrics

Vintage fabrics have been DE's speciality in the past. So on this page she would like to share some of her suggestions based on her experience.

Vintage doll fabric

Sewing with vintage fabrics

Examples of vintage and antique fabrics that work well for doll clothing are:

  • Batiste (cotton or flax)
  • Cotton Dimity
  • Cotton or nylon Organdy
  • Dotted Swiss (cotton or nylon)
  • Feedsack Cottons
  • Lawn (cotton or linen)
  • Linen (cotton or flax)
  • Organza (silk)
  • Satin
  • Silk
  • Taffeta
  • Velvet (cotton)
  • Lightweight woolens

Note: I have included nylon in this list because while it may be a more modern fiber (and a man-made one, at that) as opposed to cottons, wools, silk, and flax, it does qualify for vintage fabric since it made it's appearance during World War II. The parachutes that our soldiers used were originally made of silk which we could no longer get during the war. Nylon was the new "silk" and it's also why women's "silk" stockings later took the name "nylons" when they were made from this new fiber on the scene.

Some of the vintage fabrics on this list can be readily purchased today in their modern incarnation and can be used as suitable substitutes. Due to changes made in modern manufacturing and the addition of some man-made fiber blends, they may handle differently and need to be cared for differently than their earlier counterparts. So I will devote the information on this page to antique and vintage fabrics as they pertain to sewing doll clothes.

A word about the difference between vintage and antique

Before we go any further, I think it is important for you to have an idea of what I mean when I say vintage fabrics versus antique. Clothing and fabric that were produced before the 1920's are generally accepted as antique. Those made during the 1920's through the 1980's on the other hand are usually considered vintage.

Fabric width can also be a clue as to its age. Older fabrics were made on smaller looms (with the exception of broadcloth which literally meant it was "broad"). Standard widths used to be 24 to 38 inches.

A Little History: A long time ago, in a past far, far away (sorry.....couldn't help myself!) looms were people-powered. For comfort, the average loom was usually the length of one arm (about 24 to 28 inches). This width allowed the weaver to throw the shuttle back and forth with very little movement of their body. However, if they were making "broadcloth" they would have to rock on their bottoms from left to right to throw and catch the shuttle. If a weaver wove broadcloth over a long period of time, they usually became afflicted with "weaver's bottom", a painful arthritic condition of the hips. With the advent of machines, this all changed of course and fabric started becoming wider and wider.

In the 1960's a shift from 36 inch wide fabric to the now more common 45-46 inch width took place. There are still some mills that turn out 36 inch widths, but they are more the exception than the rule now. So a smaller fabric width usually indicates that it is an older fabric.

So where can you find vintage fabrics? I'm sure that you are all aware of Ebay, right? It is a good place to get these lovely vintage fabrics. Some things to keep in mind when buying them on ebay are:

  1. Read the item description carefully! Do they list content? (i.e. cotton, silk, etc.)

  2. Is there a coin, ruler, or yardstick in the picture so you can see the scale of the print, or in the case of dimity, the width of the corded rows? (I've emailed sellers before when this wasn't in their pictures and many have been obliging to take a picture for me that included the addition of a coin/ruler/or yardstick.

  3. Are any stains or flaws noted and if so, where are they (i.e. near the folds, on the edges, right smack dab in the middle)? It may still be a usable piece depending on the location of any stains or flaws and some stains (but not all), can be removed.

  4. Always ask about cigarette smoke. If it has been exposed to it for any great length of time, the fibers are most likely weakened, yellowed, or sticky....this is irreparable.

  5. If you have any other questions, email the seller BEFORE you bid!

  6. Keep in mind that these vintage fabrics can go for quite a bit of money!

Vintage fabrics may be as close as your friendly neighborhood second hand shop, Goodwill, or other thrift stores. Oh, and don't forget Grandma's attic! Look for old clothes and yardage when you visit these places and I'm sure you will find some very usable fabric (but in the case of your grandmother's attic, be polite and ask before you go digging! She may not want you cutting up her wedding dress!) I call these findings "cutters" because that's exactly what I am going to do to them.....cut them up!

Estate and yard sales are another great place to find vintage and antique clothes to cut up for their yardage. Sometimes you just never know where you are going to find them. But when you do, snap them up! (Also known as hording......and you may need to get some counseling about that!)

Ok, you've found some! Now what?

Now you need to get them ready for use. First and foremost, they need to be clean. It's really not hard and there's really no secret method. What I am sharing with you here is how I do it. There's really no hard and fast rules, but there are certain precautions to take into consideration for the best outcome. (Makes me think about a scene in Pirates of the Carribean when Elizabeth Swann was trying to make a point to Captain Barbosa about the "Pirate's Code" and he responded that they are more like guidelines). So yeah....these are more like guidelines.

If the fabric that you are going to wash is not heavily soiled or just has a bit of storage odor and is otherwise unstained, then you can proceed without any pretreatment.

For ALL washing (machine or handwashing), you will need lingerie bags. The lingerie bags are mesh and allow plenty of water and soap to get through. These can be purchased in many different sizes, so buy a few in various sizes to have on hand. The logic behind using the bags is that the fabric will not have any stress placed on it while being washed. If you just put the fabric in the washing machine without the bag, the agitation auger will stress the fabric. New fabric can handle the stress, but vintage fabrics cannot. All antique fabric should be handwashed.

If the "fabric" you are preparing to wash is an actual garment (as opposed to yardage), do not cut it apart before washing! Simply place in an appropriately sized lingerie bag and continue as in the same manner for fabric pieces.....when it is dry, then you may cut it apart for storage.

For white, ecru, or light pastel solids, you can use cold to hot water. For prints and darker colors, cold water is best. If you want to use hot water for any print or dark color, you need to test for colorfastness first!

For machine washing(vintage fabrics):

  • choose your temperature setting and set to the delicate cycle

  • fill washing machine to desired level and add some gentle soap like Dreft or Ivory Snow

  • unfold fabric and place loosely in lingerie bag (choose a large enough bag to allow fabric to move freely in bag when being washed)

  • zip closed and place in washing machine. (if you only have one lingerie bag or two of fabric, you may wish to place a couple of white towels in the wash machine with them to balance the NOT wash your vintage fabrics with other clothes!)

  • do not use fabric softener!

  • wash away! (Delicate cycle, remember?)

For hand washing(vintage and antique fabrics):

  • unfold fabric and place loosely in lingerie bag just as you would for the above machine washing

  • fill large sink (or tub if you have a lot of it!) with water to your temperature preference

  • add soap to the water (Dreft, Ivory Snow, even Johnson's Baby Wash works lovely for handwashing

  • swish water to make sure soap is well distributed in it

  • add lingerie bag with fabric

  • swish, swish, swish (you can do that for a couple minutes and then let soak for at least half an hour or more......then come back and swish some more)

  • drain water and rinse fabric (still keeping it in the lingerie bag!) until no more bubbles come out

  • squeeze lightly but DO NOT twist or wring!

  • lay atop a folded fluffy white or light colored towel until most of the water has been absorbed by the towel (fabric will be damp but NOT dripping)

Now onto drying:

  • remove fabric from lingerie bag and gently shake it out

  • if you have warm weather, you can hang them outside to dry (full sun however, is NOT good for dark colored antique and vintage fabrics!)

  • when dry, you can lightly press if needed

  • store on hangers (this helps to straighten the grain and keeps folds to a minimum) or roll up and wrap in acid-free tissue


  • remove fabric from lingerie bag and gently shake it out

  • machine dry on the air cycle NO HEAT!

  • when drying by machine, do not mix with other clothes and do not use dryer sheets!

  • when dry, you can lightly press if needed

  • store on hangers (this helps to straighten the grain and keeps folds to a minimum) or roll up and wrap in acid-free tissue


If the vintage fabrics are printed or darker colored, you can test for colorfastness by snipping a small corner off and placing it in VERY hot tap water. If the fabric bleeds (changes the color of the water) then it is not colorfast and if you make anything from it without treating it first, it may stain your dolls!

You can try setting the dye by filling your washing machine with cold water. Add 2 cups white vinegar, one cup salt, and a capful of color-safe detergent. Agitate this for a minute and stop machine. Add your fabric (in lingerie bags) and continue on the delicate cycle. This works well with all natural fibers but will not be 100% reliable with the newer man-made fibers.

There are also other (more expensive) products on the market that can help you to set the colors of your vintage fabrics and I will have links for those up soon.

What do I do about stains?

If you ask 10 different people, you will get 10 different answers. Here's what I do. If your vintage fabric is discolored because of age but has a nice even coverage, you may just want to leave it that way to take advantage of the mellowing to lend that vintage look to your doll garment.

It is best to try and remove stains by first trying more natural remedies than using the harsher chemicals.

For white, ecru, and light colors, place the stained fabric/garment on a white towel and simply dab the stain with some lemon juice or white vinegar (use a white cloth to do this so there is no dye transfer in the process!) and then sprinkle on a little salt. Rub gently with your finger and let it sit for 5 minutes. Rinse gently and check to see if it worked. If not, try again.

You can also use a dab of white toothpaste (do not use any colored toothpaste!) and rub it into the stain and let sit. Rinse and check. Repeat if necessary.

If worse comes to worse and nothing seems to be working, you can try one of the new oxygenated bleaches now available on the market. I would advise that if you are merely spot treating, that you go with the spray. If you wish to soak, then use the powder but be sure to dissolve it completely BEFORE you add the fabric/garment.

Follow the manufacturer's instructions and please keep in mind that harsh chemicals should be your last choice for stain removal in these types of fabric. After spot treating or soaking, continue on with the washing directions as stated above. (There are also some other stain removal chemicals available and I will post links to those soon).

You may also want to have a dry cleaner give it a try too, but be sure that they are specialists in vintage fabrics first!

Darker colors and woolens. All of these need to be washed and rinsed with cold water. In some instances, some colors may even bleed in cold water (see note above about setting the dye if it bleeds). So it is important to wash these separately. Spot treat with a gentle soap (Johnson's baby wash or a mild shampoo work just fine, but stay away from any that have conditioner in them). Then soak the entire piece before washing as stated above in the washing section.

Wool should not be agitated at all and should be spot treated and washed by hand. Simply spot treat, soak, and swish in the water gently. Rinse until there are no bubbles. Do not squeeze or wring. Lay flat on an absorbant towel. Keep changing the towel every few hours until piece is dry. Press as needed and use the proper setting on your iron. Make sure it is absolutely dry before pressing!

Silks should always be taken to a dry cleaner since they are prone to water spots/staining. Again, make sure that the dry cleaner that you choose is a specialist!

And may have to come to accept that some stains on your vintage fabrics simply will not respond to treatment and are permanent. Save it anyway. Just make something smaller with it.

Determining fabric content

Knowing the fabric content is important. You can either trust the person you bought it from (i.e. they told you it was cotton, etc.) or you can try a couple different things to determine the content, or you can just throw all caution to the wind and wash on the delicate cycle and hope for the best. It's yours, so you can decide.

With cotton, flax, or linen, a simple "press test" may be all that you need. Set your iron for a cotton setting and wait until it is fully heated. Fold a corner of your fabric over and press as you normally would. Then remove the iron. If the fabric stays perfectly flat (and I do mean flat!) then it is a natural fiber. If however, the fabric wants to perk up (lifts and does not have a sharp crease) then most likely it has some man-made fibers blended in or the entire content is man-made.

Another test is the burn test. You will need a small glass plate, long tweezers, and a lighter. Snip a one inch square of your fabric and hold it with the tweezers over the glass plate. Light the fabric and let it burn, letting the ashes or melted fibers fall to the plate if you need to (it won't take long). Please be careful that you do not burn yourself! If the fabric burns to an ash (which may be varying colors), then it is a natural fiber. If it melts or gets hard, then it is synthetic. Most (but not all) vintage fabrics are comprised of natural fibers. Antique fabrics are always natural fibers.

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