Over the years I've gotten a lot of questions about finding and sewing with vintage sheets. So, I've written up this post as a resource for all things vintage sheets! So get ready and get thrifting!
New to thrifting? Check out my Thrifting 101 post!
How to Identify Vintage Sheets
1. I have been working with vintage sheets long enough that when I see a sheet I can usually tell at a glance whether it is vintage or not. This instinct is (I think!), based mostly on color and pattern. In general, the patterns used in vintage sheets are busier and (in my opinion!) more interesting than today's sheets. Nowadays it seems that solid sheets and toned down patterns are more popular, with the exception perhaps of teen and child sheet sets which are often fun and colorful. Vintage sheets tend to be very colorful, whether it be super bright or simply lots of variety.
2. Another way to tell whether a sheet is vintage or not, is the feel of the sheet. For the most part, vintage sheets made in the United States at were 50%/50% polyester cotton blends. This is a big difference compared to today's sheets, which are generally 100% cotton unless you're buying inexpensive sheets. This blend gives sheets a certain feel. They are normally not wrinkly (thanks to the polyester!), and have a slightly slippery, thinner feel.
3. Last but not least, check the tag if it's still there. It's usually along the thin bottom hem. The tag can sometimes be a dead giveaway! Most vintage sheets have tightly woven tags with the information printed on it. This is a contrast to today's plastic-y tags and woven tags. There are some vintage sheets that have the plastic tags, but they would be slightly newer.
The look of the tag and the brand or line can help you approximate what era it is from as well. Some common vintage sheet brands and lines include Cannon (Monticello, Featherlite), JcPenny (Percale), Pequot (Percale), Springmaid (Wondercale), Sears Roebuck and Co. (Perma-Prest, Percale), Pacific Miracale, Vera, Penneys (Fashion Manor, Penn-Prest), Dan River (Dantrel), Wamsutta (Superlin). Just to name a few from my sheet stash!
Keep in mind, more important than whether or not a sheet is vintage, is whether or not you like the pattern! Every once and a while I find a sheet that isn't vintage that I really like, and I don't let that stop me from buying it. If you like it, go for it!
How and Where to Shop for Vintage Sheets
When you first see a sheet that appeals to you, there are a few things you should thinking about before buying.
1. Check for stains, paint, and any holes or tears. Depending on what you'll be using the sheet for, you may be able to still purchase a sheet with some imperfections. However, if you intend to use it as a quilt backing or as an actual sheet, you'll want to be sure it's okay. Keep in mind some stains can be removed, but not all.
2. Check for matching pillowcases or additional sheets. Some thrift shops will keep sets together and attempt to sell them as sets. Sometimes though, pieces get separated. Most shops have the pillowcases together, separate from the sheets and sheet sets. Check there before leaving, you might end up with a set!
3. Check the middle. This is especially important for fitted sheets. They are often faded or thin in the center from prolonged use. Again, depending on your needs, it might not be a big deal, but definitely check!
My favorite place to shop for vintage sheets is thrift stores. For my tips and resources on thrifting, check out this post. My second favorite place to shop for vintage sheets is Etsy.com. There is a huge vintage section of the site, and you can often find both whole un-cut sheets as well as fat quarters or yardage.
How to Care for Vintage Sheets
Now that you've thrifted a few sheets, it's time to treat and care for them.
1. The first thing that I like to do when I come home with a pile of sheets is again, check them for stains. If a sheet has a lot of stains or is pretty dingy, I will presoak it before washing it. I like to soak my sheets in hot water + a little detergent + a healthy scoop of Oxi-clean. I LOVE Oxi-clean. It can do amazing things, even to vintage fabrics. I highly recommend trying it out. You do have to be careful as it is strong, so especially with delicate linens, make sure it doesn't eat them. I've never had a problem, but you never know.
2. After I've presoaked any sheets that need it, I wash them. I like to wash sheets with hot water, using detergent and Oxi-clean. Then I dry them on high heat for 45 minutes. The hot water and hot dry simply insure that they are nice and clean!
3. When they come out of the dryer, I like to find a place to lay them out so they can cool off and won't get wrinkly. Then, I stack them all up and put them away!
One thing to note, if you happen to find a sheet that's new in the package, it may need a little extra care before it's ready to sew. Used vintage sheets are so soft because they've been washed and dried many times over the years. Unused vintage sheets tend to be a bit stiff and may need a few extra washes to soften them up and make them easier to work with.
If you're interested in how I cut up my vintage sheets into easily usable pieces for quilting, see my tutorial here.
How to Sew and Quilt with Vintage Sheets
Sewing with vintage sheets is pretty much the same as sewing with regular quilting cotton. Most sheets are a little slippery because of the fiber content and higher thread count. This means there are a few things to do different when sewing with sheets.
1. Use a sharp, new needle. My favorite general needles sizes are 80/12 and 75/11 (or 70/10). I use both Schmetz Universal and Organ HL needles regularly in my machines.
2. 100% polyester thread. For most quilting projects I use 100% cotton thread, but I find polyester to work better with vintage sheets. The higher thread count means the fabric is more tightly woven, and I find polyester thread stitches more smoothly through vintage sheets. I prefer Guterman Sew-All Thread, usually in white.
3. Press well, using starch or a starch alternative (I love Flatter by Soak). That slipperiness can be combated by a bit of starch. This helps stiffen things up a bit while sewing and can make sheets easier to work with.
4. Backstitch. I tend to be an over-backstitcher in all my quilting, but I find backstitching especially important with vintage sheets. Sometimes the sheets can be pretty delicate and may fray easily. Taking the time to backstitch at the beginning and end of every seam helps give your project a little extra longevity.
5. Use pins when piecing. Again that little bit of extra slipperiness means you may need a few extra pins to keep things straight as you sew. Take advantage of nice sharp pins! (These pins are my favorite.)
6. Take extra care while basting your project. I use a few extra pins when working with sheets in comparison to quilts made from quilting cotton. When in doubt, over baste. I've never regretted using more pins, only less!
Projects I've Made Using Vintage Sheets
Vintage Sheet Scrappy Trip Quilt
Giant Vintage Star Quilt (and Tutorial)
Sparkling Cider Quilt
Patchwork Prism Quilt
Half-Square Triangle Pillow (and Tutorial)
Modern Crosses Mini Quilts
Starry Mini Quilt
Pillowcase Laundry Bag (and Tutorial)
Strip Scrap Valance
Wrapped Wreath (and Tutorial)