A Material Difference: Vintage Sheets

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I promise you, nothing compares to that sweet burst of nostalgia that comes from finding a set of Care Bear sheets you had as a child, and getting to use them in a quilt.

For that reason alone, quilting with bed sheets seems to be a trend gone permanent, turning into a sub-set of quilts.

But there are so many more satisfying, feel-good reasons to quilt with vintage sheets. It’s environmentally friendly as all get-out, giving fresh life to discarded materials. (It’s the ultimate scrap-quilting high.) And if you’re purchasing from a thrift store, there’s usually a charitable tie-in, so with your dollars, you’re supporting a good cause.

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Speaking of dollars, when I was browsing a local second-hand shop to “research” (aka, feed the stash), it struck me: I could buy these leafy-daisy print sheets—unique, delightfully faded, soft—for less than $3 per yard. The coffee in my hand cost more than that, for goodness sake! (What can I say? I like a li’l caramel drizzle.)

The quality you’re getting (for pennies!) is truly astounding. The thread count on bed sheet fabric is often far higher than quilting cotton. While you can find some sheets that are 100% cotton, the 50/50 cotton and polyester blends tend to be the most common.

Solid-colored bed sheets have been popular for the past 10, 15 years, so for the fun prints, you need to search out kids’ sheets or go vintage. Vintage sheets (anything older than 20 years, really) are a treasure trove of amazing florals, stripes, checks, and prints that are so much fun to mix and match.

Thrift stores, consignment shops, estate sales are all ideal places to find sheets— the in-person browsing gives you that extra special thrill of the hunt, and you can also examine the sheets.

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Melissa Mora, of Melly Sews, is a garment sewer and bed sheet enthusiast. She has great advice on her website for finding and buying vintage sheets, pointing out that sheets tend to suffer from uneven fading, usually in the middle where the sheets get the most wear-and- tear. (You know, the snooze spots.) As a result, they can also be very thin.

She also cautions you to remember that you can’t just go out and buy more of this fabric, so plan and proceed with care.

The joy of making quilts from sheets is that, unlike garment sewing, you can use all the small bits, pieces, and strips at the edges of the sheets. And a non-faded pillowcase is a true find. Heck—that’s a full yard of fabric right there!

Etsy and eBay are good places for some online hunting. In my research, I found a site, Vintage Fabric Studio, which even sells pre-washed, curated, pre-cut bundles of vintage sheet fabric.

Washing. There, it got mentioned. That seems to be the biggest hang-up for most quilters. (Somebody slept on those. Eeeew!)

OK, so avoid anything that smells strongly of cigarettes, mildew, or pets, because those smells can be pretty hard to eradicate. Check for stains, too, and assume that any stain is unlikely to come out. These sheets, after all, have been laundered countless times and the stain is still there.

Another sound piece of advice: Wash the sheets the minute you bring them home. Don’t set them aside to wash later, and absolutely do NOT store unwashed sheets with your quilting cottons.

Pre-soak the bed sheets, if you like. Some quilters recommend OxiClean, others a combination of detergent and hydrogen peroxide, and yet others a saline solution.

When you do wash, wash HOT. (And maybe throw in a cup of vinegar during the rinse cycle.) And dry HOT. Bed sheets can take the heat, and it kills off lingering odors or moth eggs. (Yes, I know: Eeeew! Wash HOT and be brave.)

Once the sheets are thoroughly washed, cut out the seams on fitted sheets and pillowcases, and cut away those faded snooze spots. Turn your sheets into ready-to-use fabric.

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If you intend to combine your “sheet fabric” with regular quilting cotton in a quilt, pre-wash the quilting cotton. This will loosen up any sizing on the fabric, making the texture a slightly closer “match” to the well-washed, time-worn bed sheets.

Because your sheets are likely going to be the 50/50 blend, you’ll find that they resist wrinkling (great!), but don’t crease as well (bummer). You may find they don’t hold form as well as regular cotton does, and that the bias has more “wobble.”

If possible, use techniques that allow you to avoid bias edges by sewing first and cutting second. Also, speaking to the fabric sternly and using a good starch or stiffening agent helps.

Nana’s Star by Laura Piland from the September/October 2018 issue of Quilty

Nana’s Star by Laura Piland from the September/October 2018 issue of Quilty

A universal 80/12 needle is fine, and the cotton setting on the iron is perfect. For thread, some quilters seem to prefer 100% cotton. I’m personally a fan of trying to match your thread content to your fabric content, so they theoretically “age” the same. The trouble is that vintage sheets are already “well aged” and you don’t want to use old thread. Like, ever.

On her website In Color Order, Jeni Baker advocates using polyester thread with vintage sheets, saying it moves through the tight weave of the vintage sheets more smoothly. Give it a shot, I say!

Sweet dreams, and happy quilting!


This feature is included in the September/October 2018 issue of Quilty.

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