Sew Thrifted: Q & A

Hello! Welcome to the first stop of Sew Thrifted an inspirational challenge all about sewing with the thrifted & vintage fabrics you love but maybe hesitant to use in your next project. My goal during the next three weeks is to share with you my vintage sheet sewing knowledge and I want this to be a two way conversation! Please share what you know and your tips and tricks in the comments here or on Instagram; just search our hashtag #sewthrifted2017.

My partner in this endeavor is Amanda Ward from Gypsy Moon Quilts. Amanda has a knack for sewing up adorable projects using beautiful color palates all from thrifted textiles. Amanda is posting over on her blog too answering questions about how to get fabric out of garments and using different weight fabric in your projects. Be sure to check out her unique perspective too. I love that she has a passion for thrifted fabrics as much as I do but she’s got a different niche’ – more knowledge to share with you!

Let me introduce myself too; I’m Kelly the creator here at Vintage Fabric Studio. I have been thrifting longer than I have been sewing. One of my first memories is of my mom taking me to the Goodwill here in Portland, Oregon. This thrift shop was in a converted office building with all these different rooms filled with second hand treasures. One of the rooms held all the sewing notions, fabric, patterns & crafts. This place was heaven for me and watching my mom sift and sort through that room will forever be a part of who I am.

Fast forward to now, where I continue to sift and sort through the thrift shops in Portland collecting the best vintage sheets I can find and bringing them to you in a way that makes sewing simple, fun & adorable.

So let’s get into the Q & A session, shall we!

Q: Vintage sheets are a poly/cotton blend; what are some tricks for quilting with them.

A: Yes, vintage sheets are 50/50 cotton and polyester which gives them a different feel than the quilting cottons we are used to. I have found that using starch and an iron set to cotton or lower will help you a lot when piecing, pressing and cutting. (check out my homemade spray starch recipe here) Test out your iron temperature to get it just right; the cotton setting may be too hot for a the poly blend fabric.

Another easy trick is to use a sharp needle with a fine gauge like 11/75 if an 12/80 quilting needle is feeling kinda clunky in your machine. When it comes time to apply quilting the finished quilt make sure to baste thoroughly using spray baste or pins. The more the better in this case because of the polyester content there is more give to the fabrics and that can lead to puckering.

My best advice to sewing with vintage sheets is to let go of perfection. A seam may wobble even though it has been pressed well. Think back to the time when these fabrics were first created; there were no rotary cutters & self-healing mats. Remember the days of scissors, cardboard templates and un-even seam allowances.  Sewing with vintage sheets may not be what you are used to and that’s okay too. There is a bigger reason why I sew with vintage and that is my mission: Re-purpose with a purpose. Taking a piece of cloth with lots of life to give and letting it continue in a new form; a quilt, a pillow case, a tote bag, a pincushion…the possibilities are endless with a piece of fabric.

Q: Should I pre-wash all the fabric? What about pre-wash batting?

A: Yes, pre-wash any vintage sheets or fabric you bring home. Not only will it help get that thrift store smell out it also lets you know if those vintage fabrics are going to bleed. Vintage sheets are color fast but vintage fabrics are not and you will want to thoroughly wash before use. Check out how I wash all my vintage sheets and fabrics in my blog post: Super Wash.

Batting is a different story and you don’t have to pre-wash; although there are quilters that do and I think it is a personal preference.

Q: What about the grain of the fabric in the sheets?

A: Grain of the fabric is important when sewing because it determines how stretchy your edges are. If you cut on the bias (diagonal 45 degrees from the selvage edge) that cut edge is stretchy and easily manipulated. This can be good for sewing curves but in quilt piecing stretchy edges are not our friend.

There are two ways to cut fabric to make sure you get a stable edge. First is cutting on a weft edge (perpendicular to selvage) and the second is the warp edge (parallel to selvage).

When cutting vintage sheets I rip the sheet to make sure that I am getting a straight grain weft edge to start my measuring. If you start with an on-grain straight edge you can be sure that all subsequent edges are good to go. I will be posting a video on just how I get my sheets from a king or queen into a fat quarter size on-grain. Look for that later in the week (I will post a link here when it goes live).

Q: What about mixing vintage sheets with store bought fabrics?

A: Mix it up! I love to use solids with the prints of vintage sheets but anything works as long as you take a couple precautions we’ll talk about next.


Q: Can I mix old worn fabrics with new stronger fabrics? Will the seams pull or tear?

A: Vintage sheets vary in quality. Some are washed hundreds of times before they get into the thrift shop and others feel brand new. My best advice for sewing with these fabrics is make sure to choose quality sheets before you buy. That said if you start with a good weight of fabric and you are using a reliable sewing machine with an average stitch length there shouldn’t be a problem. If you are concerned with something in particular, like a loose woven linen and a vintage sheet, then decrease your stitch length and finish the seam with a zig-zag stitch along the edges.


Q: How do I find vintage sheets at estate sales/thrift shops/online and what are reasonable prices?

A: Thrift shops are my best bet for sourcing sheets at a reasonable price but there are other places like Ebay, Instagram sellers, Etsy, garage sales and even Facebook. If you are in an area with thrift shops then start looking there and know that you may not find any on your first try. Some days I find a stack of pretty sheets and other days, nada.

Websites like Ebay & Etsy tend to be on the high end of the price spectrum but if you are looking for a particular design new in the bag you will more than likely find it there. Garage or Estate sales are hit or miss for me. If you have the garage sale touch then try looking in older neighborhoods and be there early if you want to get the best pieces.

Prices can vary from 50 cents to $50 for a new in bag set of sheets so set a budget of what you are comfortable paying (including shipping if applicable) and then be patient. Collecting vintage sheets takes time. I started with a handful of prints in 2014 and now I stock over 100 different fat quarter prints.

Q: Where can I find vintage fabric online?

A: If you are in a location where the thrift stores are not happening then online is the place to look for quality vintage fabrics. I have had good luck on Ebay & Etsy for bundles of vintage fabric in styles I am looking for. The best way to search for vintage fabric is to go to the website (Ebay for example) and search for vintage fabric in a category that speaks to you. Also check what other items the seller has to offer and the feedback rating before you buy.

Searching for ‘vintage fabric’ through a search engine is also a good place to start but the search results can be broad. Try adding a search term to your inquiry like; quilting, cotton, garment, dress making, novelty, for sale etc. depending on what type of fabric and project you are looking for.

Q: How to tell if items are vintage rather than just thrifted.

A: Great question! With so much vintage inspired product out there it can be tough to distinguish between thrifted and vintage. For vintage sheets the tell-tale sign is the tag. The tag will say what the fabric content of the sheet is (50/50 cotton/polyester) and most likely (but not always) read percale or some variation of -cale. Also sheets made in this era will say Made in the USA.  See the photo below for some tag examples.

The other way you can tell is the design and feel of the sheet. I can rub my hand over a sheet and tell if it is a vintage sheet that I want to take home with me. This is where the discerning eye of quality comes in because even though it is vintage it might be too thread bare to make it into the cart. The motifs of the time were large scale floral, small flower bouquets, butterflies, bright colors, stripes and geometric angles. To get familiar with the prints search ‘vintage bed sheets’ in google images or #vintagesheets on instagram. There are thousands of prints to scroll through!

Q: How do I decide what to use when starting a project.

A: Jump right in and choose a pattern or a color palette first. When I start a project one of choices leads me to a design. If I have a pattern in mind I will choose my fabrics to best work with that pattern. I may use 3 fabrics or 10 depending on what feel I am going for. If I have a stack of fabric in mind first then I will search out a pattern to fit with those fabrics.

Using vintage textiles is no different than using quilt shop cottons; what is different is the feel of your finished project which will be unlike anything anyone has done.


Q: How do I know I am getting the right quantities of fabric for my next project?

A: When buying a vintage sheet you get a lot of fabric for a small initial investment but if you are wanting to make a scrappy quilt with lots of different prints it can start to add up – both in money and in extra fabric. A few ways to combat this problem would be to buy just what you need from vintage sellers online (hey that’s me!), get together with some thrifting/sewing friends and trade your vintage sheets finds, or stretch out your fabric over several projects (make a skirt, quilt back, matching pillow cases).  If you have a specific project use the guidelines included in it.

Wow! That was a lot of information in one blog post! I hope this post helped to answer your vintage sheet thrifting and sewing questions. If you have a thought about any of these topics or something I didn’t write about please leave me a comment and join the discussion and don’t forget to check out Amanda’s post too at Gypsy Moon Quilts. Let’s share our vintage sewing knowledge with each other and inspire each other to sew vintage with confidence!