Cleaning and Preserving Vintage Needlework and Cross Stitch

A stitch design

The Spruce / Pam Pedersen 

Collecting, restoring, and displaying vintage cross stitch and needlework is a passion for many people. There is one problem with vintage linens, and that is how to restore them without damaging the intricate needlework.  Many beautiful pieces are kept in attics and basements and acquire a musty smell or discoloring. It is disheartening to think that so much work is just being kept in a box in a dank dark spot. Once you rescue a piece of vintage needlework, restoring it to its original state it is a challenge. Below are a few ways to care for vintage needlework.


The first thing you should do when you get a vintage piece of cross stitch is to vacuum it. Cover the nozzle with a pair of stockings or mesh and vacuum the dust out. This will also get rid of some of the musty smell that the piece has acquired while in storage. If the piece is just old without stains, this may take care of it and will make it ready for display. If there is a still a musty smell to it, you can use baking soda and lightly dust the piece with the soda and vacuum it up. Don't let the baking soda sit, it may discolor the piece. If there are stains, you may need to move the next step; washing the needlework. 


Before washing the needlework, make sure that you check and see if the dye on the floss is colorfast. You can do this by cutting a piece of the floss off of the back (if possible) and running over water, set it on a paper towel and see if the dye runs onto the paper towel. This may seem time-consuming, but it will save you so much heartache if you wash the cross-stitch without checking and the color runs, destroying the entire panel.

Some pieces you will not able to do this because there are no strings to cut in the back. It is risky, but you will have to take the plunge and hand-wash it. Bright colors usually are the most at risk of their dye running. Wash it at your own risk. Hand wash or machine wash on delicate in cold water! This will also save the dyes from running. There are detergents specifically designed to get out stains in cold water. 

When you hand-wash you will want to run a sink full of cold water and use a very gentle detergent, like Woolite or lingerie-specific detergent. If there are intense stains, you can use something like Oxyclean for the stains. Submerge the piece into the water and swish the needlework around. Do not leave it in the water for more than 10 minutes. Drain the sink and rinse with cold water. Lay flat to dry. Never wring out the stitching! Never use hot water! The hot water will take out the dye from the floss and may damage the fabric. Never twist the fabric you just washed. If the piece is vintage, you can ruin the stitching. 

Airing and Drying

There are occasions that the needlework just needs airing out. This is super easy. You can set it outside to get some fresh air or if possible, you can use spray items that take out the stale smell. You can also use carpet fresheners and vacuum the stitching. Be very careful using spray items. Test on a small piece of fabric to make sure it doesn't stain. 

When you dry your vintage needlework, make sure that you lay it flat with a towel underneath it. You do not want to hang it to dry. This will stretch out and distort the piece. Depending on the size of the needlework and the material used to create it, drying times may go from 24 to 48 hours. 

Other Options

The last option for restoring vintage needlework is to take it to a professional dry-cleaner, specifically one that works with upholstery cleaning. They will have the tools and the detergents to gently clean the piece. Contacting someone who works with restoring furniture is another option. This is an expensive option, but it does save time and stress for you.

Collecting vintage needlework is an excellent way to connect to the past and to keep a piece of history. Proper care and cleaning will allow your collection to last for years to come for the next generation to take care of.