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How to Care for Embroidery Pieces

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Candlewick embroidery

Photo by MML

Mary Marlowe Leverette

Embroidery features elaborate stitches made by appling thread on a base fabric which can be cotton, wool, linen or silk. The threads can be wool, cotton, metallic, silk or acrylic. As with any hand-worked piece, care must be taken to preserve the work and time that has been invested.

First Things First

The first step in cleaning a vintage piece should be vacuuming. Cover the end of your vacuum hose with a piece of nylon stocking or light mesh. Starting on the front of the piece, vacuum keeping the nozzle just above the piece. If the piece is a pillow with an insert, turn the embroidery cover inside out and repeat the process on the backside of the piece.

This may be enough to brighten the piece and give it the look you need. If the piece is still dirty, you will need to clean it. You can clean it yourself, but it is not recommended if you don’t know what materials were used to create the piece. Dry cleaning is best if you are unsure of the fiber content but you are taking a risk if the cleaner does not know how to handle handwork. If the piece has great monetary or sentimental value, consider consulting with a professional textile conservator. Your local art museum should be able to recommend one.

Test for Colorfastness

Before doing anything, you must check the fibers for colorfastness to prevent dyes from running. Testing is simple, if there are large blocks of color wet a piece of white cloth with cold water and gently rub it over each different color in your piece. If there are small areas, use a cotton swab. If there is any color transfer to the white cloth or swab, don’t wash your piece at all. Washing will result in discoloration and fading.

Hand Wash or DIY Dry Clean?

If your piece is not heavily soiled and just needs some freshening, consider using one of the DIY home dry cleaning kits. Be sure you’ve done the colorfast test and then follow the instructions with the kit. Your pillow or wall-hanging will be freshened and should nothing more than a light pressing.

If the piece is really dirty, you can hand wash the piece. Before you begin, measure the completed area. Remove the piece from the pillow, footstool or backing. If the edges have not been finished, you will need to tape or sew the edges to keep the piece from raveling.

Hand Washing

If you have hard water or iron bacteria in your water source, you should use distilled water for washing your piece. You don’t want to risk having minerals stain your fabric.

To hand-wash, fill a deep, laundry sink with cold water. Be certain that the sink is very clean and has no residue from cleaning agents that could cause damage to the piece. Use a liquid detergent that is gentle and free of dyes and perfumes. A liquid detergent will disperse in the water and leave less residue on the fabric.

Place your piece in the water, being certain that the entire piece gets wet. Gently move the piece around in the water. Allow the piece to remain in the water for about 10 minutes. Next, drain the wash water and fill the sink again with fresh water. Repeat draining and refilling the sink until the water and piece are soap free – clear water and no suds.

Drying and Pressing

Do not wring the embroidery piece. Roll the piece in a towel and squeeze gently to remove excess water. Place the embroidery flat on a dry towel and allow to dry. If the piece needs pressing, place a thick white towel on the ironing board. Put the embroidery face down on the towel, cover with a lightweight white cloth and press on the back.

How to Salvage a Stained Piece

Quite often embroidery threads are not colorfast and you will have dye bleeding. To remove the stains from color bleeding, follow these steps.

If, after cleaning, your piece still has stains, you may be able to salvage it by hiding the stain. Additional stitching may cover the stain or the design could be cut out and appliquéd onto another background. If the piece has historical value, you should not damage the piece by trying to correct the work yourself.

With proper care, your embroidered art should last for generations to come.

Specific questions? Just ask here.

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