This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of GreenCraft Magazine.
Vintage Linen Upcycled Collages
My love for vintage linens began in high school, when the beautify of hand-embroidered pillowcases and fun patterns of printed hankies was more than I could resist. Since those early years, I have collected many vintage linens and needlework at our local thrift shops. Women from years past put so much amazing, time-consuming skill and talent into their tablecloths, pillow cases, and doilies – skills that are very much less known today. I hate seeing such beauty just hanging there forlorn on the racks, so I bring them home. I have way too many to use, however, and many of them are badly stained or have tears in them. But the beautiful edgings are usually still in perfect condition.
Today’s home décor doesn’t lend itself to these old-fashioned linens, at least for the most part. While admiring my large collection one day, but noticing the many brown stains or areas wearing thin from use and washings by the original owners, I became inspired to trim off the best parts of these vintage linens and turn them into something more updated that could still be used to show off the time and love that women of the past put into them.
I begin by selecting my canvas size. I then sort through my generous stash of linens, looking particularly for edgings that can run straight across the canvas or that have a gentle curve (such as on the corners of a linen) or a small embroidered pattern that can be incorporated onto the canvas.
Next, I place the linens against the canvas (keeping in mind whether I want the patterns to run vertical or horizontal) and roughly estimate the appropriate length to trim off the piece I want to use. I will trim long enough to have room to wrap each piece around the canvas and onto the back. I continue making these choices until I’ve selected enough to cover the canvas or have enough to start creating the design I have in mind. Then, I trim. I don’t find that my trimmings need to be precise; I like having a bit more imperfection. If I’m trimming edging off to use, I try to leave about half an inch of the fabric on top attached to it for adhesion purposes.
Sometimes I will first cover the entire canvas with some of the stained, frayed white linen from the unembellished part of the piece. I trim enough to wrap around onto the back of the canvas about an inch on each side. I then use matte acrylic gel medium as my adhesive. I cover the entire canvas with a thin layer of the gel medium and then smooth the fabric over it, trying to slide out any bubbles that appear. If you can’t remove all of the bubbles, though, that is ok. It adds to the vintage, imperfect nature of the piece. Once the front is covered, I apply gel medium to the edges of the canvas, wrap the fabric around and smooth out. I fold the corners of the fabric under and then apply more gel medium to the back edges of the canvas and finish this process by adhering the fabric edges to the back.
The lovely thing about matte gel medium is that it is a forgiving adhesive that doesn’t look too obvious or out of place if it happens to show through or a smidge is accidentally wiped onto the top surface! I always wear plastic gloves because I like to use my fingers to smooth out the glue, and the gel medium is hard to get off of skin.
Occasionally, I will use Mod Podge to place a piece of road map or vintage book pages onto the canvas instead. If I do this, I will also apply a thin layer or paint or gesso over the map to make it more subdued. Sometimes I also add other three-dimensional items to the canvas.
If I’ve selected enough embroidered edges and pieces to cover the canvas on its own, then I usually skip this step of covering the canvas with an entire piece fabric or paper beforehand.
Then I begin the process of placing the stars of the piece onto the canvas – the embroidered, crocheted, or tatted edgings and patterns. I always figure out my placement before I start adhering the items. If I am doing a design of straight edges across the entire canvas, I will start adhering at the bottom row. Again, I paint a line of gel medium and adhere the fabric border to that, leaving the needle work edging as loose as possible. Once I’ve finished placing all of the pieces onto the front of the canvas, I flip it over and repeat the process with the edgings along the back of the canvas to wrap it up. Then I sit back, admire my work, and leave it to dry for a day or so.
Blank canvases in whatever size you wish
A nice assortment of vintage linens, collected from thrift stores or garage sales
Matte acrylic gel medium
Wear plastic gloves for easy clean up of your hands after adhering the fabric to the canvas
Don’t worry about imperfections in your linens – they add to the charm
Experiment with adding other items to the canvas as well
Feel free to mix up patterns and colors
Don’t be afraid to cut into the fabric, even if it feels wrong to cut into such beautiful linens