Friday, December 4, 2009


Who isn't thinking, these days, about Christmas gifts ??

Shoppers and browsers came by in a steady wave last weekend, for the Woodstock Inn Holiday Gift Show.  I had a marvelous time selling pillows and talking with all the wonderful, curious folks who stopped by to take a closer look, ooh, aah, and gingerly touch the vintage needlework.  I had to encourage many to pick up and hug a pillow:  that's what its made for :)

Now, not surprisingly, many confided that they, too, have grandma's vintage linens in their closets.  "I have stuff just like this! What a great idea!", seeing familiar pieces moved out of  the attic and made accessible as everyday pillows.  So, I'm thinking, I could add a bit of encouragement.  Let's get those lovely pieces of handwork out into the light, and stop being afraid of them! Your heirloom linen would make a perfect present for a loved one.  Here's the way I go about making the simplest of pillows, and you can do it too!!

The first step is to clean your piece.  A good soak in gentle detergent is always important, using warm water, and rinse, rinse, rinse.  (If the piece has storage stains, there are special soaks made specifically for vintage linens). I usually splash a bit of white vinegar in the final rinse to neutralize the alkalinity, and if it is a sunny day, hanging to dry in the sunshine is the best bleach.  Never, never wash in the machine, use chlorine bleach, or put antique or vintage pieces in the dryer :)

Press carefully while the fabric is still damp, and then enjoy deciding what fabrics and notions you will want to coordinate with your favorite piece of family history.  You can never go wrong with plain linen, which is my favorite, though there are many wonderful colors and textures available.  You might even have the perfect match with an old tablecloth or vintage tea towel!
As you lay out your fabrics, your pillow will begin to take shape before your eyes.  You will see what design, size and shape your pillow should be, and you can get a pillow insert form from your local craft or fabric shop. Not all inserts are the same, so shop carefully, and squeeze to make sure :)  If you want a feather insert, which makes a denser and floppier pillow,  you may have to contact an upholstery or design shop, and expect to pay nearly three times as much as a polyester fiberfill insert. Of course, you can always shop online, but I like to handle before I buy.

The next step is measuring and cutting.  Yikes!  You're committed now.  For a simple 14" square pillow, I would cut two pieces 15" square.  This gives a half inch for seams all around.  Of course, you want to pay attention to which way the lines of the fabric are going, make your cuts straight along the grain, and if there is a design on your fabric, you want to make sure it is balanced within the square of fabric you will be using.

So, how do you keep from getting those pointy dog-ear corners when your pillow is done?  You trim the corners a bit before you sew.  I use a nifty template, but you can carefully mark and cut your corners by making your own template with a 3x5 card.  The corners are each cut at a very gentle angle - the photograph should help.  If this seems too tricky to you, never mind. Nobody really notices the pointy corners afterward anyway!

I appreciate being able to remove the insert for cleaning, and I DO NOT like zippers in vintage pillows, so I try to create an envelope opening.  Usually this means incorporating the vintage piece as part of the envelope design.  To do this, the precious linen needs to be stabilized, so here I am backing it with the same fabric as the pillow case itself.  I have turned under the edges of the fabric, and will hand-stitch it to the embroidered linen around the edges.

With the vintage embroidered linen neatly sewn to its backing fabric, I have decided where I want it to be centered on the pillow, and have marked it for cutting.  This is the scary part!  It may feel like desecration of a hallowed object, but remember, this is your piece, and you are in fact setting it free from its dark, never-to-be-used confinement!

Before we sew the front and back together, we need to attach the vintage piece to the back to create the envelope flap.  I like to tailor all my seams with a finished french seam.  A serger will do just as well to keep the edges from raveling, or you can simply leave the edges and ignore them, your choice.  A tailored seam is a bit more work, but the result is very nice and tidy, and you will enjoy the confidence it adds in your finished pillow.

Now is the time to pin the two faces of your pillow together, right sides together if you're sewing a regular seam; and right sides out if you're sewing the first step of a french seam.  Carefully mark where your vintage piece is attached, and begin and end your sewing around the pillow on these marks, so that you don't sew the opening closed.  Turn, making sure the corners are fully turned, and press.  Turn under and hem the front edge of the opening.

Now is the fun part of adding buttons, if you've decided to secure the vintage envelope piece with some favorite old buttons.  I find its a good idea to get an idea of how the cover fits the pillow before I mark for the buttons.  Then, it's spacing and measuring according to what looks pleasing to you, and to the design of the pillow.

If you've never tried crochet, it  is easier than it looks. You can even make crochet thread button loops with your fingers, using quadrupled sewing thread!  I simply find some crochet cotton from my stash that matches the elements of the vintage piece, thread it through the fabric to make a loop, and keep pulling loops through with a crochet hook until it creates a long enough chain to fit the button, and then secure it back from where I started with a slip knot, and granny knot. Pull the loose ends of the thread with hook or needle back into the fabric until they disappear from sight.  AND, your pillow is finished!

Well, almost finished.  It doesn't really come to life until it's stuffed!  Go ahead, put that pillow form into it and watch the transformation.  Now, you have a beautiful, new pillow filled with memories of childhood to toss onto your sofa, chair or bed; or, maybe better yet, to present to someone who cherishes the old linens as much as you do.  ENJOY!

I am always delighted to create special orders for you from your own treasures.
Please email me if you would like to learn more.
I also have a few pillows available in my studio
made especially for Christmas.

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