Vintage Linens: Identifying Textile Treasures of the Past

Updated June 23, 2022
handling textiles in an antique store

Vintage linens are some of the most collectible and fascinating items you will find at antique stores and flea markets. From hand-embroidered tablecloths to curtains made from beautiful old fabric, these vintage and antique textiles can add history and charm to any home. In some cases, they are very affordable, but some antique linens can be worth hundreds. Learn how to spot vintage textiles and what to look for when you shop.

How Can You Tell if Linens Are Vintage?

Identifying vintage linens is easier than you may think. Many pieces feature incredible handmade details that simply don't exist in modern textiles. You'll also see fabrics that don't appear in modern linens. Here are some specific qualities to help you identify vintage lines:

  • Embroidery - Delicate hand embroidery is a feature on many vintage pillowcases, handkerchiefs, tablecloths, and more. Look on the back of the piece for small knots made by hand.
  • Natural fabrics - Although some vintage textiles from the 1940s and after are made of synthetics and synthetic blends, most vintage and antique linens are made from cotton, linen, and other natural fabrics.
  • Hand stitching - Some antique linens feature hand stitching, rather than machine sewing. Look for stitches that are small but not uniform and are made with a single thread.
  • Monograms - Pillow cases, sheets, tea towels, handkerchiefs, and other linens sometimes have embroidered monograms. These stylized initials can be very collectible.
  • Handmade lace - Examine the edge of linens to determine whether the lace was added by hand. Tatting and lace making were popular hobbies, and many women worked handmade lace borders on everything from pillow cases to tablecloths. Additionally, some pieces like doilies are made entirely of handmade lace.
Hand Made Laces

Types of Vintage Linens

If you're shopping in a flea market or antique store, there are a number of different antique and vintage linens you might encounter. These are some of the pieces you may find.

Vintage Bed Linens

The bedroom was and still is a great place to display special linens. In some cases, girls would spend years creating items for a hope chest, and many of these pieces were bed linens. These handworked items are exceptionally beautiful as accents in a modern bedroom.

  • Pillowcases - Embroidering pillowcases was a popular hobby throughout the early 1900s, and you'll find many special designs. Look for handmade lace edges, delicate embroidery with flowers and other pretty designs, and good quality cotton fabric.
  • Coverlets and bedspreads - Machine-made vintage coverlets can be a stylish and fun choice, especially if they are emblematic of a specific era. Also look for handmade lace bedspreads.
  • Quilts - Antique quilts are especially beautiful, and you can find them in good condition if you look carefully. Some of the best examples are entirely stitched by hand.
Quilt Closet

Vintage Table Linens

The table is another place vintage linens really shine. These items are often beautifully preserved, since previous owners may have saved them for use only on special occasions.

  • Antique tablecloths - Vintage and antique tablecloths come in all shapes and sizes to fit various tables. You'll also see table runners. Either way, these vintage tablecloths have special touches like hand embroidery, handmade lace, monograms, and more.
  • Vintage napkins - Vintage napkins can be a bit more difficult to find in good condition, especially if you're looking for a matched set. They are often made of linen or printed cotton fabric, and it's common to find embroidered details and monograms.
  • Vintage tea towels - Vintage tea towels come in all different styles and patterns, and they are absolutely full of charm. Look for adorable embroidered designs and simple fabrics like linen or cotton.
Vintage tea time

Other Vintage Linens

Many women used linens in other places in the home as well. These include vintage handkerchiefs, which feature wonderful embroidery and handmade lace. You'll also see handmade doilies and dresser scarves, designed to decorate the surfaces of wood and upholstered furniture.

Vintage Landline Phone On Table

How Valuable Are Old Linens?

Vintage linens can range in value from under five dollars to hundreds of dollars. They can be an affordable item to collect if you're just starting out, but you can also invest in special pieces for a high-end collection.

Factors Affecting the Value of Vintage Linens

There are several factors that can affect the value of vintage linens:

  • Condition - Stains, tears, pulls, loose threads, and other damage will lower the value of vintage textiles.
  • Quality - Linens made of high-quality materials and featuring gorgeous craftsmanship will always be worth more than those of lower quality.
  • Scale - Large, high-quality pieces tend to be worth more than smaller items.
  • Age - In general, the older a piece is, the more it is worth - all other factors being equal.
  • Usefulness - Items like bedspreads that have a use in today's homes are often worth more than less useful items like doilies.

Sample Values for Antique and Vintage Linens

As with all antique values, the key to understanding how much vintage textiles are worth is comparing them to recently sold items that are similar. Here are some sample values of vintage linens from recent sales:

What Can You Do With Old Linens?

Just like other collectibles, there are lots of ways to incorporate vintage textiles into your decor. Decorating with antique linens is fun, and it offers lots of possibilities:

  • You can use bed linens and table linens as they were designed, making sure to display them prominently.
  • You can also repurpose old textiles into new things, such as pillow covers for your couch.
  • Create window treatments with antique linens by carefully sewing smaller pieces together or backing larger items like tablecloths with new fabric linings.
  • Use vintage linens as framed accents on your wall, especially if they feature pretty embroidery or decoration.
  • Make a table runner out of several vintage napkins sewn together.

Antique Linens Add a Sense of History

Antique textiles can be the perfect touch if you're creating a vintage farmhouse interior or simply want to add a sense of history to your home. They're also beautiful to collect and can be valuable heirlooms to pass on to future generations.

Vintage Linens: Identifying Textile Treasures of the Past