My first experience with barkcloth was when I popped into an antiques store in northern Michigan and discovered a sage green swath of vintage fabric covered in large-scale tropical leaves. Its garnet red, sage green, and creamy ivory were a perfect match for the jewel tones in my former 1930's home.
And the texture! The crepe-like weave created a durable, textural, and special fabric. As with many vintage fabrics we discover, yardage wasn't plentiful. It was large enough to cover the tops of cushions for a vintage cane-backed settee and chair I used on my sunporch. A coordinating deep garnet cotton fabric was used for the cushion bottoms, sides, and cording.
After more than a decade, those cushions need reupholstering, but it's not because the vintage barkcloth has worn out; the newer cotton fabric has. The barkcloth has survived countless cat hairballs and two active boys.
What is Barkcloth?
Barkcloth is a soft, durable cotton textile woven in a technique that creates a nubby texture of highs and lows, which reminds some of the bark of a tree. If you are familiar with wool crepe, the weave is similar.
The name "barkcloth" comes from a primitive fabric originally made from fibers of tree bark found in tropical countries. In France in the 1920's, the fabric became known as "cretonne," a heavy cotton fabric with a nubby texture and playful florals. By the 1950's, barkcloth had became the most commonly used household textile in American homes, often used for draperies and upholstery because of its durability.
Choosing Vintage Fabrics
At Urban Cottage Style, we select all-cotton, authentic midcentury fabrics in great condition to create our collection of true vintage pillows. There’s a lot of life still left in these durable and beautiful fabrics. We select patterns and colors that are fresh and appropriate for today's modern interiors with a warm, vintage vibe.
Each season, we add a few more vintage beauties to our collection. (Can't wait for spring!)
Preparing Fabrics for Use
But let's be real. Does the smell of mothballs come to mind when you think of vintage fabrics? We get it. Rest assured, all our vintage fabrics are thoroughly cleaned, dried, and carefully prepared to create our true vintage decorative pillows.
Here's how we do it. If you find a fabulous vintage fabric panel for your own use, these steps will work for you, too.
- With a seam ripper, carefully remove any pleats or sewn fabric folds. This is necessary if the fabric you're working with is vintage drapery.
- Inspect the fabric for stains that need special attention. These are hard to spot once wet, so do this while the fabric is dry.
- Fill a sink with warm water and diluted Oxyclean solution. Be sure the Oxyclean is dissolved. Do not use a product containing chlorine bleach, as this will damage the fibers.
- Apply the Oxyclean solution to any noticeable stains and rub gently.
- Soak the entire fabric piece in the Oxyclean solution. Be sure it’s completely submerged. Work the fabric in the water, similar to kneading dough, but be careful not to pull or twist. Then let the fabric soak for a few hours.
Many fabrics can be cleaned, brightened, and freshened this way. We use this method also for vintage linen napkins, so don't pass those beauties up if you come across them but think they're too stained or aged for use.
- Remove the fabric from the water, drain the sink, and repeat the Oxyclean soaking steps until the water is clear.
- Fill the sink with only warm rinse water and soak the entire piece of fabric. You may need to repeat the rinse a few times.
- Remove the fabric from the rinse water and squeeze out excess water. Do not twist or wring.
- Wrap the fabric in a large, thick towel to absorb as much water as possible.
- Gently drape the fabric over a drying rack. In warm weather, try putting the drying rack outside for the fresh air and sunshine.
- When dry, carefully iron the fabric. You can check again for stubborn stains or pulled threads while ironing and mark these with tape so they can be considered when the fabric is laid out for cutting and sewing.
The fabric is now clean and fresh smelling, and colors are significantly brightened.
Eddie Ross, style editor and author of the fabulous book Modern Mix, also has suggestions for cleaning vintage linens. You might want to check out Eddie's tips as well.
How to Care for a True Vintage Pillow
Once you've purchased a true vintage pillow from Urban Cottage Style, there’s no need to be overly worried about its use or care. There's still a lot of of life in each of these old beauties, and barkcloth is very durable.
Each pillow comes with a care tag. As with any fine home textile product, we recommend spot cleaning or dry cleaning.
Questions? Let us know in the comments below!
All styling and photography by Urban Cottage Style, unless otherwise noted.