cleaning an antique grain sack

Marian ParsonsAll Things Home, Antiques, Cleaning & care, Favorite Finds47 Comments

I recently bought an antique German grain sack off of Etsy.  As an antique textile junkie and a lover of German things, I have been drawn to them for years and I’ve actually bought and sold a few after reworking them into projects.  Intact, ornate grain sacks from the 1800’s are rare and therefore expensive, so I usually just admire them and leave it at that.  Well, I finally had a specific project I wanted to use one for, so I bit the bullet and bought one that was really special.

I felt a little better about the splurge, because I bought one that has painted detail on two sides.  Most of them just have stenciling/hand painting on one side.  Of course, the side with the design is the feature and what makes the grain sack valuable.  Without that, it’s really just a dirty old sack.

With the hand painting, which is apparently done in a tar-based paint, it’s still a dirty old sack, but it’s beautifully labeled with the history of this hand-made farm staple.  What I love is that these farmers and their wives could’ve just slapped on their name, town, and a sack number.  Instead, they use ornate lettering and branded their sacks with style.  This was not a piece of art or bedding or something that was supposed to be a beautiful item.  It was a sack that would be filled with grain…over and over again with each harvest.  They were precious items, though, and you can tell that not only by the intricate lettering and designs, but by the dozens of hand-stitched patches.

I love the story these old sacks tell, which is another reason why I’m drawn to them.  A beautiful, functional thing that was woven in Germany by hand, used for hard work, repaired repeatedly, and it’s still here -over 100 years later.  Oh, the stories this sack could tell…

I received the grain sack a few days ago and excitedly unwrapped the packaging.  The piece was beautiful, but there was one teeny, tiny downside.  I don’t think this sack has been washed since 1899.  It was heavy and crusty with dirt.  I was so enamored with the design and the fact it had lettering on both sides AND a cow that I really didn’t notice all of the spots and stains in the photo in the listing!

It’s not the first time I was blind to the dirt on a stunning antique!  Remember that primitive gray cabinet I bought last year?  That thing was a chore to clean and make presentable.

Yes, that is squeaky clean compared to what it was.  Cleanliness in really old things that have lived for decades in a barn is definitely relative.  Such is the case with grain sacks.

This is my philosophy when it comes to bringing antique furniture and textiles into my home, though – they have to be clean and useable.  That is the bare minimum requirement.  I can’t use something in my home that stinks and is filthy.

So, all of this leads to the story of cleaning this beautiful grain sack that probably hasn’t been washed since the McKinley administration.

I texted my friend Emily from Penny & Ivy about it, since she has purchased several of these sacks for various projects.  Her work and antique finds are amazing, by the way…

Actually, some of my living room pillows are from her shop…

And, Emily does sell online and she’s based in Raleigh, NC, if you want to check out her wares.

Emily shared that she is still trying to figure out the magic recipe for getting them super clean and soft, but she has been soaking them in mild detergent for 24-48 hours and then washing them in the machine, so that’s where I started…

Warning:  The picture you are about to see is of unedited dirty bath water.  Some readers may find this image disturbing.  Reader discretion is advised. 

That dirty bath water is after 24 hours of soaking, changing the water four times, and putting it through the washing machine!

This resulted in more texting with Emily, since she was working on cleaning a similar German grain sack.

We both did some research on cleaning antique textiles.  I ended up soaking mine in OxiClean for a couple of days and then washing it in the machine with more OxiClean and fabric softener.

Emily did the same thing with hers, but took it a step further…

And yes, she actually boiled it in water & vinegar on her stove!!  I don’t know if her husband was home or not, but her experiment solicited a funny look from her daughter.

I had to share that picture!  Isn’t that a riot?  Oh, the things we’ll do for antiques.

I don’t have pictures of Emily’s grain sack, but she said it turned out cleaner and softer than any other cleaning method she’s tried.  And my grain sack came out great as well.  The soaking removed or lightened many of the stains and the entire grain sack is lighter.  The fabric softener also made it feel soft to the touch, like very heavy, well-worn linen.

The lettering was faded in the process, which I didn’t realize until after I compared it to the listing photograph.  It’s a very small price to pay to have the grain sack clean, soft, and useable, though, in my opinion.

Now, there will be two kinds of people.  There are the people who look at the picture above and want to roll up in this sack like a burrito and soak in all of the nubby antique goodness of this gorgeous textile.  Then, there are people who think it looks like gross, stained, patched rag.

If you’re in the second group, I’m sorry to say that we may never understand each other when it comes to grain sacks, but I’m sure we can find many other things that we have in common.

After the OxiClean did such a nice job, I tried the same method on another grain sack I had.  I actually bought it from Emily, so she had washed it, but I wanted to see if the OxiClean would get it even brighter.

The sack I had soaked and washed is on top and the other one is underneath.  You can see how it’s slightly darker and grayer…

And it cleaned up very well after a 24 hour soak and a wash in the machine…

Now, I need to get to the projects!  As of now, I am going to use one of them in the slipcovers I’m making for the end chairs in the kitchen eating area …

…and I have an idea for the other one.  I’ll share the details once I get to those projects.

I’ve also been thinking that I’ll show how to duplicate this look on a budget.  I made several “dupes” years ago, but haven’t done one in a while.  I think it’ll be a fun project and now I have some great examples to copy…

cleaning an antique grain sack

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47 Comments on “cleaning an antique grain sack”

  1. Wow, I’ve looked at a lot of grain sacks and this one is really special! One thing to keep in mind, is that fabric softener is a modern petroleum based product – and it “coats” the linen fibers so they can’t “breathe”. It’s not good for the fabric, so beware for future projects!

  2. What a lovely textile! And it cleaned up nicely. Many years ago Martha Stewart did a segment on her tv show about dealing with stains on vintage fabrics. As I recall, her method was to stretch the dirty area or just a few spots over a large pot and secure the fabric with rubber bands so that it remains taut. She then stood on a stool and poured boiling water from a tea kettle onto the stains. She explained that by pouring from high produced a heavier , more concentrated stream of boiling water to push the stain through to the other side of the fabric. And it worked! So I think your friend’s method of boiling her linens couldn’t hurt. It goes without say that bleach is a no-no. But I’ve had good results by washing stained items in hot water with baking soda and hydrogen peroxide. It has a similar bleaching effect with the noxious smell and damage to delicate fabric. I can’t wait to see the dining chairs wearing their pretty new grain sacks.

  3. Computer ate my comment! Argh!

    Ok. So. I’m making my way through a pile of a antique family linens. I soak them first in water to re-moisten the fibers. Then I use “Restoration” and follow the directions on the tub. From what I understand it’s easier on the fabrics than OxiClean. “Quilter’s Rule: Quilt Soap” is another one I use as well and not just on my quilts. I get such a joy after watching these aged, yellow linens change!

  4. Where do you purchase Restoration and Quilter’s Rule!

    Lovely grain sack transformation. Can’t wait to see your projects.

  5. I worked in a museum for years and I am also an antique dealer. ORVUS is often the safest product of choice for antique linens. I have washed several antique wedding dresses and beaded 1920’s dresses in this product. RESTORATION cleaner is available on internet. I think its by Engleside Products. For antique filthy linens that are to be used daily, I often use powdered BIZ. After washing 100 year old linen bedsheets, I rinse them in vinegar. Perfect results for embroidered bed linens. So many old textiles are not as fragile as one would think. My best friend and an antique textile dealer uses easy off oven cleaner on severe, stubborn grease spots on 1940’s colorful tablecloths. With skepticism, I tried it and it worked.

  6. My German mother in law still boils most of her whites. Many German homes have a “wash kitchen.” The laundry area in or near the basement also has a sink and stove where you can do canning and cook during the hot summer months. But it also allows you to boil your laundry. I have also seen German washing machines with a “koch” or “cook” feature that ads boiling water. I have often been tempted to do this because it really does work! I have never seen whiter whites.

    1. Denise that is fascinating! Thanks for sharing that information. Many years ago I was in very rural, southern Italy visiting relatives. They boiled my underwear (!) in an enamel bowl on the stove. I was mortified even though I found out that is how they washed their own. All other things were done in a modern washing machine. They were incredibly white!

      1. That was my first experience in Germany as well! I really love your blog and ideas! I am headed to Germany (and Italy) in about a month so I’ll keep my eyes open for grain sacks.

  7. Yes, as everyone else has said, boiling the laundry was THE way that people washed things way back before machines! Usually it was done outdoors in big cauldrons, stirred with a big stick. This all worked because clothes were all made with natural fibers, not polyester. Cotton, hemp, linen can all take major abuse, and it makes them softer over time. While I would be careful if a fabric seemed weak, most everyday use old fabrics are going to be sturdy. The technique listed above of stretching a fabric tightly over a bowl and pouring boiling water on the stain from a height works like a charm! You have to be careful not to get splashed though from the boiling water.

  8. Borax. I have soaked old stained antique textiles in plain old fashion borax overnight for stains oxiclean wouldn’t touch. Baking soda or washing soda is also a good additive. Both make fabric so soft. After I learned fabric softener was made of lard, I simply use a little vinegar to take out any soap residue. Fabric softener may cause stains in old textiles over time.

  9. Years ago, my parents bought a tub of stain treater that we affectionately call “pink stuff.” It was bought at a flea market in PA from one of those product hawkers (a-la “As Seen on TV”). They gave me a small container of it and darned if it doesn’t get out just about any stain you can possibly imagine. I’ve even used it on my work shirts (good LL Bean pique polo shirts) when I’ve dropped oil-based food on them (this happens frequently) and they’ve been through the wash and dryer with the stain. It sometimes takes a few treatments and washing with the pink stuff, but it almost always comes out.

    I’ve since found out that the pink stuff is called “Quick and Brite” and Amazon now carries it, so I got myself a fresh tub of it. It looks like a combination of pink slime and pink Crisco–and you’re going to feel awkward about smearing it on your good fabric, but do it! I have no idea what the active ingredient is, but I suspect the active ingredient in OxyClean is present (which is essentially concentrated peroxide) along with some heavy-duty surfactents (which loosens oils…main thing in Dawn dish soap and modern shampoo). It also turns out that it can be diluted and used to clean everything from your floors to your tub and even your hair (though that last one seems sketchy to me).

  10. My Korean mother in law boils whites too on the stove despite having a washing machine. they do really come out cleaner.

  11. I adore these sacks, and have also collected them for years ( most of my great grandparents are German immigrants) . I use them on special upholstery projects. Mine always go into a hot wash with oxi-clean and and lots of fabric softener. The stains never bother me, nor does the fading. I feel like what we do adds another beautiful chapter to the story of these century old utilitarian pieces that we love so much.

  12. My mother had a cute little stove in the basement and I remember her boiling things. They used something called “bluing” as well to make whites whiter.
    I have used the above products with luck. I learned from a fabric curator/restorer to soak in BIZ and Salt. Just walk away…………. Rinse in distilled water. I washed my 1909 Edwardian wedding gown that way. She said to rinse it 16 times!!!!
    I did and it came out beautifully. Distilled water is good for art work too because it makes the paint flow better. I have also soaked stuff in dishwasher soap too.
    Haven’t ruined anything yet.

  13. As i read all you have done to bring your beautiful grain sack up to your standard of cleanliness, i was thinking how i could make my own. Imagine my surprise and how pleased I was to read you are going to share how you made dupes in the past. Cant wait!

  14. Another story. Flour used to come in muslin flour sacks and many women made clothing out of them. Sometimes they had pretty designs. My grandmother made a Gold Medal flour sack nightie for my Aunt Tess. My Aunt Tess had a sleep over with her friend Helen. Helen went to school the next day and told everyone that Tess slept in a flour sack. My grandmother was humiliated and forbade my Aunt too associate with Helen. Well Well. Sixty years later Helen and Tess remained very close friends. lol So behind every sack there is a story.

  15. Love those grain sacks…and flour sacks. My mom made of flour sacks for me when I was about 7. Still love that dress & wish I had it. I’d rework it into a pillow. I read somewhere that flour sacks were printed during the Depression so there would be pretty prints to use for dresses. Have you ever heard that?

  16. I have two fabric sacks. One from my Granddad that was a Purine hog chow bag. One was from my husband’s Gradnmother for tobacco fertilizer. They both were from the 1930’s. I vacuumed them with a shop vac, gently washed them, and put them on the line to dry. Then, I picked the seams apart and attached them to stretcher bars (like a painter would stretch canvas on). They have moved with us four times, still have a place of honor on our walls.

  17. Have a google of cream of tartar for stain removal and cleaning. Another good option is ammonia although there are fumes involved but the results are worth it.
    Love the grain sacks…and everything else.

  18. As a vintage tablecloth collector and seller, my favorite method is to wet linens and immerse in cold water. Pour liquid Cascade on stains (the one with the yellow lid) . Add more Cascade to the water and soak at least overnight. I have soaked really dirty ones up to a week. Most of the time the discoloration is gone, if like Marian’s, resoak, then launder as usual.

  19. Such an interesting post. Loved all the stories. I would not use oxiclean on anything that you are worried about fading because it does fade things. I can remember my French Canadian grandmother using the bluing product and it really did work like a charm. It was still available to purchase as late as the late 1980s. Who knows maybe it’s still sold some where.

  20. I agree with Kathleen, it looks more like the symbolic lamb of god imagery you see in medieval heraldry to me as well. But either way cow or lamb it’s still nice to have the addition of a graphic to the sack as well as the lovely text.

    Although you are a braver woman than me Marian washing it & soaking – I would have been too afraid the writing would have dissolved with the dirt!

  21. I think it is a unicorn. what could be mistaken for an ear looks much more like a horn to me. Also, those decorative swirls! What kind of cow or lamb has swirls? Unicorn all the way!

  22. Such a very very interesting post and comments !
    I was wondering about the cow, horse, unicorn symbol. Just looks like something that has deeper meaning

  23. This is so interesting to read how everyone treats antique linens. I LOVE the grain sack you got. It’s absolutely beautiful – even when it was dirty. Good for you. I know you’ll find something special to do with it – and I can’t wait to see. Thanks so much for sharing this information. Gonna do my best to save this post.

  24. I collect antique lines..tablecloths, napkins, pillowcases and more. A dealer I buy from told me she uses Biz and said it is better than oxi or any other she had tried. I am a believer as it works so well for me.

  25. Lamb of God!
    Surprised no one has mentioned laying fabric in the grass and letting the sunshine/ chlorophyll bleach the stains. Good especially for delicate fabrics,beware of insect stains though.

  26. One of the BEST posts and replies that I’ve read ! I had not thought of boiling my whites. I had no idea! But what are you all boiling it with? Just water or detergent and water.? Thanks for all the amazing advice

  27. This post and all of the comments have been extremely educational!! I have loved reading this post and have taken many screenshots of the comments on how to clean grainsacks, as I have several I’ve been waiting to work with! Thank you Marian and everyone else for you insights! And I’m also looking forward to some dupes – I’ve missed those ideas!

  28. Soaking old textiles in buttermilk will also brighten and whiten fabric, plus washing after the buttermilk soak.

  29. My immigrant, Italian-born step grandmother made trousseaus for Italian families in Italy and Michigan for most of her 86 years. She also took in washing for rich families when she was widowed with six small children. She believed in boiling and blueing for all the bed linens, tablecloths and nightclothes. She didn’t get a washing machine until the 1950s and never owned a dryer. So, she usually laid out the large items on her green grass in the backyard. The combination of chlorophyll and sunlight was a great fabric lightener. As a small child, I watched her crochet many delicate items for brides-to be. I was so fascinated on how those wrinkled, knarled hands could make such exquisite lace. She could only speak Italian and I could only speak English. Because of her ability to speak to me with her hands, I learned the language of lace and linen. When she passed away, I inherited sixteen extremely large steamer trunks of linens, lace, tablecloths and dollies. My five stepsisters wanted no part of anything that “had to be ironed.” I cherished and used many of these items. But eventually, I became an antique textile dealer as well as a collector. Every time, I look at tiny stitches, I am reminded of her hands.

  30. Thanks for introducing me to the world of antique grain sacks. The post-washing photos show a beautiful, antiquey fabric, so I think you did an amazing job.

    I admire your creativity in the way you use the sacks, too. By the time you are done with these historical artifacts, they’ve been elevated to the heights they deserve. Can’t wait to see how that talent is expressed in the finished chairs.

    We can definitely put “preservationist” on your list of many talents. The dirty-water warning is both hilarious and warranted. Your stockpot photo made me lol: grainsack soup!

  31. Last year when Hurricane Harvey hit our area of Texas, a friend who lives on Dickinson bayou was hit hard, rescued by boat and lost so much of her antiques and art. I took home 7 huge trash bags filled with linens, curtains, nightgowns, dust ruffles, rugs, tea towels, duvet covers,pillow cases and bed spreads- everything antique or vintage. It all had been under dirty bayou water for 4 daysso, I first spread it out on my driveway and hosed it down repeatedly. I took 5 giant Rubbermaid tubs and filled them with OxyClean and water, put in the linens and used a canoe paddle (lol) to stir and stir. I dumped it all out and rinsed and repeated. (Got to love my driveway sloap to the street!) Only then, did it go in my washer. Long story short- my only defeat was a linen duvet cover that was stained with mildew. I originally afraid to use the OxyClean, but it worked!

  32. Laura Higgins, did you try a mold and mildew spray for the bathroom? I use that on my fabric shower curtain and it works great!!

  33. My grandmother soaked her white cotton and lace Gibson Girl style 1910 wedding dress in an enzyme pre-soak and washed it in the washing machine on the hottest temperature so I could wear it to her 70th wedding anniversary party. It turned out beautifully, but I was still aghast that she did it.

    Until I read this and discovered that there are even rougher ways of treating old fabrics without hurting them.

    Amazing and interesting. Thanks.

  34. Great information! I’ve started using vinegar as our fabric softner to avoid the petroleum coated fabrics and dryer. I won’t go back. As an aside my mom tells of her mom sending a scrap of feed sacking for my grandfather to match sacks to finish dresses for herself and her teenagers. Waste not, want not. tenant farmers in the 30s

  35. I’m with you, Marion- I live some old things but that was some dirt and funk that had to go! I have used Thieves laundry soap with good results since it’s plant-based and has no fragrance, SLS, or harsh ingredients. I didn’t know this, but vinegar is a natural fabric softener. Add 1/2 cup to your final rinse cycle (or in fabric softener dispenser) and it will be so soft. No smell of vinegar, either. I found out that fabric softener is one of the most harmful things for our clothes and health. So, I tried this hack and it really does work (plus so cheap, too).

  36. I bought my first vintage turkey grain sack at a flea market this past summer. The dealer told me not to wash it. He said the sack material was made so that the print would wash out so it could be used for clothing. Is this true?

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