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…