I inherited boxes of old linens,
now what do I do with them?

Blog| Laundry Tips | Marghab Patterns | I inherited boxes of old linens, now what? | Living with Old Linens

I hope the following information will be helpful to you:

Linens have always been the "lowest of the low" in the antiques world, they were "woman's work," household furnishings in the realm of housekeeping. They have no particular value unless you have a buyer for them. (a provenance from royalty or museum quality importance may be an exception, but not always.) My main advice would be to keep and use anything that attracts or bedazzles you or that may be particularly useful such as old towels for dust cloths and have a tag sale with the rest.

Value comes from rarity, condition, beauty and whether or not things are in demand. Demand constantly changes but since 2008, mainstream trends are for things that look like Pottery Barn, hotel linens and items that are brand new. When Martha Stewart devoted an article to antique Turkey red damask tablecloths, prices for Turkey red work soared. That fad lasted a while, then faded. But just like other things that have gone out of style, the red damask that was acquired at those high prices is just generally worth far, far less now, although nobody wants to know that.

*NOTE: IMPORTANT*
if your textiles have holes, please throw them away. If you tug on a piece and it comes apart in your hand, it has dry rot. Please throw it away.

WHAT'S GOOD:
Bigger is often better (although "too big" is its own worst problem); perfect is better; rare is better; gorgeous is better; unused condition is better; high quality is better and, often, older is better.
The country of origin also counts... as French, Czech, Madeira, Italian and English usually have better work than Chinese. But old Chinese (pre-1930) is better than later Chinese. So there are exceptions to every rule.
Designs also matter. Figural items often command more than florals but only to a collector who likes figurals. Rarer flowers command slightly more than common flowers such as roses or chrysanthemums.

VALUES:
To research a value, my best advice is to encourage you to buy books on linens and laces and textiles and spend a little time becoming educated on them. Down deep inside, I am hoping that you also might learn enough about them to get hooked!

A great place to check the value an item is by searching ebay's "completed items" to see what prices similar things have realized. (You can only use this feature if you are a registered ebay user.) Most likely, you will not be thrilled by the prices of things but it is a great barometer for current prices and/or to see what is in demand. Most buyers on ebay are the end user; a dealer would most likely not pay that amount. Yes, I do understand that it takes some time to search on ebay for things that are similar, especially when you have box-loads of things. It's the same with learning from experience and from books.
It is called research.

How/Where to SELL:
• sell them at a tag/garage/yard sale. (be realistic; they are used goods)
• donate them to a charity for a tax write-off.
• look for someone in your area to appraise (yellow pages: appraisers) or buy them outright
• visit local antiques shops and to antique shows and look for someone who sells textiles. Yes, I know there are fewer and fewer; as I stated: “old linens don't have much value unless you have someone who wants them."
• call an auction house where you can consign them. Auction houses have knowledgeable appraisers. Many auction houses may not accept them because they can not make a profit on them. But, they will usually take them on if you are consigning an entire estate. (They also want/need to stay in business.)
• call a local used furniture / antiques dealer who specializes in clearing out houses. They will have the ability to assess silver, china and furniture as well.
• search some of the huge vintage textile show websites and scan their dealer lists to see if there are any dealers from your area. or anyone else who is buying.
• sell them on ebay. And, yes, I really do understand how time consuming it would be to wash, iron, measure, describe, photograph and list your items there, not to mention the packing, shipping and tracking them if they sell.

CONDITION:
Even though stacks of linens often appear to be in perfect condition, it is not until one completely unfolds each piece or unwraps decades-old cleaning tissues, ribbons and plastics that one discovers damage, holes, repairs, water damage, dry rot and mouse nibbles. The weight of the linen compresses the stack and makes it look flat and new. Many times I have been assured that items were in new, unused condition and when I unfolded a towel or tablecloth, they were full of stains and holes. The owner's jaw would drop! "The stack looked so good, I just never dreamed..."

Also, when items have been professionally cleaned, people assume that their family member would not have bothered sending imperfect or damaged items out to a laundry or dry cleaners... but, in times past, everyone was more apt to repair their family linens and to continue to use things until they fell apart. Your heart might sink at the thought of opening a tablecloth that had been spectacularly packaged in cellophane and ribbons and stored for decades. But, you won't really know what you have unless you do. And, you can't sell it unless the buyer also knows what to expect.

SIZE:
Yes, size matters.
In bedding, when the modern world uses queen and king sized beds, there is no demand for twin sized sheets and bedding.
Napkins: the bigger the better. 25" and over is desirable. Three or four FEET is great!
Tablecloths: big is great until you get to too big. Some important old cloths were bigger than rooms in our modern houses. They are unwieldy, unmanagably heavy and impossible to launder, iron, care for or use.
Handkerchiefs: bigger is better. Older is better. Handmade lace, other than crochet, is better. Perfection is imperative.

(Relatively) VALUABLE ITEMS:
Items that were made before 1900 (earlier is preferable: 1780-1850s) in impeccable condition.
museum-quality textiles, museum-quality monograms, rare items, unused is preferable

napkins larger than 24" (napkins are most valuable in sets of 12, 18 or 24. (fewer than a dozen is not really a set.)
monograms: a single letter is preferable than a monogram with two or three initials
linen pillowcases in superb condition that will fit queen/king sized pillows
handkerchiefs from the mid-1800s with handmade lace edging (that is not crocheted lace)
paisley shawls: most desirable are hand woven kani weave or hand embroidered
old handmade lace from the 1600s and 1700s such as bobbin laces and needle laces
or things that just seem mesmerizing and beautiful

BAD NEWS:
crochet: in any form is not rare or desirable. Bedspreads are especially so common that they are devoid of value. Every household had "Grandma's hand crocheted bedspread. Every one of them was stored away and never used. They are large, very heavy and suffocating to sleep under. None of them were ever used. Gazillions of them exist and they are not rare.

TO SUM UP:
In the past decade, droves of antique stores have gone out of business because "used things" are not in style. Everyone wants everything new from IKEA and Target and Pottery Barn. Call a local auction house, sell things on ebay, get on with living and let them go without regret!


My very best wishes,
cynthia!

Copyright 2013, 2014, Cynthia's Antique Linens