DIY Weekend: Salvaging embroidery

Salvaging embroidery
I meant to write about this pillow a few weeks ago, but never got around to it. Mainly because when I made it, I didn’t document the process. Anyway, I got a second chance at salvaging embroidery and thought it would be a good DIY project to share. The pillow above (and the one below) were embroidered by my Mother about 30+ years ago. She got interested in doing embroidery for a little while and these were two completed projects, both made into pillows. They were kits that she ordered (maybe from Colonial Williamsburg) that came complete with linen, pattern, embroidery yarns and backing material. Okay, so fast forward three decades and a couple of house moves and these pillows found themselves hidden in my parents attic – dirty and falling apart. When my Dad got sick in December, he was using whatever pillows he could find to prop himself up in his chair and the one above was getting a new workout. After he passed away in January and we were cleaning things out, we almost threw out the pillow. It was flat, dirty and sad looking. (So were we, actually). Mom said to threw it out and I had it in my hand over the trash when I realized that in daylight, the pattern and workmanship was quite lovely and it could possibly be resuscitated. And, I am so glad I took that second look. Funny, because when I came walking back into Mom’s house with it in my hand, she said as I walked in, maybe you should keep the pillow. I spent a lot of time making it!! Whew! I think if we’d tossed it, it would have been one of those niggling things in the back of our minds, just a little regret.

Okay, so now I have a pretty pillow, remade to match my living room – sorry Mom! Anyway, she did kind of want it, but greens don’t match her house. Well, luckily, she found another one in need of a new suit of clothes! I think she must have made this one first as it’s significantly less complex than the pillow up top.

Salvaging embroiderySo, here is how I resurrected these sad little embroidered pillows. First, they needed to be washed. The photo above does not do justice to how dirty this pillow really was (as was pillow #1). The photo below better shows what I was dealing with. There was also some shredding in the linen to be dealt with.
Salvaging embroidery So, after removing the pillow (which was trying to break free anyway) I cut off the back, leaving the welting in order to stabilize the linen during the washing process. I used liquid laundry detergent and very hot water to get out as much dirt and dust as possible. I rinsed till the water ran clean and then submerged in a mild bleach and soap bath in hot water and let sit for a few minutes.
Well, okay. This one did not hold up as well as pillow #1 did. More shredding… A big side note – if these were real antiques or of great value, I would not recommend doing as I did without input from a professional textile restorer. Since these were homemade, attic finds, I felt okay just blundering along on my own.
Salvaging embroidery
I mentioned this to Mom, who said, throw it away, that’s fine. I was up for the challenge and figured that it wouldn’t hurt to keep trying. The linen needed to be stabilized in order to stop shredding, so after cutting off the old welting, I adhered to a stiff iron on interfacing.
Once the salvaging embroidery was done, I needed to find coordinating fabrics. Since I wanted to give this to my Mom (generous, I know!) I wanted it to match her decor, which tends towards blues. Normally, I would piece together the fabric border around a center image, but since this linen square was now compromised, I figured I’d just sew it on top of a fabric square, and top with an embellishment. I like to keep hold of discontinued fabric memo samples for use as pillows – so quick and easy!

Below, you will see the face fabric and trim that I’d chosen and the fabrics I was deciding between for the backside fabric.
In the end, I went with the simple blue basketweave, which is fine – it’s not about the back anyway!

And, voila – a dirty old pillow gets a new lease on life!

Salvaging embroidery
So, check your attic and see if you have anything that could be remade. You never know!

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26 thoughts on “DIY Weekend: Salvaging embroidery”

  1. Truly wonderful to rescue the pillows and repair them to give them a new life. And, they are extra special because of who embroidered them. I enjoyed this post.
    Carol Wood

  2. Linda- this is beautiful!!!!!! I was hoping you weren't going to say it was ruined as I was reading it. I was saying – just cut around it!!! I love the blue and the tassles (I know!!!! I know!!!) they are perfect. It really looks beautiful.

  3. These pillows are so beautiful, and I think the little rips add character. Its so much more interesting to have things in my home that were handmade or have history then to go out to the store and buy new. I love that you gave them both a little facelift and gave new life to them- they are just perfect!

  4. I love how you re-crafted that pillow for your mom and what a wonderful history it will have.

    Thanks for sharing the process. I'm sure I'll use it.

  5. Thanks for your comments everyone! I am thrilled with how they came out and love the multi-generational aspect of the pillows. I would never have had the patience to do that work my mother did – and she only did a few pieces herself!

  6. Lindy – thank you so much for the additional information!! What fun to know the designer. And yes, that top pillow was made of much better quality linen than the bottom – so it makes sense that it restored so nicely!

  7. Carey – you're absolutely right about thrift stores – they are important to donate to (like Salvation Army) and a great source of "trash to treasure" material!

  8. I love this Linda! How wonderful that you saved it:)

    I was in anthropology yesterday…many embroidery pillows in the vignettes and alot crocheted throws!

    But a family heirloom is what you just created!


  9. The crewel embroidery pillow on top was designed in the 1970's by Elsa Williams for whom my grandmother worked. She made me the same needlepoint kit but had it framed as a picture. I have always loved the colors and love your cleverly updated pillow! Elsa Williams used high quality materials, so am not surprised that you could resurrect the first pillow.

  10. You were so right to save them! Many of us these days don't mind the imperfections of a handmade item that has lived a previous life. . . in fact, we seek out that very authenticity. The pillow covers freshened up nicely, even with the tatters. Good for you! (By the way, don't forget about thrift stores everyone. Don't throw away those diamonds in the rough. There are people out there – yes like me – who are more than willing to purchase shabby discards and give them a new life. We have two thrift stores in our area that take ANYTHING because there are crazy artsy types – yes me again – and such that use all the weird stuff for creating new goodies:)

  11. You did such a beautiful job and your Mom did a beautiful job on the embroidery! They are 2 of the cutest pillow ever :0) .I have some embroidery my late grandma did and I want to do the same thing with them. I'm so glad you decided not to throw them out! -my uncle threw out a bunch of my grandma's embroidery and I get a pain in my heart every time I think about it, she spent SOOO much time and love making every one of her pieces. Thanks for sharing these with us, I really love them!:0)

  12. What a beautiful result that came out of your restoration. Seems like it was quite a job, but worth while….

    I like the idea of getting new life into these fine pieces of old fabric and needlework.

  13. Oh, I love these pillows. The way you've managed to save them is so creative. I'll bet your mother is going to be thrilled to see her handwork appreciated! I know you'll have years of use with them and special memories as well.

  14. Oh, I'm so glad you were able to save these pillow tops your mom made. They are beautiful. I do needlework and yes, a lot of time was put into these! I know you're going to enjoy them.
    Be a sweetie,
    shelia 😉

  15. Just checking out all these Met Monday Posts. I really am not any good at any of that, but have enjoyed seeing everyones great talents, abilities and projects. Your's kind of touched home with me, as I have 4 framed needlepoint (5×7's) of the 4 seasons that my grandmother did probably in the 1940s. They are so very dirty as they are framed but do not have glass to protect them. I've always thought about attempting to clean them, your post scared me in that the one fell apart, but how bright and beautiful the other one looked. Maybe I should try to clean them … oh but I am not sure!!

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