My Tips for Buying Vintage Cotton Sheets on eBay - the Crisp, Old-Fashioned Kind

OK, as many of you know, I've been on a shopping spree on eBay to find the kind of vintage cotton sheets I've been looking for. I've promised to share what meager advice I have. I do think these tips WILL save you some aggravation. It'll be nice to know I have not suffered/made mistakes in vain!

First, I wanted to share my thoughts on why you should - or should not - go the vintage route for your sheets.

Reasons to get vintage sheets


There is a wide selection of old stock of the kind we're looking for. Most of the pure cotton sheets were made in a crisp muslin or percale plain weave. Percale starts at about a 186 thread count, while muslin usually ranged from 130 thread count to 144. Even if they don't say "percale," or "muslin," they usually are - they took it for granted that sheeting came in these plain weaves, not in jersey or sateen or whatever.

Also, the quality of cotton used was awesome. The sheets were not soft, not thin, not draping - and strong! Many sheets made before the 1960s were made to stand up to bleach and many washings. The labels are fun to read.



And check out the "Good Housekeeping Certification" of quality and the various warranties.



It's a little surreal to read these labels and see how things have changed. Marketing to the modern market, there's an emphasis on luxury and beauty, but not sleeping comfort or durability.

Reasons not to get vintage sheets


Vintage sheets aren't for everyone - for example, if you have a king-sized bed and want a standard king-sized sheet set. If you have a king-size bed, unless you want to sew two twin-sized sheets together the way they did way back when and switch from fitted sheets to the ol' flat-with-hospital-corners-bottom-sheet method, you'll need to shop a bit more modern - like at Amazon.com or even eBay (consider flax linen bedding - it's cool and crisp too, if pricey). I gather that vintage sheets before, oh, the 1960s didn't come in queen or king sizes at all, just full and twin. A set of sheets meant two pillowcases and a flat sheet. I'm not sure when the modern type of king size sheet sets started being made, but I'm thinking the seventies or eighties...?

For what it's worth, in our case, we do have a king-sized bed, or actually a futon-like arrangement. The difference is that we use separate top sheets. Sounds weird, but that way we don't disturb each other when we get in and out of bed at night - no yanking the sheets and causing a draft. That's why we're fine with using twin or full sized sheets - one for him, one for me. And we don't use a fitted bottom sheet, either, just another king sized flat in a neutral color.

Also, don't go vintage if you care a lot about wrinkles, unless you have a lot of time on your hands. Well, okay, they did start making no-iron sheets somewhere mid-20th century. They were very popular, judging by now many are now available on eBay, their popularity presumably stemming from the fact that they liberated housewives from hours of ironing work. These bed linens are either treated with a resin or, more commonly, blended with polyester.  I can tell you after being sent one of these no-iron sheets, they do NOT breathe as well, nor are they as crisp, as 100% cotton, even in the same loose weaves. Some folks swear by them. With admittedly limited experience (taking one sheet and putting it over my face) I don't think I like them. Going all cotton percale or muslin does mean I'm left with sheets that wrinkle and crinkle and make noise.  But they BREATHE.

There are techniques to keep the wrinkles to a minimum, like snatching them out of the dryer just on the cusp of total dehydration. Honestly? That's too much work and attentiveness for me. I'm afraid our standards are pretty low here. Wrinkles, shminkles! If wrinkles are a serious matter to you, and you want 100% cotton percale, you'll want to roll up your sleeves in preparation for some workflow adjustments.

Tips for Selecting the Good Stuff

Now we come to the juicy stuff - what you need to know when you wade through the crazy flea market that is eBay for those old, rustling, cozy-cool sheets manufactured for the earlier generations.

Used or New?

When people think of getting old bedding off of eBay, I suspect they tend to think, "rummage sale, someone's old used junk - ew." But what's strange is that not everything is used - not by a long shot.  I only recommend getting what's called deadstock or never-used sheets - you know, the kind that was probably sitting around still in the package in your grandma's or great-aunt's attic for years, forgotten or just never called into service.  You might find some "gently used" sheets that look good in the pics.  But an auction or Buy-It-Now description that specifies no spots, tears, or stains might NOT specify what we're interested in - how much the cotton has thinned and softened from washings. With a new sheet, you're more likely to get it in its original crisp state. However, I have to say I did just fine ordering some used sheets because the seller's description was detailed and the photos good.  But I'd recommend starting with the vintage new stuff.

Is It Vintage or Antique?

The old-fashioned, generally accepted definition of vintage used to be "less than 50 years old." Beyond that was considered antique.

These days, antique on eBay seems to mean pre-1930. I'm not sure I'd venture that far back in sheets for my personal use. I don't know how well the cotton textile would have held up sitting around for a century.

I am bemused that the period in the last 30 or 40 years is now being called vintage by some sellers. No reason why it shouldn't. It's just that this period was when I was growing up! Am I really that old?  In any case, that time period, from the 1980s on, was bloated with polyester/cotton blends.

From post-World War II to the mid-sixties is my target period - I call it "the really old stuff" or "vintage" but not antique. These sheets are far more likely to be all cotton, especially the "fine muslin" or "strong muslin" sheets. If not all cotton, and they have some polyester, they're usually labelled clearly "No Iron" or "Wrinkle-free." If the sheets have a pretty floral pattern, there's a high chance it's a cotton blend.

Do always check the fabric content. Don't assume that just because it's old, it's all cotton. Nuh-uh. If the seller doesn't list it in the description or the "item specifics" section, sometimes it can be seen by zooming in on the photos. Prints can also be a clue. Pretty florals in all-cotton are uncommon in the 1940s-1960s time period - usually the sheets that make you go "Oh, that's lovely!" turn out to be no-iron blends. I did snag one Lady Pepperell colorful floral all-cotton muslin set for $40 - that was a triumph and pretty hard to find!

Here's a swatch from the Lady Pepperell sheet set in 100% cotton muslin.  Came with two pillowcases and a flat sheet.

If you are looking for a print in 100% cotton, you may find pastel stripe patterns are more plentiful.  

Also as I said above, in this time period, there are only twin or full/double sheets - no queen or king size sheets - nor are there elasticized fitted sheets.

Smells

For people with sensitive noses:  There is almost guaranteed to be a detectable smell to the old deadstock bed linens, especially if there are any holes in the packaging or the original cellophane/plastic bags are missing. The smell might be very faint, moderate, or strong. 

A new vintage sheet you receive in the mail will almost always smell of mothballs, or an elderly lady's perfume or potpourri, or, if the seller has laundered the sheets, then the laundry detergent or fabric softener. Occasionally it will smell of cigarette smoke, depending on prior ownership. And there are always those mysterious smells whose origin you can only imagine.

All these smells tend to come out pretty easily and quickly - except the fragrances from modern fabric softeners or laundry detergent.

The odors that DON'T come out are the strong mildew or moldy smells - not without mega-bleach, anyway, and do you really want to mega-bleach your new(ish) bed linens? I didn't, nor did I want to spread the contamination to anything else in my house, so I quickly repackaged and returned some pillowcases I bought that were spotted with, and stinking strongly of, mildew - or maybe it was mold. I'm not sure which, but it was so strong you could smell it through the outer packaging.

That was exceptional, though. In most cases, the smells really do come out, even slightly musty odors. You should be aware that most sellers won't think to mention the item's olfactory condition in the description, though they might say they have a pet-free or smoke-free home. So if you care, use the Ask a Question feature.  They almost always respond, and very helpfully, too. (Yes, I know this from vast experience!)

And a note for all you folks who seek fragrance-free, this is a problem not just in vintage goods but in new production: for example, last year I bought some all-cotton underwear that was permeated with perfume at the manufacturer, and it won't go away with repeated washings!

Misrepresentation

Most sellers on eBay are honest. I was one for a brief time years ago, I should know.  :)

Mostly, though, I've been a consumer, and I've been buying from third-party sellers such as those on Amazon and eBay and Etsy and even the Sears and Walmart sites for many years. Most are honest.  Most aren't slimy, evasive, and slippery with the facts. A very few are. But most are straightforward and deliver what they promise. However, when it comes to vintage sheets, many, I mean MANY, make what I think are honest mistakes.

The biggest shady area is fabric content. Most sellers are not experts on old textiles. They do not know what their vintage linens are made of. They just have no idea beyond the packaging and labels, and sometimes they don't bother to read the labels! If it's old, they'll call something "linen" even if it's really cotton with a linen weave. If they buy some sheets at an estate sale, and the sheets are stuffed, or even neatly folded, into an open plastic bag, they assume it was the original bag, and go with that. I got burned with embroidered pillowcases more than once (no, these are not flax linen, sir, they're cotton!)

So look at the pictures carefully. Do these sheets really look like they've never been removed from the bag? Does the fabric look too smooth and satiny to be 200 thread count, or all-cotton? Check out the close-up images especially.
This is an embroidered cotton pillowcase sold as being made of linen fabric - bah!  Though the pillowcase was very nice...

Well, I think that's enough for now. I'll post more tips soon, and more pictures, as well as reviews of many of the sheets I bought as we use them. Let me know if you have any special requests, too.

UPDATE: A reader mentioned Thomas O'Brien vintage modern sheets. These might just fit the bill:  this set of King sheets

11 comments:

  1. I want to thank you for all the good information. I hate these new sheets and all the elastic around the fitted. I am 57 and I loved the sheets of yesteryear. I don't mind ironing as I ironed my three sons t-shirts as kids and young men. Kinda took me back to ironing our family sheets chores. I also took it as my time to get lost in my thoughts and relaxed. Crazy I know. I have bookmarked your page as I had been trying to find those old sheets. The feel of climbing into your bed at night is just not the same with these new sheets. Thank you again. Peace to all.

    Yvonne Maier

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    1. sheets these are terrible. i am buying sheets alot more than my mom ever did. I have an eastern king and looking for vintage sheets. i'm in Nor cal. Thanks.

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  2. The Rachel Ashwell Simply Shabby Chic sheets are heavenly! We buy them at Target, where they are fairly affordable. I had a hard time convincing my husband that we needed them, but after one night sleeping in cool, 100% cotton comfort, he is a believer!

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  3. Good article,very informative. The thing that bothers me,is when sellers say something is vintage,but don't give a decade,or even a 'guesstimate' as to which vintage decade it might be,in the listing. I love to collect vintage things&often come across this&find myself searching the web for info on the item(s) in question,to be sure I'm getting a genuine vintage item&not just a 'vintage style'/retro item. Also,on the older sheets,it's a good idea to ask sellers about fitted bottom sheets elasticity,because sometimes it does'nt say/is'nt shown&it turns out to be stretched out&in need of sheet suspenders,to hold them in place(Had that happen to me with a vintage Cannon sheet set. Heh...oops!LOL ). I myself,recently got a Lady Pepperell sheet set(1980s&not 100% cotton,though) off eBay&they were in excellent,barely used condition+a vintage 1960s embroidered bedspread for my bed as well&they all are quite lovely,indeed. (: I wish I could include photos so you could see them too,but alas,I do not see a way to attach images.

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  4. I do not like the all cootn ones. I love the Lady Pepperil ones that are cotton AND polyester. I can't find anything comparable these days and mine are worn out!

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    1. I meant COTTON. I should proof this stuff, eh? LOL

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  5. What does "strong muslin" mean? As opposed to "fine muslin," I guess...

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  6. I've purchased vintage/antique sheets/pillow cases that were so aged they were almost brown. I've purchased sheets/pillow cases that have had yellow stains, water rings, and small rust dots, all from improper storage. And I've purchased sheets/pillow cases that smelled musty, like cigarettes, frying oil, and/or all of the above. I've always been able to get these horribly aged sheets/pillow cases sparkling white and like new. (Except for large spots......They're in for good.) Here's my recipe....

    How to Whiten Antique/Vintage Linens:
    1. Take very large & deep plastic storage box (like Sterlite, etc from Target) and place it in the bathtub.
    2. Add 1 capful of DREFT liquid detergent + 1 scoop of OXICLEAN powdered detergent + 1 scoop of Safeway generic brand powdered NON-CHLORINE BLEACH to the plastic tub. (Safeway is a local large-chain grocery store. I would think any grocery chain will have their own generic brand of powdered non-chlorine bleach.)
    3. Fill the plastic tub w/HOT WATER. (The detergents will start bubbling & fizzing.)
    4. Completely submerge musty items in the water w/detergents. If the linens begin to float, place a heavier item on top to keep the them submerged. (Just a large spatula, BBQ tongs, etc. will work.......The fabric can be floating, but doing so completely under water.)
    5. As soon as the fabric gets wet, the odors will begin to release.......Not a pretty smell! ;) Let soak for at least 24 HOURS, turning the fabric in the water a few times during the soak.
    6. Drain the water from the box into the tub, then squeeze out as much water as possible from the bed linens. Place the linens in the washing machine, and run them through the RINSE/SPIN CYCLE.
    7. If stains/odors are still present, repeat process. When done......
    8. Lay the bed linens on a patch of green grass in the direct sunlight. (Chlorophyll from the grass and the light from the sun will act as bleaching agents.)
    9. When the pieces are almost completely dry
    (still slightly damp) smooth out the fabric and fold. If the pieces are completely dry, lightly spritz w/water (I use an old Windex bottle), smooth out the fabric and fold. (NO IRONING NEEDED if spritzed before folding!)
    10. DO NOT place the linens in the DRYER or use any type of FABRIC SOFTENER.........This will cause the fabric to develop a gray tone. (I don't know why..........It just does.) If the weather is poor, just lay the pieces on
    towels or hand hang on a line to dry.

    This process can be completed as many times as necessary until lines are bright & white. The sun is an important part of the bleaching process.....It will bleach the fabric w/o weakening it like chlorine bleach.)



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    1. Thank you for the cleaning tips! I live in a development that does not allow clotheslines. I lay things out on my patio furniture and I'm thinking about just hanging a line in the garage and open the doors to let the breeze in. Lol Does it really work laying them on the grass? Never thought of that!

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  7. HI, thanks for the information on vintage/older sheets. I am just starting to buy vintage sheets off of ebay because I have just about given up on buying new sheets made of awful cotton in china. The best sheet I have is one in inherited from my mom's old stash, it is a Waverly Belle Rive king flat sheet from the early 80's, I love the fact it is a cotton blend it makes these older sheets buttery soft and smooth but not all vintage blend sheets are equal as I am finding out so be careful about the brand you buy it will make a difference. Also it should be noted that if you are buying a vintage fitted sheet more than likely it will not fit today's mattresses so be aware before you buy or learn the hard way like I did.

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  8. Mildew is mold. One trick, though it hasn't always worked for me, it put vinegar on the area of mildew and place in the direct sun.

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