The art of cross-stitch Is done by applying thread stitches onto a base fabric made of cotton, wool, linen or silk. The threads can be cotton, metallic, silk or rayon. As with any handcrafted piece, care must be taken to preserve the work.
First Things First
The first step in cleaning a vintage piece of cross-stitch should be removing dust. Cover the end of your vacuum hose with a piece of nylon stocking or light mesh. Starting on the front of the piece, vacuum keeping the nozzle just above the piece. If the piece is a pillow with an insert, turn the cross-stitched cover inside out and repeat the process on the backside of the piece.
This may be enough to brighten the piece and give it the look you desire. If the piece is still dirty, you can move onto hand washing. If the piece has great monetary or sentimental value, consider consulting with a professional textile conservator. Your local art museum should be able to recommend one.
Test for Colorfastness
Before doing anything else, you must check the fibers for colorfastness to prevent dyes from running. Testing is simple. For large blocks of color, dampen a piece of white cloth with cold water and gently rub it over each different color in your piece (use a cotton swab for small areas). If there is any color transfer to the white cloth or swab, don’t wash your piece at all. Washing will result in discoloration and fading.
If you forgot to test or someone else washed it and the colors ran, you can treat the dye stains with oxygen bleach but it may take many, many soakings because the thread that was not colorfast will continue to bleed until all of the loose dye is exhausted.
Hand Wash or DIY Dry Clean?
If your piece is not heavily soiled and just needs some freshening, consider using one of the DIY home dry cleaning kits. Be sure you’ve done the colorfast test and then follow the instructions with the kit. Your pillow or wall-hanging will be freshened and should need nothing more than a light pressing.
If the piece is very dirty, you can hand wash. Remove the piece from the pillow, footstool or frame backing. If the edges have not been finished, you will need to tape or sew the edges to keep the fabric from unraveling.
If you have a specific stain on the unstitched portion of the background, refer to a stain removal guide and follow the directions for that specific stain. Always be careful to avoid any harsh products on the stitched areas because the thread may not be colorfast. An oxygen-based bleach and water solution is recommended for most stain removal uses.
If the handwork is badly stained or quite dingy, mix a solution of oxygen-based bleach (brand names: OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite) and cool water. Follow the package directions for how much product to use per gallon of water. Completely submerge the piece and allow it to soak for at least eight hours. Check the stains. If they are gone, wash as usual. If they remain, mix a fresh solution and repeat. It may take several soakings to remove the stains but they should come out.
To hand wash, fill a deep, laundry sink with cold water. Be certain that the sink is very clean and has no residue from cleaning agents that could damage the piece. Use a liquid detergent that is gentle and free of dyes and perfumes that will disperse in the water and leave less residue on the fabric. Never use a detergent that contains lemon oil or juice. The acid can tarnish metallic threads.
Place your piece in the water, being certain that the entire piece gets wet. Gently move the piece around in the water. Allow the piece to remain in the water for about 10 minutes. Drain the wash water and fill the sink again with fresh water. Repeat the draining and refilling of the sink until the water and piece are soap free.
Drying and Pressing
Do not wring the freshly washed wet piece. Roll it in a towel and squeeze gently to remove excess water. Place the cross-stitch flat on a dry towel and allow to dry. If the piece needs pressing, place a thick white towel on the ironing board. Put the cross-stitch face down on the towel, place a lightweight white cloth over the back to prevent snagging threads and press on the back with a warm iron.
How to Salvage a Stained Piece of Cross Stitch
If, after cleaning, your piece still has stains, you may be able to salvage it by hiding the stain. Additional stitching may cover the stain or the design could be cut out and appliquéd onto another background. If the piece has historical value, you should not damage the piece by trying to correct the work yourself.
With proper care, your handwork should last for generations to come.