Workin’ in our own workshop today — it’s equal parts storage, office & shipping headquarters, photography studio, and workshop or creative space. Just like us, this space is put to many uses! Since Antiques On Broadway closed, and we left Exit 55 Antiques, this is where we spend most of our work time. (If you see anything here that’s mentioned at being at either of those antique shops, please check our Etsy listings or contact us to see if we still have it. I’ve not yet gone about the business of updating all the links. But I’d certainly be glad to help you!)
Kind of embarrassing to show off the mess, but this is the first stop for all our estate shopping and picking hauls. I think it honestly shows just how much stuff — and work — there is in this business. How the sausage is made, so to speak. *wink* So come, take a tour!
Today we’re primarily sortin’ junk & rediscovering finds… Making piles of what needs cleaning, takin’ pictures of what’s ready to go… Busy, busy, busy! (That’s hubby there, taking photos!)
But it is neither safe nor advisable to throw them into the wash machine. (Since the weave of burlap sacks is so wide, I rarely ever trust my washing machine with them. Even the gentle or hand-wash settings always seems to create pulls or holes, often starting at the threads at the seams. I just don’t like to risk it.)
Instead, you must hand wash them — and, due to their size, one at a time at that.
While the old feed sacks I cleaned today are made of burlap, you can clean other feed, seed, flour, sugar sacks etc. in the same way.
How To Clean Old Feed, Flour, Seed Sacks Found In Barns
Step One: Remove Stuff From The Inside
As these old seed and feed sacks once held product (and also may have been used for lots of other purposes) there’s always some icky stuff left inside the sack. Stick your hand into the bottom of the sack and turn it inside-out. Shake it gently to remove any leftover contents. And then follow-up by using your hand (preferably gloved!) to wipe away anything hiding along the seams of the sack.
Once satisfied that you’ve removed everything, stick your hand in again and pull upwards to return the sack right-side-out, so that the graphics are again on the outside.
Step Two: Remove The Clumps Of Dirt & Animal Poo
I prefer to begin by hanging the sacks on the clothing line outside and using the hose to spray off the clumps and first layer or two of dirt; however, as it is below zero today (and not likely to change any time soon!), I begin with the bathtub. So gather your plastic cleaning gloves and follow me into the bathroom…
As soon as I start the warm water running in the bathtub, I take a single feed sack out and begin by holding in beneath the running water. I do not plug the tub yet as because many of the clods of dirt an manure will require pressure to come off. Since we are without the pressure of our handy lawn hose today, the pressure of the running water from the tap will have to do. Once the majority of the big pieces are off, I set the wet feed sack on an old towel while I wash the mud and farm fresh dirty pieces down the drain — being careful to catch any twigs, rocks, or other large pieces I do not want to pass into the drain and clog it. I toss the twigs and other pieces in the trash and rinse the tub a bit so that it is clean enough not to turn the running water brown right away.
Step Three: Soak & Rinse
Next, I put the stopper in the bathtub and begin filling the tub with warm water. As these sacks are pretty dirty, I only use warm water at this point.
Since old feed & seed sacks are quite large, you’ll need to fill the entire bottom of the tub with at least 2 inches of warm water. I lay the feed sack onto the water & push to submerge it. (Despite the earlier soaking, you’ll often find large sections of the sack are not wet. Sometimes this is where large pieces of dirt were; other times, it’s from the graphics themselves or other chemicals preventing the water from penetrating the textile fibers.)
Usually the water turns instantly brown again, but I continue to swish the sack gently around in the water to dislodge more dirt.
I don’t use any brushes or tools. Just my hands, the water, and, as necessary, gently rub the fabric against itself to dislodge things I can see and feel through the gloves. Remember, burlap is an especially rough textile and may contain “knots” and other natural bumps, so look before you spend time rubbing something that won’t come out. (Or at least won’t be removed without ruining the piece!)
As you swish and rub, look for holes, spots, etc. Avoid unnecessarily pulling on the holes and tears while working to remove the spots.
Typically, I repeat this step at least two more times so that the water bears just a slight tint of brown and few, if any, clumps of stuff. Then I proceed to flip the sack inside-out again, and give the inside a rinse.You’d be surprised how much remains on the inside, even after three rinsings!
If that is clean enough to not require repeating, I flip the sack back so that the graphics are outside and give it one final rinse.
Now, finally, it is time to proceed to washing with soap. This sack is on it’s fourth rinsing and just about ready for Step Four.
Step Four: Wash With Soap
With more warm water running into your clean enough for this (but not clean enough for your family) bathtub, plug the bathtub drain and add some gentle cleaner. I prefer to use, again, Murphy’s Oil Soap. I find it strong enough to clean, but not too drying for such old fabrics. (Old textiles left in barns like this can be more brittle than you imagine!) Also, since Murphy’s doesn’t make a lot of bubbles, you can see what you are doing. And you’ll want to see what you are doing so you can address spots. (I know a lot of you are thinking you need bleach to clean something this filthy, but scrubbing and rubbing does more to really clean than soaking in bleach or other chemicals — and I do not want to discolor or otherwise damage such old fabrics!)
Bonus: Murphy’s Oil leaves a more natural and non-offensive scent, which means the cleaned primitive farm advertising piece is much more like it should be — and isn’t now a perfumed piece that annoys those looking for primitive items or mantiques.
Once you add your previously-rinsed old seed or feed sack to the soapy water, you’re likely to see much more of the brown than you’d imagined could possibly be left. You can let the submerged textile soak a bit in the soapy water, if you’d like. And then come back and gently swish it around and rub spots as necessary.
Step Five: Rinse
As the tub drains its filthy water, I run the tap with warm water again and rinse out the sack.
Step Six: Drying
Once you are satisfied with how clean it is, you can remove the old farm advertising sack from the water and gently wring it to remove the excess water. Once you’ve got as much water out as you can from wringing it, lay it flat on a large beach or bath towel and roll it up so that the towel can absorb more of the water. You may have to do this more than once, with a new clean & dry towel each time, as these large old feed and seed sacks can hold a lot of water.
Then hang the old seed sacks to dry. (Antique & vintage textiles are never a good mix with dryers.) Again, this is great to do out on the clothesline, but the season prevents that. So I hang them to dry on clothes hangers with clips (with plastic, vinyl, or rubber tips to avoid rusting!) over the bathtub. It is best to hang the seed sacks from the bottoms, where they are stitched, so that the heaviest part of the bags are at the top and not pulling so much on the rest of the fabric. I like to use the tired hangers for this, so that I have more room to work on cleaning up the bathtub (again!) while things dry. However, if you have different fabrics and colors involved, you may wish to hang each piece separately so that there is no color transfer, bleeding, or discoloration. (This set lets you have the option to hang tiered or use the hangers individually.)
Step Seven: Inspection
Once the feed sacks are dry, inspect them again for holes, spots, and other imperfections
Sadly, after all this work, there sometimes are spots left. You can wash them again, as needed.
Sometimes I still find a few seeds that have worked their way into the seams and fabric weave as well.
As a buyer or collector, you likely will need to wash your new acquisition again. Even when dealers like myself clean the items, it’s more for presentation than the final act; we know items will be handled in the shop and we remove the “ick factor” but other shoppers do handle the items, including laying them on the floor to inspect them and the like. So whatever textile you buy, you ought to be prepared to launder it yourself for use or display in your own home.
It is especially important to note any holes, tears, or weak spots before you ever even consider using the washing machine.
As a dealer, I never mend any sacks as that would mean the piece is not in original or as found conditions. Other than filth, I leave them as original as I can and instead price accordingly. I leave it for the buyer to decide what, if anything, they want to fix. (Sometimes, they like the authentic nature of the sacks as they are. Sometimes they prefer to stitch them up a bit before displaying them or using them for pillow cases, foot stool coverings, etc. But that is up to the buyer.)
With finer gunny sacks, or sacks with lighter colors and finer weaves, you may need to do some additional cleaning on spots. More on that at a later date as my back is sore from all that time bent over the tub!
Sometimes I fall in love with things — to the point of obsession, or, as the hubby would say, to the point of stupidity. *wink* Today’s example is an old preserves jar.
I knew that whatever was in this old glass jar was not a “good thing,” but somehow the metallic silver tone still sparkled and beckoned from behind the decorative molded glass. Look how the caramel-colored whatever-it-is seemed to flow along the inside of the smooth art deco lines! And who doesn’t love the dear Old Manse paper label on the front?! So I snapped it up.
But as soon as we got it to the van — and I do mean that it literally began after I bought it and brought it to the van — something really funky happened…
There was a strong odor — like that of gasoline. And there was some icky-sticky stuff beginning to bubble and ooze from a tiny rotted puncture in the jar’s lid…
Hubby once again admonished the purchase, saying we should toss it out in the garbage. As if! I was too smitten.
So I took the old glass jar home and proceeded to clean it out.
First, I tried to remove the lid. But it was firmly adhered to the red rubber seal — and the red rubber seal to the glass. So I proceeded to gently but firmly tear along the rotting edge of the jar’s lid with an old house key. Just a bit a first, so I could pour out the stinking liquid. It didn’t drain this old bottle as much as I’d thought. Thinking the more solid pieces were preventing proper drainage, I went back to continuing to tear at the old lid. It was pretty soft with the rot, but when I hit an area which was too tough I did enlist the husband’s help to finish prying the lid top all the way off. Eventually we effectively scalped it, leaving the red rubber seal and rim of the lid intact. This fully released the Kraken of smell. Ugh.
There still was not a lot of liquid to pour out. In fact, most of the whateveritwas was as stubborn and stuck to the glass as the seal and lid.
Given the approximate 2 and 1/2 inch opening of the jar, I had to be careful working with the ripped-off lid and what remained of the rough, sharp edges. We used a pliers to peel off sections of the old zinc lid and rubber seal.
Next, I had to try several different things to try to dislodge the gunk. I tried a pair of tongs, but whatever was in the center was as strong as a human tongue — and had roughly the same texture. Only it, and the entire jar, was covered in that metallic silver stuff too. Silver stuff that just didn’t scrape off. Not even with the business end of a steak knife.
I stabbed a few holes and slits in the center “tongue” and filled the jar with a mixture of bleach & water and let it sit. Several hours later, no change; so I repeated filling the jar with bleach water and let it sit over night.
Still nothing budged.
While hubby and I had initially thought that was that this was just a bottle of rotting preserves, the silver stuff a result of some sort of rotting chemical reaction with the old zinc jar lid; but after a few attempts to dislodge the stuff it became clear this was unlike anything I (or you!) could imagine.
I turned to the Internet.
Eventually, I came across the BLM/SHA Historic Glass Bottle ID & Information Website. I figured that among all the archaeologists and collectors of old glass bottles someone must have run into whatever it was I was stuck with. There were no articles or advice to be found on the subject of cleaning old bottles; so I sent an email, crossed my fingers, and waited. I didn’t have to wait long for a response. Bill Lindsey was quick to reply. Unfortunately, Lindsey had “no ideas at all” on how to clean this Old Manse jar. “Sorry,” he wrote, “I’m into the bottles and their history, not the contents very much.”
Well, I too was not so much interested in the smelly gunk as I was the old glass bottle. But, unfortunately, this was a mess I had to deal with — if I wanted to salvage the bottle. And I did!
Over the next few days, I continued to literally chip & tear away at the physical problem.
What makes this vintage glass jar or bottle so beautiful is exactly what makes it so hard to clean! The art deco lines, the rounded shoulders, the way the glass bottle narrows to the bottom — these were all difficult to clean. I sat for hours, wedging my hand into the mouth of the jar, carefully chipping, scraping, tearing, and cutting at the stuff inside. I used steak knives, tongs, and an old bread knife. (The bread knife, while it unable to cut anything anymore, had a long, slightly curved blade with a wide, rounded, blunt end which could reach areas of the molded class that other things could not). I alternated between the “tools” and using the “tools” to employ the power of Chore Boy scrubbers by leveraging the scrubbing pads into the glass. And, boy, were my hands sore from all the unusual dexterity! I had a very small space to work in, to apply pressure in, while my other hand held the bottle securely. In between scraping sessions, there were soaking sessions too. I made progress. But it was far from clean.
At this point, hubby was convinced that what was in this old glass bottle was old model paint. That would explain the large quantities of metallic silver, if not the hard waxy stuff. So I began to apply mineral spirits. It helped. But it sure was not the quick fix one hoped for, not even after I had manged to tear-out, chunk by chunk, that thing I called “the tongue”.
I continued to alternate scraping with soaks and rinses. Not only using the mineral spirits, but with other cleaning products (including dish soap, standard kitchen spray cleaners, and CLR), and, of course, lots of hot water. Often I would fill the bottle about half-way with my fluid of choice and, with my hand over the mouth of the bottle, swish and swirl the liquid around. Sometimes I left the Chore Boy in for a bit more help. I hoped. It may surprise you, but that swishing actually did break off some of the stuff that lay at the bottom of the jar (in the crease where the bottom joined the sides of the jar was especially hard to fiddle any “tool” into).
All the chemicals aggravated my skin, of course; but I didn’t trust gloves to hold the glass securely. And there was no way I was going to break this jar! Not after all of this! Plus, I had to do all this while trying to preserve the old paper label.
When I took much-needed breaks, I corresponded with Lindsey about my thoughts on dating the glass preserves jar. (Details of that are here.)
Eventually, bit by stinking bit, I did get the jar clean. Probably not clean enough to preserve any food in, mind you; but good enough to meet collector standards. And without any chips to the glass itself, and minimal wear on that beautiful label. Isn’t she a beauty?! I just knew she would be!
Now, the only question hubby has for me is, am I going to sell it? UPDATE: I am selling it here.
While hubby and I thrill to go pickin’ for antiques in barns, there’s more than a little work involved in dealing with the not-so-nice side of “farm fresh”.
“Farm fresh” really is an oxymoron; for the reality is that these items are typically covered in all sort of “ick” — like bird and animal droppings, spider webs, and other things that make the layer (or two) of good old-fashioned dirt seem heavenly. *wink* Since I’ve just spent the past two days restoring some “farm fresh” finds (and rather spectacular ones at that — antique wooden school desk sets!), I thought it would be a good time to talk about just how to properly clean, care for, and restore antique wooden pieces.
It is important to note that when I say “restore”, I don’t mean “refinishing” these pieces. Like most collectors, we prefer to bring pieces back to life — while maintaining the patina and other signs of their former lives. Whether your antique and vintage furniture and other wooden items are covered in “farm fresh” filth or just need a little clean-up, here’s how you can gently take care of them.
As you can see, these old children’s school desk sets looked like they came out of a barn.
To remove the first layer of “crud”, you’ll want to “power wash” with the lawn hose. Stand a few feet away, and let the water spray away the cobwebs, leaves, dirt, clumps of bird poo, etc. Turn the piece over, so that you can get beneath it. This will remove a lot of the surface dirt, as well as stuff that’s hiding in nooks, crannies, and crevices.
Unfortunately, that’s the easiest part. There’s lots more to do yet. And there’s nothing left to do but do it! *wink*
While the piece is still wet, fill a bucket with warm water, add some Murphy’s Oil Soap, and scrub with a rag. While the manufacturer does not recommend using Murphy’s Oil Soap on unfinished or unsealed wood (and with these old pieces, lots of the original finishes have been stripped or have just plain worn away), we’ve never had any problems. As with anything, test a small area first — especially if you have a painted piece of furniture, or one with decals.
At this point, you’ve probably got a bucket full of mud — and furniture that still isn’t clean. So you’ll need another bucket full of clean warm water and Murphy Oil Soap. Only this time, you’ll want to use one of those cleaning sponges with a non-scratching scrubby-side. (For projects like these, we recycle all the sponges which have been spent cleaning around the house.) Use the sponge to scrub off more stubborn dirt, going with the grain of the wood.
Now, you’ll want to let the pieces dry to be better able to evaluate them. (Plus, your arms will want the rest!)
Once completely dried, we discovered that these desks had been used as tables for painting projects — or at least to hold one of the paint cans, for there was a giant ring of paint and several large splashes of paint too. (Likely lead-based too.) So we had to make a choice and we opted to lightly sand away the offensive paint stains. Then it was one more wash with another bucket of diluted Murphy’s Oil Soap; this time using the soft side of the sponge to go with the wood grain.
After the desks and chairs had completely dried again, we were left with what nearly looked like bone-dry, but spotted, wood that had been left in the desert. Once again, we had to make a choice. While we do adore the charms of worn wood, this was too-worn looking; so we opted to liven it up a bit. But just a bit. While oil can darken or even blacken stained wood, we felt oil was better than wax in this particular case. (With finer pieces, you’ll probably want to use a paste wax. And if you have a lot of different types of antiques you want to treat, Renaissance Wax Polish can be used on lots of other surfaces. And, again, always test in a small, inconspicuous area first.) In the case of these antique school desks, we applied Old English Lemon Oil. Twice. The first coat was rubbed in, left overnight, then another coat was rubbed in the next day. This was the final result:
I think they turned-out quite lovely; even if I do say so myself!
I just love the patina on the one desk with the fancier (older) iron legs — complete with whatever remains of the green stain used and, most charming of all, the old carvings former students had made in the desk top.
And this is how they look in the “back to school” window display at Antiques On Broadway, here in Fargo:
Now let’s talk about taking care of your antique furniture.
Beware the orange oil cleaners, especially for every day use. We can tell you from painful personal experience that those cleaners stripped the finish clear off an antique five-leg table in less than a year. For every day cleaning, use a damp towel with a mild soap — and, with a soft clean cloth, buff dry thoroughly. Wax or oil only when the shine has really left, which is likely once or twice a year.