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How To: Clean antique fabric

Area companies specialize in creating custom radiator covers. (Lloyd Pitts)

Q. Where can I go to get a radiator cover? Not the 1950s style, but just something that looks good?


A. A good carpenter or cabinet maker can probably help you, or you can go to a company that advertises its expertise in this area, such as SMK Enterprises (877-768-8072, or Lloyd Pitts Custom Cabinetry (301-599-1616, Both make regular deliveries to Washington and surrounding areas.

I have an antique coverlet. It’s dirty from hanging in a home for 25-plus years, and I’d like to get it cleaned. It’s white. Should I wash it, or would you recommend having it dry-cleaned? Also, any ideas on where I could get it appraised?


You might want to begin by taking your coverlet to the Ask-a-Curator, Ask-a-Conservator service offered by the Textile Museum in the District’s Kalorama neighborhood (2320 S St. NW, 202-667-0441, The program allows people to bring textiles and get a specialist’s suggestions about how to care for them. The service is offered from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month September through May. It’s free if you’re a member or $5 otherwise.

Your coverlet was almost certainly washed earlier in its life, but whether it is still safe to do that depends on the condition of the fibers. In general, the safest approach is to start by vacuuming it through a piece of plastic window screen, which you can buy at a hardware store or home center. The screen keeps the vacuum from inhaling the fibers yet allows enough suction to remove an amazing amount of grime and dirt. Conservators recommend using a low-suction, hand-held vacuum with a brush attachment. If you use a standard vacuum, put it on a setting that reduces the suction (and use the brush attachment).

Because your coverlet was hanging for all of those years, all of the dirt on it settled from the air. So vacuuming — the reverse of what gravity did — may be sufficient to get it looking clean.

If it still looks dirty, you might want to launder it yourself or have a professional do it. A conservator would soak it in water but not agitate it, rinse it several times with clear water, blot out most of the water, then allow it to dry while flat — all steps designed to minimize tension on the fibers.

If you decide to tackle the job yourself, read a great primer with tips about techniques and soap at www.hartcottage
. You might want to wait for warm weather so you can do it outside, using a kid’s plastic wading pool for washing and a sheet spread out in the shade for drying. In winter, you could wash the coverlet in a bathtub, but it might be challenging to find a place to spread out the fabric while it dries.

To find an appraiser, use the “find an appraiser” service offered on the Web site of the Professional Association of Appraisers — Quilted Textiles ( For Maryland, it lists Phyllis Twigg Hatcher in Annapolis (410-571-8847).

The two bathtubs in my 1951 Cape Cod have dull surfaces and are hard to clean. Would it help to get them reglazed? I think there are two methods. How do I know which is best or if it is cost-effective?


Your tub probably has a porcelain enamel finish, which is quite durable. So before you consider coating it with something that isn’t as durable and might peel, make sure the surface doesn’t just need cleaning in some way you haven’t tried. The Porcelain Enamel Institute, a trade group, has a cleaning guide on its Web site:

If you do decide to recoat, hire a pro to apply an acrylic urethane coating unless you’re going for a color that will look fine if it yellows with age. That’s a drawback with the other type of finish, epoxy. Before you hire anyone, ask for references from a couple of recent customers as well as a few from several years ago. Refinished tubs usually look great at first. The real test is whether the coating stays on over the long haul.

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