The Times West Virginian

January 11, 2012

Thoroughly modern primitive

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Most people like things shiny and new.

Not Debbie Yost.

“I just like the older stuff,” she said. “The older, the better.”

Her home just outside Mannington has some charming antiques ... an old school desktop, old rocking chair, old quilts.

But if she can’t find old stuff, she’ll take new and make it look old.

It’s part of the primitive movement in decor ... almost like antiques in reverse ... when newer objects are treated to look old.

“Most people want to make things cleaner,” she said. “Not me. Give it to me and I’ll make it look old.

“I like to take stuff and reuse it,” she said.

You could say with her, everything new is old again.

Sometimes she’ll take an object, like an apron, and stain it to look old. Sometimes she’ll make an object and stain it to look old.

She uses a mixture of black tea, instant coffee, spices and vanilla to stain and scent the clothing.

“I got the mixture from the Internet,” she said. “I tried different things. This last recipe was really good.

“I soak the clothing and then bake it in the oven. This actually burns it and makes it feel hard,” she said. “That’ll make it look old.”

Either way, sometimes you can’t tell the difference between genuine antique and what she calls “grungied.”

She made a little cabinet from wood slats and a window from an old barn. A little sanding and painting, and it looks older than it really is.

She’s made primitive-style rag dolls and stained them to look like Great-Grandma played with them.

She got a new oak table for the dining room and can’t wait until they’ve had it long enough for her to “grungy” it up, too.

She makes tin cans look like they came from Great-Great-Grandma’s pantry by immersing them in a solution of bleach, vinegar and peroxide.

“They get rusty. That’s real rust, so you have to be careful with them,” she said.

She scours yard sales, flea and farmers markets, and thrift stores for new things to turn old. Twice a year she and her husband John go to the Ohio Amish country.

“We’ll gather up stuff and bring it back and work on it,” she said.

A lot of her primitives look like things you’d find in Great-Grandma’s attic and toss in the trash, they’re so stained and dirty-looking.

That’s just the look she’s after, she said.

“But I would love to have some of the older stuff that’s being thrown away,” she said wistfully.

Some old-looking items in her house really are old, like a school desk top displayed on an antique bed. An old, water-stained reference dictionary lays on the desk top.

“I didn’t do that,” she said with a laugh, about the discolored pages.

“I’ve been doing this for about 10 years, but the past five I’ve really gotten into it,” she said. “I went from country to primitive.”

A chest of drawers was rescued from being tossed out by a neighbor. She purchased a large spool of thread from a dealer who cautioned her about its original use.

“It was used by undertakers,” Yost said with a laugh. “I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to cover it anyway.’”

She picked up a battered-looking pitcher.

“It was real shiny and white, too bright for me, so I stained it and sanded it and made it look as old as I could.”

There are some things she refuses to grungy up. The quilts her mother and grandmother made top that list.

“That little rocking chair, my grandmother gave that to me,” she said. “And I’ve had it about 38 years. She had it before. I made the mistake of having it stripped when I should have left the original colors.

“I’m not really into antiques,” she added. “I can’t tell the difference between a real antique and something was primitived. If it’s something I like, I’ll just get it. I can see the potential.

“I can take it and change the appearance and make it grungy-looking.

“There’s nothing I’ve not primitived yet.”

“Take 5” is featuring local residents with interesting hobbies. To be included as a Wednesday “Take 5” feature, contact Debra Minor Wilson at 304-367-2549 or

Email Debra Minor Wilson at