Care of Antique and Vintage Linens
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The key thing to remember when dealing with older textiles is to be gentle. Old linen fibers are old and hence can be weaker and prone to damage. You will mostly want to hand-wash, although your washing machine can sometimes help avoid the heavy labor and work this imposes.
Do not try to rush the process and be patient; it can take days to obtain results. Some textiles have had decades to accumulate dirt and soil!
Supplies to have on hand:
- Soap flakes or a very gentle detergent,
- large soft towels,
- a large container,
- Biz (use sparingly and only where applicable to your particular situation)
- Lingerie bag(s) - especially useful for fringed items, silks, delicate laces and embroidery
- Ribbon (to help avoid tangling fringes, make sure it's white or cream)
- Gloves (to protect your hands)
- Specialty products and stain removers as needed.
General stains and yellowing:
1. Start by soaking the item in a mixture of Biz (if desired) and a gentle detergent (Dreft, Orvus Quilt Soap, laundry flakes). Soaking is important and should not be skipped. Dry and brittle fibers benefit from water and from immersion.
2. Soak up to 2-3 days if you can and as needed. Use the washer, and replace the water regularly. Just drain the water, spin a few seconds to get rid of excess, and put more in. Do not spin or use the machine for very old and delicate pieces.
3. For delicate items, use a container and wash gently, stirring with a spoon. Rinse, rinse, rinse. Better too much than not enough.
4. Remove items from water. Be gentle since at this stage the linens are very fragile. If the piece is heavy, support it with both hands, or get help. Do not let large pieces just hang down. Place linens on a towel and start patting dry. Do not squeeze. Roll gently into a towel.
5. Lay item flat, on a towel or white sheet. Especially if you are using the outdoors, a white sheet will help reflect the sunshine available. If will also protect your linen from grass stains and worse. Grass fields in Europe were known in the old days as the 'bleaching fields'.
6. Dry items in sunshine if available. Even in winter, with a weak sun, outside drying is great. We do not recommend the dryer since it makes linens grayish and dulls them. Never use the clothesline for anything large and/or heavy. Sheets (especially linen), quilts, bedspreads and the like have to dry flat. Putting them on a line will damage them by stretching them out of shape and result in major damage.
7. If you really must use a dryer because of where you live or because it's -20F outside, try using some of the special dryer sachets available. Also try to remember to remove the linens before they are completely dry to make ironing easier. Do not use the dryer if there are still stains and spots left on the piece. If at all possible, only use the dryer as a last resort and when you are absolutely sure an item is 100% clean and well rinsed. Use the lowest heat setting and take items out as soon as the excess water is removed. Try to never use the dryer for anything that has to lie flat since it will distort them.
Ironing- Not everyone's favorite job but it truly can be therapeutic and a pleasure. Make sure you have a good quality iron and that it is perfectly clean. Try to get to your ironing when the linens are still damp (even a bit wetter than damp). This makes the job easier and the results will be better. Hand ironing can be relaxing at a leisurely pace, in front of television for example.
Iron on a clean, smooth surface. Use a large white soft towel if you are ironing embroidery, and place the piece face down, so the embroidery does not get flattened. Use the correct setting, and work slowly from one end to the next. Fold or place item on a hanger, and let it sit until bone-dry (it's not quite dry even after ironing). Ironing an item that has been out in the sun can be a true pleasure. It smells so nice! You can enhance the experience by using scented linen water. Only use starch if you will be using the linens, not storing them (see below). Roll tablecloths and large items (e.g. sheets) if storing them, to avoid stress on the creases.
What to do if washing is not enough?
If there are stubborn stains left, here are the things we recommend. Be especially cautious when working with any colored linens, and do spot testing where appropriate to make sure the attempted cure is not worse than the problem. Here is an overview of the most common problems and what to do:
- Rust. Sometimes rust is not actually rust. There are real rust sport of course, caused by metal and water coming in contact with fibers. Humid environments are very damaging to linens. The other 'rust' is simply a storage problem. Not rust at all. Usually a gentle soak, maybe followed by a treatment with one of the products below, will be enough, unless your item has already been so damaged by these spots that they degrade even further. You do not have anything to lose at this point by trying to get the spots out anyway.
- Yellowing, brown smudges, and stains. Caused by storage, wood, age, humidity and more. Can be especially noticeable in folds. A good soak followed by one of the products below for more stubborn stains, will usually do the trick.
- Ink. Special ink removers are available if a simple soak and spot treatment does not work. Vinegar can be useful as can hairspray. Spot test first.
- Pieces where the dye has run are not necessarily ruined. It requires patience and some elbow grease but they can be saved. If the run is recent, Ritt makes an Excess Dye Remover. However it is not appropriate for all pieces, nor will it always work. If the piece is going to be trashed anyway, you can try bleach with a very weak solution of bleach and water and a Q-Tip. Do not do this unless the item would be thrown away otherwise. Rinse thoroughly and use vinegar n the rinse to help neutralize the bleach. Last resort only!
Stain removal products and tips/tricks
- A mixture of lemon juice and water and let the item dry in the sun. Don't ever do this for long and always rinse thoroughly afterwards since lemon juice is acidic. Don't do this on very old and delicate pieces. Same with vinegar. Both work well but require caution. These 2 tricks work well with 'rust' so try these before anything more drastic.
- One of the best products available for linens is Restoration made by Engleside Products and available through our website. We cannot recommend this product enough; it is truly great. Follow the directions carefully, and never use it on silk (most of our tips do not apply to silk, the only product for that is LeBlanc's Silk and Lingerie wash or a good dry cleaner).
- Another very good line of products is LeBlanc Linen Wash. The LeBlanc series smells good and works even better.
- An old family recipe for many Europeans is as follows: to whiten yellowed linens, soak them for 48 hours in a solution of ½ cup sea salt per 1 gallon of water. Rinse carefully and then dry in the sun if possible, on a flat surface.
A few words of caution
- Avoid bleach and products with bleach and optical whiteners. They will damage your items more than they will help them. Bleach destroys fibers by weakening them and generally the damage is not worth the results.
- Do not starch items that will be stored away. Only starch if you are going to use them soon. Starch attracts little bugs known as silverfish. They will feast on it and eat the fabric too!
- Fold items carefully if storing them, and refold often if storing them so that the fold lines don't weaken the fibers. Store in a dark dry closet (remember the sun bleaches). Never allow linens to come into direct contact with wood and make sure they are stored in a dry place. If you can, store linens in acid-free materials, rolled up in the paper and in a cardboard box (acid-free). Also, do not store your linens in plastic bins or in anything plastic. Linens and textile in generals need to breathe.