Linens are very precious to us in so many ways. Sometimes they are passed on to us from generation to generation. Care, cleaning and storage of these cherished treasures is something we all want to know about. With careful cleaning and proper storing, vintage linens can be preserved to last for a very long time. Most of the linens we still see today, will have some wear, with some discoloration and even those frustrating stains. We can’t treat these fabrics like we do with normal laundering, because these fabrics are just too fragile and old to stand that kind of cleaning.
There are a number of ways to revitalize linens and bring out the beauty in them in spite of some of the wear and stain damages over time. Old linens were made a lot stronger than today’s linens and have stood the test of time for many years. Be prepare to have lots of time and patience when cleaning them, as this is a process and does take a bit of time and effort. The absolute safest way to clean them is by hand washing, soaking, and good rinsing and drying.
A big question to ask yourself is rather or not you feel that cleaning vintage linens is worth it? No matter what method you use to clean with, you will be putting stress on the fibers and threads. Some linens still have their original tags. Cleaning those may require the removal of the tags. You will need to consider this before approaching head strong into wanting to clean them. Old linens with original tags are more valued than without them. Another factor to consider is allowing the buyer to choose what cleaning method they wish to use. Museums do not always desire to have linens cleaned prior to buying them.
Cottons are usually safe to clean, however some cottons will lose their finish if they are glazed cottons. Velvet, silks, wools and many other type fabrics just do not do well in cleaning. There are a number of different ways to clean depending on the fabrics. The cleaning solutions I share here are geared more towards the cotton fabrics. Always make sure that you know what your fabric is before attempting to wash it at home.
Using Washing Machines
Washing machines may damage your vintage linens. It is not the preferred method for cleaning vintage linens and protecting their delicate fibers and threads. There are just so many things that could go wrong by using a regular washing machine for cleaning vintage linens. The one thing I use the washing machine for is to rinse out all cleaning solutions and chemicals. I will let the fabric soak for a day or two in a machine washer and then I will run it on delicate in warm water with no detergents. I try to avoid washing machines for anything more than overnight soaking or rinsing out cleaning solutions used when hand washing and soaking. Agitation from a machine washer can cause the fabric to tear and create damage and holes and even sometimes literally shred the fabric. Heat from a dryer can create shrinkage and damage the fibers of vintage fabrics.
When Soaking Vintage Linens
Soaking linens will require a bucket, basin or large safe tub or container (not metal) where your linens can remain soaking for awhile. Sometimes linens are soaked for hours up to several days and you will need a place where they can safely soak for that long period of time.You can stir linens carefully, but it is best not to attempt to rub out the stains, as that can cause damage to the fibers of the linens. Be careful during soaking that you do not pull too much on the wet fabric as this can tear the fibers and damage them.
White Vinegar And Water
I have to say I love using white vinegar for cleaning around the home a lot! It has also been proven to be a very nice gentle way to clean vintage linens. I use about two gallons of cool water with one cup of white vinegar. Be sure to check your fabric first to see if it is colorfast. You can test to check if your dyes are going to run by dabbing a small section of your linen with a clean white towel with the water and vinegar. If you see color on the white towel, you do not have a colorfast fabric and your dyes can run during cleaning. Most often when you soak a safe fabric in vinegar and water, it will make the water turn a yellowish color. Be sure to check your soaked linens from time to time. This soaking process can assist you in removal of yellow and brownish stains. Once those stains are gone, you can remove the fabric from the vinegar and water solution. The next step is hand washing your fabric after soaking.
Lemon Juice And Salt
The lemon juice and salt method of soaking out stubborn stains on whites has been very effective. Dampen a cloth with lemon juice and dab it gently on the stain. Once the lemon juice is applied cover this area with any table salt and then soak it in direct sunlight. Now the way this works is by keeping the stain spot wet with lemon juice and naturally when in direct sunlight it is going to start to dry on you. So you do need to keep an eye on it and keep that area wet. Some of us may not want to use the table salt in this soaking method because it may be too harsh on some vintage fabrics causing fiber and thread weakness and possible damage. If you do decide to use the salt, try not to rub it into the fabrics, gently pour it on the spots.
Fels Napta And Soap Flakes
When cleaning the very fragile and old fabrics Fels Napta and soap flakes works best. You will need to be very careful with these delicate older and more fragile pieces. You can fold the fabric into fourths and tie them together with a white thread. Soak overnight with soap flakes and water. On the next day drain the water, cover with clean cool rinse water, and continue to rinse until you see that all the soap residue is gone. If the fabric is really fragile you can baste together the ends to keep them from coming undone during the cleaning and rinsing process. Once the rinse is complete, you can cut the basting threads and ties. Dry flat and not in direct sunlight. Do be very careful and not squeeze the threads to remove excess water as this can cause damage to the fibers.
Biz, Boraz, and Color Safe BleachDetergent Solutions
There are times when using cleaning detergents like Biz or Oxi-Clean may just be way too harsh for fragile vintage linens. Especially the delicate and older pieces. This is especially true with metallic threads and the new Biz on the market does have Oxi products in it. So be careful with Biz. Knowing again, what your fabric is will help a great deal in determining what detergent to clean with.
Biz is often used for fabrics from the 1950s and up. Borax mix with Biz and a color safe bleach can be used for soaking your linens to remove stains and ordors. You will need to use hot water first before putting soaking your vintage linens in order to disolve all the powder in Biz powder detergents. Once the water has cooled you can soak equal parts of Biz and Borax for about 6 hours or so. This will usually remove stains and ordors. If you still see a few stains, repeat the process. Rinse throughly afterwards and make sure your rinse water is completely clear and has removed all the detergent chemicals before going to the drying process. If the chemicals from the detergents are not properly rinsed, this can cause damage and breakdown to the fabric.
Oxi-Clean is well known for cleaning vintage linens. This is a nice cleaner that has been known to remove many stains. It comes in both a powder and liquid. The powder needs to be activated in hot water. Vintage fabrics should not soak or be washed in hot waters, so you may need to wait until the water is cooled before adding your fabrics to this cleaning solution. Some people will let their linens soak overnight in OxiClean in warm water, once the original powder is dissolved. One thing I did notice with Oxi Clean is that some of the powder comes with those little blue dye crystals and I have found that does cause some blue staining on white and color linens if not dissolved completely.
OxiClean is sodium per-carbonate which is an oxygen bleach. When you add water to the powder it activates it and it will stay active for 6 hours or so. It can not be used for all linens, especially Damask. OxiClean is good, and used a great deal to remove stubborn stains, however if you can get your hands on a product called Restoration might be better, but a bit harder to find and more expensive than OxiClean.
Ivory Snow Liquid Detergent
A very delicate cleaning detergent for the fragile and metallic threads. You can soak your linens for a few hours as long as you continue to stir and keep the fabric moving around during soaking. Ivory Snow has been known to be safe to use for older vintage linens with embroidery and some crochet pieces.
This comes in a spray and you can spray it directly on a stubborn spot. This is safe for older linens and does not have any Oxi products in it. You might want to test a piece of the fabric first before using this and spray it on your wet soaked pieces.
Bleaches and Oxy products, including Woolite for cleaning linens with embroidery, crochet and metallic threads as well as more older linens has been known to damage the fabrics. The brighteners in these products are too harsh for them. Chlorine bleach can erase linen patterns, weaken fibers, and literally leave white areas and even holes in vintage fabrics. This applies to all those bleach pens out on the market too. This can really damage your fabrics.
Sun Bleach( Sun Crofting)
Use direct sun rays to whiten or bleach. If you place the fabric directly on the grass outside, you can use the oxygen released by the grass photosynthesis process. However, be sure that your grass and ground are free of pets, and especially chemical bug sprays. You can lay your linen on a table flat in direct sunlight and keep an eye on it. Keep it wet during this process and really keep an eye on it so that you do not let it fade from direct sunlight.
Sometimes you can remove those rust stains with products like Whink Rust Removal, dd seven with lemon juice. Just be careful when using harsh chemicals on vintage linens because this can cause holes and other damages. Always do a test first before using these.
Arm and Hammer Washing detergent or soda can often remove the musty odors. A soak in baking soda and warm water or even a vinegar rinse.
There are a couple of ways to dry vintage linens. Although not the most recommended is the machine dryer. If you use a dryer, be sure it is set on gentle and is not too hot. Heat can damage vintage linens considerably. Do not use a machine dryer when drying crochet linens as this can permanently stretch these fabrics out of shape.
Crochet and other delicate fabrics can be dried by laying flat in between towels. One thing to remember is not to squeeze linens, but to pat them dry and lay them flat on a dry towel.
The sun dry method is great if your have access to using sun drying. If you can lay your linens flat down in direct sunlight that can also help with removal of some stains. Be very careful with using clothespins, wood pins can cause damage to the fabric. Use lots of plastic clothespins to avoid stretching the fabric on corner areas if your drying on a clothesline.
The best way I can suggest to store vintage linens over time is to roll them in an acid free tissue paper or cotton and store them in a clean dry plastic tub away from direct sunlight and other moist areas like damp basements. Sealed containers will usually keep the bugs or moths away. Try to store your linens without starch or other cleaning chemicals or deodorants as some of those will cause staining or could attract moths that may damage them. Linens are often folded when stored. Folds and creases can cause some breakdown in the fibers, as well as create folded stains or marks. If your storing your linens for a long period of time, it might be a good idea to switch the folds from time to time. Avoid direct contact with wood when storing as this can cause damages to the fabric especially embroidered pieces. Always line your storage containers with a cotton linen or acid free tissue paper. Do not store in plastic bags, over time the gases from the plastic bags can cause discoloration on the fabric. Always check your stored linens from time to time throughout the year.