Caring For Your Vintage and Antique Linens and Textiles—Part One

Removing Stains and Washing Textiles and Linens

The one question that I get asked over and over whenever I’m doing a show is: “How do you get your linens so clean?” The answer is not very exotic: A lot of soaking and patience! Antique and vintage linens require gentle care, but in most cases, can be used and enjoyed for years to come.

Soaking and washing will clean most linen quite nicely. Occasionally, there will be a spot or stain that just won’t come out. In that case, all you can do is accept it as part of the piece and think of it as adding character. Often, a stain can be minimized so that it doesn’t distract from your enjoyment of the overall piece.

Damask Tablecloth

Antique Linen Damask Monogrammed Tablecloth or topper:  A wonderful old piece of damask linen, offered for sale by Victorian House Antiques on GoAntiques.  The piece is noted to be 28.5 x 34 inches, and is in good condition with only one spot.  That spot might be able to be soaked out.

Cotton and linen damask tablecloths and napkins, damask and huck towels, sheets and pillowcases should be soaked in lukewarm water mixed with Biz or Oxy-Clean. Although Oxy-Clean is fairly new to the market, Biz has been around for years and is an old laundry staple. Don’t be afraid to let the items soak for hours, even days. Check the item to see if the stains are still there, mix a fresh solution and soak again. I’ve soaked items two and three times until the offending stain or spot was either gone or reduced enough that it didn’t detract from the piece.

Sears ad

Sears Linen and Cotton Table Cloth and Napkins 1936 Ad:  A Sears ad shows damask table cloths and napkins and their prices in 1936.  Antique linen can still be used today if you take care and wash carefully.  The ad is courtesy of GoAntiques dealers Charles & Phyllis J. Wille.

Both Biz and Oxy-Clean are great at getting out all kinds of stains. I’ve even removed red wine stains from a tablecloth with Oxy-Clean. However, never soak any fabrics with rayon, silk, wool or metallic threads in either stain cleaner. Also, if the item has any colored embroidery on it, go cautiously. A lot of early embroidery threads were not colorfast, particularly, the reds, blues, and purples. Start with cold water and watch it. If any color appears in the water, immediately remove the items and rinse in cold water. If the water stays clear, let it go a little longer, but keep an eye on it. If after awhile, you don’t see any discoloration in the water, the thread is probably colorfast.

Carefully remove linens and textiles from water. The weight of the water can pull and stretch the fabrics or even tear them. Many old fabrics are very fragile when wet. It’s best to use an old towel as a sling to pick items out of the water. Never wring old textiles or linens. Gently roll them in an absorbent towel to remove the excess water.

Once you’re done soaking, rinse the item in water until the water is clear. Damask and linen textiles can usually be put in the washing machine in cold water on a delicate cycle. Use a mild detergent, such as Ivory. Any pieces with intricate handwork, such as drawnwork, or lace should always be gently handwashed.

Sun bleaching is another method for cleaning linens. This is a technique that dates back generations when grass fields in Europe were known as bleaching fields. I’ve never had the opportunity to try this, since my yard is full of trees with no large sunny areas. However, I’ve heard great success stories from many textile experts and collectors who have used this technique. After soaking an item, rinse and wash it, and then lay it out on green grass in the sun. This works particularly well with damask and huck tablecloths, napkins, towels and sheets. A few cautions: Colored tablecloths and linens will fade in the sun, and watch out for birds, insects and roaming neighborhood cats and dogs.

Huck-linen towel

Huge Damask Huck Linen/Lace – Towel:  This beautiful antique towel, made from cottage damask huck linen and adorned with hand-made lace, also listed by Victorian House Antiques on GoAntiques, is listed as in excellent condition, with a few faint spots.

Chlorine bleach should never be used except in rare instances as a last resort. Bleach is very harsh on delicate fabrics. I never soak an entire piece in bleach. On a few occasions, when all other attempts have failed, I may spot-treat a stain with bleach. Bleach pens are good for this. I’ll do this only on sturdy white fabrics, such as damask or huck. After treating the area, be sure to rinse the entire piece thoroughly. I would rather have a small spot than a hole in a nice vintage or antique textile.

Rust stains are some of the toughest to remove. Whink, a rust spot remover, often works. However, this is a strong chemical, so read the label carefully and use sparingly. A paste made from lemon juice and salt may also work. Often, rust is one of those stains that you have to learn to live with.

Once your linens are clean and fresh, hang them to dry. I don’t recommend a dryer because the high temperature can be hard on delicate or old fabrics.

Wonderful linens and textiles should be used and enjoyed. I have hand-crocheted pieces from my great-grandmother that I cherish despite a few spots and worn areas. She was a prolific crocheter and would be thrilled to know that her pieces had been passed down and were still being used and enjoyed rather than stored in a drawer. Unless it’s a rare museum piece (in which case it should probably be in a museum), don’t be afraid to display and enjoy your collection and heirlooms.

WorthPoint: Get the Most from Your Antiques and Collectibles

  • megsmom

    thank you for this very helpful and informative piece of work.

  • i am in possession of what appears to be a napkin measuring 17″ square with a hand sewn border of a little over 1″ , imprinted w/pictures of Wm. McKinley and Garret A. Hobart.
    As it is yellowed w/age
    , would it be possible to clean w/out losing the picture and printing?

  • This is such great information. I am putting it on my blog

  • I have rescued many of crotched dollies, embroidered table clothes, so many old things. I just could not see how people could not recognize the art and time and love that the person that made them had. Most needed good washing and soakings. Your right on with the Biz and Oxy/ I can’t wait to try the rust product. Thanks so much! Lisa

  • Jane DiPaolo

    On BBC TV Production, the ladies used a soak in Denture Cleaner. I’ve haven’t tried it, and I don’t remember if if was a vintage piece they were working on – but the results did seem quite amazing.

  • sharon follmer

    Thanks so much for the useful information. Does this also apply to antique lace? Do you have any information on how to date the pieces I have just acquired?

  • Lynda Kolski

    Very often those early inks were not colorfast or stable. I would not do anything to it, as I would be afraid soaking or washing it would also wash out that ink. Sometimes you have to accept the marks of age on delicate items as part of the piece.

  • Lynda Kolski

    Depending on the type of lace it is, you can usually soak it the same way. But, depending on what it’s made of and the type of lace, it may be very fragile when wet, so use extreme care in handling it. Dating handmade lace is very difficult to do. I would suggest reading Pat Earnshaw’s book, “The Identification of Lace.” This will help you identify the lace, which is a starting point in trying to date it.

  • Linda

    PLEASE, please, please do NOT ever use bleach pens or whink on vintage or antique linens. Where there once was a stain, you will soon have a hole.

  • TY for this great info. I just inherited my family collection. Some from my grand parents,some that my father did. What is the name for the fine work that has cut out holes with fine stitches surrounding the cuts? I know there’s a name for it. This work dates back to the early 20th century.

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