washing, storing and caring for antique linens
CARING FOR YOUR ANTIQUE LINENS
If you discover, inherit or buy antique linens, you will eventually need to launder them. I hope that the following tips will contribute to your ability to use and enjoy your items. (forgive me if I repeat myself in any of the following text; I love laundering antique linens and I hope that you will come to love it, too! Or, will not worry so much about it.)
Old textiles are usually very sturdy and most are far more colorfast than some of the dyes we have today. (though sometimes not.) They were intended to last an entire lifetime, and often were passed down for the next generation to use. When linens are stored, they invariably develop "age" or "storage stains" which has nothing to do with whether they were put away clean.
One of the most helpful and pleasurable things you can do is to start a collection of books about linens and lace. Among other things, you will learn how different fibers react to different uses and circumstances. (browse my list of recommended reading, too)
PLEASE NOTE THAT I DO NOT GUARANTEE ANY METHOD THAT YOU CHOOSE TO TRYŚ AND THE FOLLOWING TIPS ARE IN NO WAY AN IMPLIED GUARANTEE.
Some items already suffer from dry rot, mouse nibbles and destructive rust. You will not be able to save these things if the fibers are already compromised. If you tug on two sides of a handkerchief, towel or pillowcase and it comes apart without much effort, your item has dry rot and has reached the end of its useful life. It may have looked pretty good, but it was already damaged. Throw it away, mourn it, move on. Sometimes, you must let go.
Please buy "RESTORATION" (or similar... Oxyclean is more widely available and slightly less expensive, but it is not as good) and a gallon of plain white vinegar. You may also want to keep on hand a bottle of Whink "Rust Remover" for difficult rust stains.
"Restoration" and its even-more-gentle companion, "Quilt Wash" can be ordered from the manufacturer, Engleside Products of Lancaster, PA. www.englesideproducts.com)
"Restoration" and white vinegar are my preferred products. I have recently (August 2007) acquired and laundered priceless napkins that came from the King of Italy. If I fearlessly soaked these fabulous heirlooms with "Restoration," you can only imagine my trust in this product. Just read the label and use common sense. You may only need to use "Restoration" for your initial laundering to remove the storage grime although it is so effective that you may find yourself using it more often. I add "Restoration" to the washing machine with my family's laundry, too. It removes odors, age spots, storage stains and label stains and often, but not always, rust. If it does not remove the rust, I use "Whink Rust Remover." Be aware that some rust has already eaten away the fibers and that, by dissolving the rust with a rust treatment, you may be left with a hole.
As with most products, I use less than the manufacturer recommends and I repeat the treatment on very stubborn stains or rust. You will be rewarded for your patience.
I have tried almost anything that anyone has ever suggested. I've used (with varying results) automatic dishwasher detergent, white toothpaste, lemon juice and sunshine on very bad stains on whites. (Not to mention stain sticks, sprays and bleach.) After all that experimenting, I now use "Restoration" first and, if stains remain after two or three sessions with it, I put the piece outside on the lawn in bright sunshine for a day. (This is a magical solution; often horrible stains will disappear within an hour. The magical part is that I have been off doing something else!) If the item comes back inside and the stains persist, I may resort to using bleach with laundry detergent. I do like the bleach pens because it offers a lot of control.
UNUSED, BUT STORAGE-STAINED Tablecloth BEFORE WASHING
THE KING OF ITALY NAPKINS BEFORE WASHING
THE KING OF ITALY NAPKINS AFTER WASHING:
WASHING How-Tos, Step-by-Step:
Step 1. Hot water with "Restoration" until the water turns clear. (approx. 4- 6 hours or overnight)
Step 2. Drain and refill container with water; add white vinegar (a splash or a cup); swish, then soak for 10-20 minutes.
Step 3. Drain and refill with lots of clear water; soak for 15 minutes. Done!
If stains remain, repeat entire process. If there is rust, use rust remover, then repeat from Step 2.
If stains remain, lay item outdoors on grass in sunshine.
If stains remain, soak with laundry detergent and small amount of bleach. Or use a bleach pen on small stains.
If stains remain, use paste of dish washing powder, let sit for an hour.
Gently redissolve the crust that forms and repeat from Step 2.
I know you already know this, but don't mix chemical treatments. Pre-rinse items that may have bleach or detergent residue with vinegar to neutralize the bleach and then rinse twice in clear water before trying another treatment. Do not bleach anything after using Oxyclean or peroxide or any other chemical treatment. Your items may turn permanently blue (or worse.) Rinse really, really well before trying any other product.
I fill my Victorian clawfoot tub (you can use a bucket, your bathtub or sink) with very hot water and allow items to soak for at least six hours with "Restoration." I often add a teakettle full of boiling water to make it even hotter. I use a wooden stirrer to poke them and swish them.
Rinse once with white vinegar to pull any remaining soap or chemical residues from the fibers. Then, another rinse or two. After the final rinse, I drape them against the tub walls to drip. They get piled on top of one another and may drip there for a day, or even two days until I find time to press them.
Trickier. Completely dissolve a generous amount of salt in cold water, then gradually add detergent, then your colored items. This is supposed to prevent bleeding. However, I have discovered that nothing is foolproof. Since some cleaning products work better in warmer (or HOT) water, I may add some. (Alternatively, soak an item for 5 minutes in cold water into which white vinegar has been added.) "Restoration" can be used on colors, but always test for color-fastness first. If an item is filthy, smelly and can't be used or displayed the way it is, I just take the risk. (yes, I lose some)
WASHING DELICATE or FRAGILE ITEMS (LACE, CHRISTENING GOWNS)
Small or delicate items should be washed separately. Handle very gently. Launder them inside mesh pouches, pillowcases or zippered pillowcovers. Squeeze to remove water, do not twist or wring. Or, soak and rinse it with a layer of fabric beneath it; when you are ready to lift it from the water, lift by the fabric which will support the item. I washed a fragile mid-19th century white wedding quilt with this method. That wet fabric with the wet quilt on top was heavy and hard to handle... but it worked.
WASHING LARGE, UNWIELDY ITEMS (SHEETS, TABLECLOTHS, BEDSPREADS)
Large items are hard to handle and get even harder and heavier when they are wet. My preferred method, soaking in a tub, may or may not be right for you. I always use liquid fabric softener on my own sheets. Hanging to dry is my preferred method, often from my shower head if the weather does not allow me to hang them outside or to lay them on my lawn. An added benefit of hanging them to drip dry is the moisture they add to the air during winter.
In fair weather, I often scoop the sheets directly from the lawn and pop them back on my bed without ironing. They "lawn dry" surprisingly flat. I don't often find time to iron my own sheets and I don't mind the slightly disheveled look. If I need to, I will resort to using my dryer but it is my least favorite method as it results in more wrinkles.
If you prefer not to soak by hand, I would suggest laundering by machine on gentle cycle with any product you have on hand and adding "Restoration." If you choose to dry with a machine, you will have more wrinkles. Machine dry on a low heat setting. If possible, remove while damp and either hang to finish drying or iron. It is a personal choice whether to iron or not. Some of us dread it and others appreciate the zen moment!
Tangled fringe is scary looking! But restoring fringe it is not as difficult as it looks. Rule #1 is to be patient. Do not even attempt it until you are in the right mood.
Here are my suggestions:
1. Before washing, pull the fringe into a pony tail with a fabric-covered elastic hair band. if there is fringe on two ends such as on a show towel, tie each end separately. You want to keep the fringe from co-mingling. Let it get nearly dry and remove the band(s) just before ironing. Keep a wide-tooth comb handy. I have an impossibly patient customer who will sit with a pin and "pick out" the fringes thread by thread. You are welcome to do this!
2. This method is more of a pain, but when done well it produces nearly new-looking fringe. Float your item in the bathtub, arranging it in the water so that you can maneuver it to drip onto the tub wall. If there is fringe on two ends, fold the item NOT in half so that the fringes of each end do not intermix. In other words, you want to end up with the fringe of one end hanging directly above the fringe on the other end. Carefully pull the item up and over the side of the tub so that the fringe falls straight down and plasters itself to the side of the tub. If some of the fringe is in disarray, pour water on it from above. This floats the fringe down into straight, separate threads. Tuck the folded fabric over itself so that it drips inside the tub as much as possible. Leave it in position until it is nearly dry.
3. Use creme rinse/detangler in a rinse; it can be helpful.
Keep white vinegar on hand. Use it in the first rinse to pull any remaining residue from the fibers. Follow with a clear rinse.
Either hang things to dry over a tub or shower, hang them on a line, lay them on the grass or fold them against the bathtub to drip inside the tub. (I layer a few dozen wet napkins and wait for them to slowly dry over the course of a day or two in preparation for ironing.) I may put items in the dryer for a few minutes when I desperately need to iron them, but I will always pull them out while they are fairly damp. (I do not do this often and I hesitate to even mention it but I know my intrepid readers will question it, too.)
The dryer "sets" wrinkles and it becomes more work to iron them out. I find that sheets that have dried on the grass look good enough to be put on beds without being ironed, if you do not require perfection. If something is fragile, soak and rinse it with a sheet of fabric beneath it; when you are ready to lift it from the water, lift the fabric which will support the item.
Ironing has been a chore for thousands of years since the Chinese discovered that "smoothing" an item gave it a particularly nice appearance. The Chinese did it cold, though. We are lucky to have electricity to make it much easier, but ironing is still a chore.
Your goal is to iron your items completely dry. It may not always be possible but that is your goal. If they are left ever-so-slightly damp, they happily wrinkle themselves as they dry. After ironing, hang them on drying racks for a few hours so that any residual dampness has a chance to completely evaporate while they are still in "formation." They could be placed on a drying rack, a towel bar, flat across a bed, over the back of a chair, etc. Let them "be" for a few hours; then store them.
Iron items with the wrong side facing the iron. I don't think this matters except for items with embroidery which you want to plump up instead of squish down. Iron your items while they are damp. Try to time it so that they are still damp from washing or dampen them with a spray bottle. Freezing the damp things is supposed to make ironing easier. Wrap them in plastic and leave them in the freezer overnight or put them outside during the winter. Cover them with dry cleaner's plastic in your basket as you are ironing to keep them evenly dampened. It is nearly impossible to completely iron smooth some very heavy linen unless it is nearly soaking wet. Take a deep breath and start, then just keep at it until it is as dry as possible.
Turn off the steam in your iron and let it dry out completely. Two reasons: you avoid the dirty seepage that exudes from the press plate, even from new irons, and, since the goal of ironing is to get an item completely DRY, it makes no sense to add more water, prolonging the drying time. Iron with a dry iron at the hottest temperature you can get. (for linens and cottons, of course. Use lower temperatures for silks or man-made fibers.) I rely on a vintage "IronRite" mangle iron. I even press my jeans on it.
If you are going to use an item or display it, you can starch it while ironing. Starch is a personal preference and it does add a measure of protection against stains. If I use starch, I use a liquid starch called "Linit" which I mix with water in a spray bottle. However, I rarely starch the items that I am selling. Old-time starch was cooked from potatoes and could attract insects which gobbled the textile fibers as they were going for the starch.
I was disappointed to find that the small of expensive French lavender-scented water dissipates once the pieces are dry, but I sometimes use it anyway because it makes the ironing experience so nice. One bottle has lasted almost two years so far. Other than that, I do not like scents in my laundry.
MARKING LAUNDRY & INVENTORY MARKS
Historically, tracking, inventorying and keeping ones sets together and ones laundry separated from the laundry of others has been a challenge. I do not know a lot about this but when people sent all of their laundry to Holland or to the West Indies (or even to the local laundress) to be laundered, there had to be a way for each item to come back to them. I am fascinated by all the types of laundry marks that have come through my door. Items have come to me with indelible ink marks, embroidered marks, stamped marks, sewn-in woven tags, labels and iron-on tape. They also come with metal clamps, which used to horrify me, but now amuse me simply because I have gotten used to them.
My suggestion is to start a system of organization now no matter how small or large your linen collection is. You can keep track of your acquisitions in a notebook, on your computer or simply by saving your receipts. Or, write a note about the item and keep it with the item. Note the item name, the date acquired, the price, the size and description and the circa date of its making. Especially with your family items, this information can be priceless. If you do keep your inventory notes in your computer, you can also keep a digital photo with it. A personal peeve is finding notes attached with huge safety pins that rusted over the years... I try to not puncture my items.
A general rule, (which is not always possible, I know!) is to iron items just before you are ready to use them. Do not iron them if you plan to store them for a long time. If you do plan to store things for any length of time, store them clean and loosely rolled in acid free tissue or in white cotton. Storing them ironed can cause creases to form or crack. Do not store them in plastic. Never.
Do not store them starched, which can attract moths who eat the starch along with any fibers that get in their way... which is most of them.
Do not store them in wooden drawers, chests, trunks, suitcases or closets where the fabric can touch the wood. Wrap them loosely in clean cotton. Or, first line the drawers with acid-free tissue paper or the acids in the wood fibers (even very old wood fibers) will leach out and stain your linens. You will be surprised how quickly they can turn yellow or brown and dismayed by the fact that they need to be re-laundered.
Roll or wrap your "long-term storage" and valuable linens in acid-free tissue paper (which can be bought on-line from The Preservation Station, preservesmart.com.) Or, wrap them loosely in clean cotton. Ols sheets and pillowcases work well for this. I hang ironed pieces because they take up less space and they don't wrinkle but rolling them or loosely folding them is less stressful to the fibers. Store them dry, out of the light, but never in a damp place. Make sure they are thoroughly dry before you put them away. Have I said "dry" enough times?
Go through your linens once a year or so to take stock, check them and enjoy them. If you store things folded and stacked, re-fold them with different creases. Stack heavier items on the bottom with the delicate ones on top. Rotate your items, too, so that one item does not get all the use and wear out. (Although this is some people's strategy. If you like to wear out something completely and then use your backup, that's okay, too! In other words, be true to yourself.)
It really doesn't matter which detergent you use. Use what you have on hand but use a vinegar rinse to remove residue and rinse again very well after that. Soak your linens for a long time when they are really soiled. Pretreat stains with a stain remover. If you can, leave them to soak overnight, or longer. If you feel comfortable with your washer on a gentle cycle, you can use it. But be aware that fragile embroidery, hemstitching or drawnwork can tear under the strain of swishing and spinning.
For more exceptional and helpful information regarding vintage and antique textiles, especially care visit: fashion-era.com
Here is another recent laundry challenge:
PICTORIAL STAIN REMOVAL:
This is the least invasive method; it is effective and it's free. It also sanitizes. This is what my lawn looks like for much of the summer. However, sunlight does bleach and weaken fibers over time. Sunlight is destructive; I am not suggesting that you constantly subject your fragile items to sunlight. This method, used once or twice on a piece that would otherwise need to be thrown away, can be very helpful. It can remove stubborn stains and make a difference in the useability of your item. You can lay things outside in any season; winter snow is also effective. I'd caution against doing it in "mud season," though. You know who you are if you live in a place with mud season. If you don't know what mud season is, trust me, it is better that way.
The dry method:
This is for exceptionally fragile or delicate items which can not be immersed in water. Lay item on the grass in the sun and leave it for a few hours. Stains will lighten and will sometimes completely disappear. Turn over and leave again for a few hours. Repeat if necessary. Also, you can use a spray bottle to spray a very light mist on the item. Do not dampen. This will sometimes remove disagreeable odors.
The damp method:
Pretreat any stains with Whink "Wash Away" and lay it outside on the grass in the early morning or even the night before. Leave it in the sun. Visit it frequently to check it, turn it and dampen it with a spray bottle of water. You can soak it with your spray bottle. The sun does the work, interacting with the water and the chlorophyl in the grass. This also deoderizes and sanitizes. Bird or insect droppings are a downside to this method and I have had an occasional racoon or cat sitting or walking on them, too, but 95% of the time I can bring my sheets inside and pop them directly on the beds without a problem. And the fresh air smell is wonderful. The smell even lasts through ironing.
OTHER STAIN TREATMENTS
Boiling used to be quite common, but when I think about it, I have no boiler big enough to hold a large and heavy linen sheet or a large tablecloth. I can't quite imagine doing it on the cooktop in a pasta pot!
Dishwasher detergent mixed in a paste with plain borax is one I haven't tried, but one of my sources swears by it. Someone else sprays peroxide on stains. As with everything, nothing is predictable or perfect.
Bleach is my LAST RESORT. No matter how tempting, I try not to use it because it eats away the fibers of the fabric. I do, however, use it as a last resort on items that I would otherwise throw away. If you must use chlorine bleach, it is better to use less and soak longer. This means to use very little bleach. Very little. But if you do soak something overnight in bleach, rinse it well in a vinegar water rinse. This neutralizes the bleach and strips out the soap. Then rinse again. Twice.
This painting illustrates the long history of this kind of care! It is "Flemish Market and Washhouse" by Pieter Bruegel (c1520-1569) and it is in the Prado in Madrid, Espana.
Enjoy Your Textile Treasures!