IRONING: How to Care for Vintage Linens & Lace

Ironing:  the third part of our series.

There are many different ways of preparing linens for ironing, and I’ve used many of them through the years.  In this series, I’ll share with you the routine I’ve “settled into.”  If you missed either of the previous topics, we covered washing HERE and drying HERE.
 
I once received an email from a blog reader who asked this question:

If I may ask, what iron do you use?  My iron doesn’t seem to work very well for getting the wrinkles out of linen. Maybe it doesn’t get hot enough?

 
When I’m ironing just a few small pieces at a time, I use a Rowenta PowerGlide2 steam iron that I’ve had for years.  When I have a lot of ironing – or large tablecloths – I use a 1940s Ironrite ironer.

Ad -Ironrite Automatic Ironer 1948
Source

 
I suspected, however, that the iron really wasn’t my blog friend’s problem.  Let me show you the basic steps I take when ironing linens.
 

Start with a clean iron!

That may seem obvious, but you just might be surprised…  Your iron needs to be clean both inside and out. It’s a good idea to check your manufacturer’s recommendations for what products to use, but I’ll make some suggestions.

Let’s assume the worst:  you have a steam iron that leaks brown water when you’re ironing and/or the soleplate (the part of the iron that actually touches the fabric) is covered with some sort of rusty-looking or sticky substance.  Yikes! — but I’ve been there, too …


Caring for the inside of your iron

If you are filling your steam iron with tap water, STOP! Many times there are substances in tap water that transfer to the clean fabric you’re ironing and leave a stain. Then you have to re-wash. Not worth it!
 
If you’ve been using tap water, I suggest you purchase some steam iron cleaner the next time you’re out shopping and follow the directions. You may even have to use it a couple of times to (hopefully) get out all of the “gunk.”  Once your iron is clean inside, it’s important to check your manufacturer’s suggestions for which type of water to use. Mine calls for spring water, but other manufacturers say to use distilled. Both spring and distilled water come in gallon jugs, and should be located in the same section of your grocery store.
 
Tip: If your steam iron leaks, it’s possible you really need to replace it. But before you do, try this.  Turn on your iron and let it heat up on the hot/steam setting for 1-2 minutes each time before you start ironing. Very often the leaking problem will stop.


Caring for the outside of your iron

This is actually the easy part! You want to purchase an iron soleplate cleaner. There are several brands available (often called “hot iron cleaner”), and I’ve had equally good success with all that I’ve tried. Common instructions are for you to set your iron on the hottest setting and turn your steam to “off” (or as low as possible).  Once the iron is hot, squeeze some of the soleplate cleaner onto an old towel or cloth that has been folded so it is THICK. Then rub the soleplate cleaner directly on the hot iron. (Now you know why you want your cloth to be THICK — so you don’t burn your fingers!) You’ll begin to see the thick, dirty substance on your iron start to disappear. Use as many applications of the cleaner (and as many clean cloths) as it takes to get the entire soleplate (sides included) completely clean.
 

Now that your iron is clean …

 

Choose the correct temperature setting for your fabric

then let your iron heat 1-2 minutes before ironing.
 

Iron while the fabric is damp (or even wet).

Many people don’t know to do this – and it’s usually the reason they don’t get all of the wrinkles out when ironing their linens. Watch how this works…
 
Here’s a huck linen hand towel that I washed, rolled up in a ball so there would be LOTS of wrinkles for you to see, then spread out to dry completely.

Leaving a heavily-wrinkled section in the center (left side of my photo), I ironed one end with my iron on “hot” and “high steam.”  You’d think that would get out all of the wrinkles, wouldn’t you?  Honestly, I tried hard.  What do you think?

Personally, I wouldn’t be willing to put linens on my table that looked like that! Let’s try this instead … I re-wet the other end of the towel then ironed it on “hot” without any steam. How about this?  (Remember, the right side of the photo hasn’t been ironed at all.)  MUCH better, don’t you think?

I then re-wet the rest of the towel and ironed it, too…

Tip:  It’s helpful to reshape your item before/while ironing it.
 

Iron the item face down on a soft, “cushy” surface.

This ironing “rule” is most important for linens with embroidery.  Let me show you why …
 
If you iron directly on top of the design (on the front side), you will flatten the design. See how the threads look crushed rather than having a little “lift” (dimension) to them?

 
Compare that to this example where the design was ironed properly — on the back side.  Notice how the rose buds and the French knots are all plump rather than flat.  Much prettier, yes?

 
Tip:  If your ironing board doesn’t have a padded surface, cover it with a fluffy towel or smooth quilt and iron on top of that.
 
The question for some of you may be, “How do I know which is the front side and which is the back side?”  That may seem like it should be an easy question, but actually it’s sometimes very difficult to tell.  When someone is extremely good at handwork, often the back (wrong side) looks as pretty as the front! On occasion I’ve had to pull out a magnifying glass just to know for sure.
 
However, most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell if you know what you’re looking for.  When something is hand-embroidered, there are very often telltale knots and/or “tails” of loose thread that you can see…

 
On the front (right) side, however, they aren’t visible …

 

To starch … or not to starch?

If I want starched linens, my personal preference is to starch only when I’m ready to use them. I don’t recommend storing starched linens because the starch can attract insects.  (I’ll cover the topic of proper linen storage later in this series.)  You can use either canned spray starch or liquid starch. I prefer the liquid because it saturates the entire fabric rather than staying mostly on the surface – and it doesn’t flake!  I just add a small amount of liquid starch to some water in the sink (almost always less starch than the directions call for), mix well, then add my linens; swishing to wet them thoroughly. I might let them dry slightly, but usually I iron them when they’re wet.
 

What about using fragrance?

As with starch, whether or not to scent your linens is a personal choice.  Occasionally I do, but more often than not I prefer to spritz a bit of fragrance on a freshly-made bed … or add a sachet to the linen closet.  If you want to use fragrance when ironing, there are many ready-made linen waters available as well as many online recipes for making your own.  Caution: Linen water should be sprayed on when ironing, not added to your steam iron.
 
If there’s something I haven’t covered here that you’re wondering about, PLEASE leave a comment and ask me!  Someone else may have the same question…

 
Next time we’ll talk about how to remove storage stains.
 

Remember …

The best thing you can do for your vintage linens

is use them! 

 
I’ll be joining:
Blue Monday at Smiling Sally
Metamorphosis Monday at Between Naps on the Porch
Inspiration Friday at At The Picket Fence

Comments

  1. I didn’t think my comment went through before so I came back- I wanted to say thank you for all the great directions on taking care of linens. I LOVE ironing linens and I often use a bottle of clean water to just spray them as I iron them usually with no steam. Great information here- xo Diana

  2. This is a very nice and thorough series on caring for linens! I enjoyed it all. So fun to be included. Thanks for the link back! I’m just a linen lover. You’re the pro!

  3. Thanks for sharing your bits of blues. I know that many will appreciate your good tips.
    Happy Blue Monday, Susan.

  4. Great idea’s. Wish I had more of those vintage linen items. Always taking Mom’s stuff
    she is getting ready to give away. She thinks I am nuts of course.

  5. Nice article 🙂

  6. Barbara W. Preston says:

    Thank you for your posts on taking care if linens. As museum furnishings chairman for a historic house museum, I have had to preserve and conserve linens and laces that have been given to the museum and left in drawers without being washed or properly stored in acid free tissue thus allowing bugs, stains, etc to get to these lovely items. I am fortunate to have had a grandmother who taught me many of your approaches to cleaning linens. Everyone brought their soiled linens to her to wash and restore.

    One tip I have for drying laces and fragile pieces is to buy a sheet of plastic cardboard (looks like cardboard but it is made from plastic) and some small beaded stainless steel straight pins. When I take my lace out of the rinse water, I hand press out the excess water and then lay the lace on the plastic board. I then straighten out the main portion of the lace and pin it as I go the keep it in place to keep its shape. Then, I go back and gently with my fingers I straighten out the edges and pin them in place. This allows you to completely straighten out all lace edges so that they dry and do not need to be ironed which can weaken the threads of old laces. When the piece is dry, it needs no ironing to be identified with a paper tag attached with a string through a place on the lace, wrapped in acid free tissue, and placed in an archival textile box. I label all boxes on the outside with a peal and stick label for each item in the box. The boxes can then be stacked with labeled ends showing for easy retrieval of needed items.
    Thank you again for your wonderful tips!

    • Barbara, your work sounds fascinating! I’m honored that you took time to share your lace drying and storage tips with all of us here at My Place to Yours. I’ll have to look for the plastic board. That’s a wonderful suggestion! Thank you for stopping by today. Please come again—and bring your linen-loving friends! (BTW, I’d love to know which house museum you work with!)

    • From Barbara: I volunteer at the Richards-DAR House Museum, 256 N. Joachim Street, Mobile, Alabama 36602. Come visit us sometime. You can find our times for tours on our website: http://www.richardsdarhouse.com.

  7. I am a custom picture framer and I am framing a handkerchief from WW1. After press the fabric, it is quite limp and does not hang nicely when tacked with needle and thread in each corner. I was wondering about using starch on such an old piece. The customer is nervous about adding anything to the material. Can you help?

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