MYSTERY STAIN REMOVAL: How to Care for Vintage Linens & Lace

So far in this series, we’ve covered washing HERE, drying HERE, ironing HERE, and storage/oxidation stain removal HERE. I strongly encourage you to read these posts prior to laundering your vintage linens as there is always risk involved when cleaning a vintage textile for the first time.
We ended last time with the question …

… and if the stains aren’t oxidation stains?

For the purpose of this series, I’m going to use the term “mystery stains” for any old stains that are not oxidation stains.  After all, it’s a mystery to us how they got there!
From years of experience, however, I’ve found that some particular stains are common on old linens.  For example, when I come across vintage or antique linens, the top three most common stains I tend to find (besides our previously-covered oxidation/storage stains) are rust, ink, and butter.

Click HERE for source of butter stain

Less common, but equally expected, are stains from candlewax. Occasionally, I’ll find water stains; sometimes in the presence of mold or mildew.
As with the oxidation stains we discussed last time, there are many different ways to tackle these stains … and to a great extent, many of them work well.  Through the years, I’ve used different ones; I like that some are more au naturale than others, but they often take longer to get results.  In the end, for me it came down to what was the fastest way to turn dirty old linens into pristine, shop-ready beauties.  My time was at a premium, and I needed to use it wisely.  I suspect some of you are right there with me when it comes to how much time you want to spend working on laundry stains.

My go-to products for mystery stains are made by Carbona.

I first blogged about Carbona HERE.  Not only are Carbona’s products faster than most other methods I’ve tried, but they also give consistently amazing results.

Apparently, every type of stain falls into one of nine categories.  Carbona makes Stain Devils 1-9 (one formulation for each stain category) as well as Stain Wizard for tackling many of the most common laundry stains.  This is the stain chart they provide on their website … the one I’ve printed and attached to my laundry room wall!  Did you notice their motto?  “Because there’s more to life than cleaning.”  Anybody else out there agree besides me?

Before I go any further, I want to be sure you know that I am not a representative of Carbona and do not receive any compensation from the company.  I am simply a very satisfied customer who has used their products for many, many years … and I want to pass the info along to you so your linen laundering can be successful, too!  I did, however, have the pleasure of being interviewed on Carbona’s Stain Talk blog. You can read the interview HERE if you’d like.
Now that I’ve shared with you my all-time favorite stain removal products… Restoration Linen Cleaner for soaking out oxidation stains (often other stains as well) and Carbona Stain Devils/Stain Wizard for specific stains, it’s time to get specific about tackling those mystery stains.
2015 UPDATE  I’m surprised to tell you that after many years, I have a new all-time favorite cleaner for antique and vintage linens. Mama’s Miracle Linen Soak cleans just as well as Restoration AND cleans silk. (No other cleaner I know of cleans vintage silk!) Read how MMLS won me over HERE.


Insights and “handling” tips

Keep in mind that since we don’t know the source or history of mystery stains, we don’t how (or if) they’ve been treated.  As a rule, IF stain removal is attempted by an unsuccessful method, the composition of the stain can change, and the correct formulation of Stain Devils may not work.


Even when rust removal is successful, the damage may already be done.  Rust tends to cause fabric to disintegrate, so if the rust has been present a long time or is particularly significant, a hole may remain. In this picture, you can see an area where the fabric has started to thin … the beginning of a hole.  (Click the pic to enlarge it if you need to.)



I’ve been very successful removing ink and magic marker from old linens.  Stains that are old and “set” (or heavy) often require multiple soaks/rinses. When that’s the case, be sure to let the fabric air dry in between then repeat the process.
Tip: It may seem odd, but since this has happened to me more than once, I’m going to mention it… The first time it happened, I noticed a thin red line about 3/4″ long on a white linen tea cloth I picked up at auction.  It appeared that a red ballpoint pen had lightly grazed the surface, and I was certain that Stain Devils #3 would remove it instantly.  It didn’t. After several perplexing attempts to remove the ink, I pulled out my magnifying glass.  The red ink was not ink at all but rather a thin red thread that had been caught in the fabric when it was woven.  I was able to carefully use the tip of a needle to loosen it … and tweezers to remove it.  If it doesn’t act like ink, it probably isn’t!

Oily stains:

I’ve found these to be common on kitchen towels and roll covers.  Sometimes a typical laundering in hot water will do the trick, but other times the stains have been accumulating for a long time and need a different approach.  I’ve been very successful with both Stain Devils #5 and Stain Wizard.  When I found this roll cover, it was the color of the Stain Devils bottles … bright yellow … from old butter!  Read about how I cleaned it HERE.



When I find candlewax on a sturdy fabric (linen, cotton, damask, etc.) … I first place an ice cube on top of it to harden the wax, then I attempt to carefully separate the wax from the fabric, reapplying ice as necessary to keep the wax hard.If removal isn’t possible using my hands only, I sometimes use the flat edge of an unserrated knife.  Once the wax is removed, I treat the area with Stain Devils #1 until all residue/color is removed then launder as usual.
IF I see that the fabric is weak or threatening to tear when separating the wax from the fabric, I stop immediately and change my approach.  The method I then try is the same one I use for candlewax on a delicate fabric (lace, open-weave fabric, etc.)…
If I’m working with a large item like a tablecloth, I spread it out with the candlewax face down over the sink; small items can be spread out over a large bowl.  I then carefully and slowly pour boiling water on top of the fabric (on the back side of the candlewax).  The wax will melt but will leave a residue and/or color.  I then use Stain Devils #1 prior to laundering.  I once made the mistake of skipping the Stain Devils #1 when the candlewax was white because there didn’t appear to be any residue. But when I ironed it, I ended up causing a permanent wax stain that could have easily been removed.

Mold and mildew:

This is my least favorite type of stain to remove … and, quite honestly, if the stained piece holds no sentimental value for me, I almost always walk away.  However, I have had success with Stain Devils #8 on a couple of small items I really wanted to save.  The best thing to hope for is to avoid the problem completely with proper storage of linens.  We’ll talk about that a little later in this series.
After years of looking at stains on linens, I can usually make an educated guess about what the mystery stains are and treat them accordingly … but recently, I came across what turned out to be a true mystery stain. I’ll tell you about it soon.

Next time we’ll do a mystery stain story in pictures…
I’ll be joining
Mosaic Monday @ Little Red House
Blue Monday @ Smiling Sally
Metamorphosis Monday @ Between Naps on the Porch


  1. Another good post with info I need! Thanks Susan! Happy Monday Mosaic!

  2. Thanks for these tips a must for me to read. ^_^ Thanks for sharing.


  3. Your post came at the perfect time for me, I plan to read all the older posts before I tackle cleaning some vintage linens.
    Thanks for all the information.

  4. Lots of information here…I am a weird one. I rather like the stains.

  5. Great info and post. Thanks for sharing! Have a happy week ahead!

  6. I love this mosaic and such a helpful one.

  7. This is very helpful.. Thank’s for the sharing..

    Visiting from Blue Monday- hope you can stop by..

  8. I’m so glad I checked out your post on Blue Monday because I NEED this info! I’m going to go back and read all your other hints. Very helpful!

  9. I have never seen Carbona in a store around here but I will look online to see if it sold anywhere in Canada. Your tips were very helpful. I do have a few vintage linens and they do have the odd stain. It is nice to know they can be removed safely. Valerie

  10. Lots of great information here. I want to go back and read the rest of the posts on this topic. I have a couple of pieces with mystery stains – pieces received from my MIL and I have no idea how they’ve been treated.

  11. Beautifully captured.

    Catching up with Blue Monday.
    It would be great if you can comment on My BLUE as well. Thanks!

  12. This was worthwhile to read. Thanks!