WASHING: How to Care for Vintage Linens & Lace

Welcome to the first in a series of posts dedicated to helping you care for vintage linens and lace.  I’m writing this for those of you are afraid to clean your treasures for fear you will ruin them.  My goal is to help you gain enough confidence to try.  You’ll be so proud of yourself when a family heirloom is returned to its once-pristine condition and ready to be enjoyed for generations to come.  After all, the best thing you can do for your vintage linens is use them!

 

But what if you stumbled upon this post and “old linens” aren’t your thing?  It’s still my hope that you’ll learn a thing or two about fabric care that will help you every time you do laundry.

Let’s get started …

 

Separate your laundry by color and condition

Look closely at each item. Depending on the age of the piece and how it’s been stored, it may already be beyond saving.  Tug the fabric gently in two directions.  If it separates without much effort, the fabric is already compromised with dry rot, and it’s reached the end of its useful life.  That’s simply the reality with old linens … but it’s okay to mourn the loss.

 

If there’s no dry rot, place each item in one of 6 piles:

 

Light color with significant stains (1) — and without (2)

Dark color with significant stains (3) — and without (4)

Delicate (5)

Needs mending (6)

If mending is needed, it should be addressed before washing the item … so just set those items aside.  We’ll talk about mending another day.  Likewise, we’ll cover the removal of significant stains in another part of this series.

 

Today let’s focus on the easiest, most straightforward care of textiles: basic washing

 

Ask yourself the question:  Will it be “the end of the world” if the item I’m about to wash gets ruined?

While that’s a rare occurrence, there is always some level of risk to laundering a vintage textile for the first time.  If you aren’t comfortable with any level of risk, you should consult a textile professional.  Otherwise, keep reading …

 

Laundering linens is sometimes simply “trial and error.”  I’ve had my share of errors, but you can benefit from them.  I’ll share with you the tried-and-true tips that have worked well for me … and help you avoid my mistakes.  With that said, please understand that I cannot guarantee you’ll have successful results.

Identify your fabric

The vast majority of vintage linens are made of linen or cotton. We’ll focus on these. (Many silk, wool, flocked or metallic pieces can also be hand-washed, but they sometimes require special techniques; consulting a textile professional is recommended.)

Choose your washing method

Front load washer – Appropriate for virtually all but the most fragile, delicate, or lace-trimmed fabrics; adjust wash/spin cycles according to fabric type

Top load washer – Appropriate for sturdy, tight-weave fabrics that aren’t trimmed with lace

Sink – Best for small to medium-size items; fragile, delicate, and lace-trimmed pieces

Bathtub – Works well for large items like bedspreads, banquet-size tablecloths, curtains, etc.

 

Tip:   Old linens like their space! When using a washer, do not overfill; leave plenty of room for water to circulate through fabrics.  Likewise, when hand-washing, be sure there’s room to swish fabrics around in the water and for suds to be squeezed through the fabric.

Choose your water temperature

General rule:  Use the hottest water appropriate for your fabric.

Light colors  – hot water

Dark colors
Test for colorfastness by dipping a corner of the item in hot water.  If the color runs, try the same with warm water.  If color still runs, stick with cold water.

It’s a good time to start preparing your holiday linens!

Multi-colors
To test for colorfastness, dip the corner of a “scrap” white cloth into hot water; wring out excess water.  With the hot cloth wrapped around your finger, pick an inconspicuous area and press firmly on one color for several seconds. Repeat for each color.  If any color transfers to the white cloth, wash the item in cold water.  Some old threads, especially blacks, yellows, and reds, tend to bleed in hot water.

Tips:

  • When laundering colored or multi-colored items in the washer, consider adding a color-grabber cloth; something like THIS one.
  • When soaking or hand-washing colored/multi-colored pieces, avoid laying them on top of each other as even “colorfast” colors can transfer.

Choose your cleaning product

Linens that are generally stain-free can be laundered in any mild cleaning product.  You’ve probably seen many different ones recommended for old linens (Ivory Flakes, Biz, Orvus, etc.), and I’ve used many of them myself through the years.  Most work fairly well when stains are not an issue.  However, after many years of laundering antique and vintage textiles, my all-time favorite product is Restoration Linen Cleaner.  I’ll tell you more about it when we get to the part of the series on stain removal, but … I never let myself run out!   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.
Mamas Miracle-001

Take the plunge

Washer method – launder as usual
Hand-washing – Fill sink or tub with water and cleaning product.  Mix thoroughly.  Add linens, being sure to leave plenty of room for movement.  Soak, swishing occasionally to circulate water through fabric. Linens that simply need freshening won’t require a long soak — 20-30 minutes.  If water is dirty, soak longer or repeat the process.

Handle with care

Water adds weight to fibers, so wet linens must be handled gently.  Never twist or wring vintage linens.  Instead, use your hands to press out the dirty water.  Large items may be folded or gently rolled, pressing down on them with your hands to remove the water.  Always lift and unfold carefully.

 

Rinse

Fill sink or tub with cold water and swish to rinse.  Repeat the fill-rinse-drain process as many times as necessary until water is completely clear and signs of cleaning product are no longer visible.  Be diligent with this step!
What about …

  • Vinegar – Some people add vinegar to their rinse water to neutralize any cleaning product residue.  I prefer to rinse really well.  Others add it to cold water to “set” the dye in colored fabrics. My experience tells me that it’s rarely possible to stop colors from running if they’re inclined to do so, so I don’t routinely use vinegar. 
  • Non-chlorine bleach – Used sparingly, I suppose it’s okay to use, but I don’t.  Since it doesn’t remove soil, it’s not a substitute for washing.
  • Bleach As a rule, don’t do it!  Bleach weakens fibers and can even facilitate disintegration. It is an absolute last resort … and usually not necessary.  We’ll talk more about it when we talk about stain removal.
  • Dry cleaning – It’s an option, but I prefer to keep harsh chemicals away from vintage beauties whenever possible … and it’s almost always possible!

 

If you’re still with me, I hope I’ve given you a few things to think about … and answered some of your questions. But 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 drying.  Although there are several things to consider when drying vintage linens, it will be a “short and sweet” post compared this one …

Thanks for visiting. I hope you have a really great week!

Comments

  1. What a great tutorial on washing old linens. It is hard sometimes to wash them knowing they are probably going to fall apart. I am less squeamish about washing things now than I used to be. You gave great directions here- xo Diana

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful information! I’ve saved this page in my favs! I’ve done some crazy things over the years. I did a post a few months ago on an old quilt I washed….you probably do NOT want to read it! But it’s all better now! heehee! Great post!

  3. Thanks so much for this informative post on caring for our very special linens. Well done!

  4. Thanks for the tip. Sometimes I see vintage linen in a garage sale and do not buy it because I do not know how to fix it. Oh well next time I will buy them. ^_^

    Kim,USA

  5. Thanks for sharing the tips. Your vintage linens are beautiful. Have a great week ahead.

  6. Thanks for sharing. I’m certain that many will try your tips.

    Happy Blue Monday, Susan.

  7. I have some old linen napkins that I’m going to try and save, as there are stains on them.

  8. This was so interesting. I ruined one of my needlework pieces years ago when I took care of it improperly and some of the colors bled! Have a wonderful week! Cathy

  9. Beautiful patterns. Visiting from Blue Monday.

    My BLUE.
    Have a great week ahead!

  10. So beautiful!

    My blue is a Tomato Hornworm, hope you’d come and see.

  11. I found this all so interesting, and then as I scrolled to the bottom…and seeing the embroidered pair of pillow cases with little birds…my precious momma, now gone for 19 years…that was her hobby, she loved to embroider pillow slipcovers~

  12. I have several vintage linens from my grandmother. Some are hand embroidered. My problem is that they have yellowed. I have used almost everything BUT bleach to try and whiten them. I’m going to purchase some Restoration and pray it works! Thanks so much for posting this!

  13. I will be looking forward to this series, Susan. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge.

  14. Thank you. I needed this information.

  15. Good to read. I lady I buy vintage lines from soaks things for 24+ in Biz. I’m going to check out your stain episode now…

Talk to Me!

*