Ironing Vintage Linens

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

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 …
I hope you’ll find these pointers to be helpful the next time you’re ironing your linens. Remember … the best thing you can do for your vintage linens is use them!Have a wonderful week! I’ll see you in a few days for Tablescape Thursday.
I’m linking this post to Metamorphosis Monday at Between Naps on the Porch. Thanks for hosting, Susan!


  1. Susan…this is a great post! I do everything you mentioned except I haven’t been using spring water. Yikes! Does that get expensive? I am amazed how often I have to fill my iron up. Maybe I need to turn it on the no steam setting and just stick with spraying the fabric. I do spray it but I’ve been using it on steam, too. Maybe that’s overkill, huh?

  2. I sure enjoyed this post because it answered some questions of mine and I’m looking forward to the other posts you mentioned!!! Thanks

  3. One of my favorite past times is to iron, and you are right – in all your advice. My iron calls for distilled water, so make sure everyone checks the manufacturers suggestions. Great post, thanks for the advice! Sandi

  4. Susan, Thanks so much for running through the steps you use to iron your linens. I think I need to start ironing mine when wet and see what happens. I remember as a kid Mom always had a small bundle of clothes dampened and in the fridge at the ready to iron. I wonder if the coolness of the fridge makes a difference in the end result.
    ~ ~Ahrisha~ ~

  5. Thanks for the wonderful pointers! They were great!

  6. What a terrific post! There’s nothing that smells better than damp linens being pressed with a hot iron. Especially if I’m smelling someone else doing it… I confess ironing is a chore for me.

    I’ve jumped on as a Follower, so i don’t miss any more of your wisdom. Do you have special means of laundering estate linens that have yellow spots or fold marks? I have some lovely pieces but I’m afraid to wash them!


  7. Cass, it’s time to wash those estate linens! My all-time favorite linen cleaner is Restoration, and I sell it in my Etsy shop: Fantastic product!

  8. WONDERFUL post! My sister mentioned it to me yesterday, but I hadn’t had time to sit down in blogland yet. So glad that I didn’t miss this.

    I love vintage linens. They are among my favorite things. This is a wealth of excellent information.


  9. beautiful stitching!

  10. GREAT post!! I LOVE vintage linens and am always rescuing some piece or another!! I look forward to reading more 🙂


  11. Thanks for the tips, now maybe my table linens will look a little nicer!

  12. What a great tutorial on ironing. I love to iron, and do a lot of it. Thanks for teaching me some things I didn’t know! I’m going to look for the cleaning products you mentioned. I think they will make my 1970’s heavy iron very happy!

    I like to starch the linens so they are crisp in my shop, but I did not want to use aerosol cans. I have discovered that liquid starch mixed with water (I use a 1:3 ratio) in a plastic spray bottle gives about the same amount of body as sizing. It can be made up a little at a time and doesn’t hurt the environment.