Care of Fine Vintage and Antique Linen
Laundering and Ironing
I hand wash and iron most of the antique linens I acquire for sale. On my most delicate pieces I use only Linen Wash, a lovely non-detergent liquid soap made especially for vintage, antique and delicate textiles. I sell it on this site. I also use Linen Wash exclusively on items in my own collection that I have used, like soiled napkins and tablecloths. I recently got ballpoint ink out of a double damask napkin using Linen Wash. The trick here is to get it quick (it had been two days) and treat it first with Linen Wash. If you try something else first you may set the stain and Linen Wash might not help. I have found these things out the hard way. Anyway, the stuff's expensive but I love it. Check out Linen Wash here.
On more robust linens I use Oxy Clean, my new best friend, followed by a normal laundry soap or Ivory. For rust stains, try Whink Rust Stain Remover but don't leave it on too long. This is strong stuff. Just a drop or two will make most rust spots vanish before your eyes. Read the label carefully before using it. It works great! It also helps remove blood stains and anything else with a high iron content.
I also use the washing machine on a delicate setting using cold water. Hot water releases impurities in the pipes, so if you have an old house you will find more rust spots on your whites after the wash than before if you wash them on "hot" unless you have a filter. I have found with Oxy Clean that hot water is the key so I heat my water in the microwave in a huge plastic bowl (only practical for pre soak in small batches). The trick with the washing machine is to make sure you use enough water. If you overload, things won't get as clean and they will come out terribly wrinkled.
I almost never use chlorine bleach. It's just too harsh. On the rare occasion that I do I rinse twice (using the washing machine) and on the 1st of the two rinses I pour in a 1/2 cup of vinegar to neutralize the bleach.
Instead of chlorine bleach, I sun bleach my linens when I have a stubborn old stain. First I will soak it in Linen Wash or Oxy Clean over night in a basin that is lined with a big towel. In the morning I lift the piece(s) out with the towel as a sling and carefully rinse them in a basin of fresh clean water. It usually take several rinses to get all the soap out. Then I carefully fold the item in a dry towel to remove excess moisture. Never wring out old linens! Wringing causes significant stress to old and delicate fibers. Then I lay them out in the grass, morning dew is best, and leave them there for several hours until they are dry. I do this with the robust damasks and huck towels, napkins and sheets. Any piece that is sturdy and in good condition is a candidate. I have had astounding success with a multitude of stains and fabrics and highly recommend this practice to you, but read the following caution.
Sun Bleaching Caution: I recently consulted with a woman who worked for the Smithsonian Museum as a Textile Historian. She told me that the practice of sun bleaching linens was very wide spread in the Victorian era but that modern textile experts feel it may be too harsh for the oldest and most delicate antique textiles. I have a piece that is damaged and dated 1887. She recommended I not lay this one in direct sunlight, but put it in filtered sun for maybe 10 to 15 minutes. I pass this along to you because I feel it is the most informed advice I have received on the subject. She also suggested that once you have done what you can with these most fragile of pieces one must simply accept the spots and cherish them as a part of the piece's history. She's my kind of gal!
Acid Free Paper: I store my personal collection in acid free tissue paper when not in use. The worst thing you can do for an old textile is place it in contact with wood or painted surfaces, which are highly acidic. This practice will eventually degrade the fibers and can cause browning. I sell acid free tissue paper here on my site, Linen Preservation, but there are other places you can get it. I found it once on an archival preservation website before I found LeBlanc, which also makes Linen Wash. Anyway, if you plan to pass your things along to your children or grandchildren, I do recommend you store them properly. I will ship your linens wrapped in acid free tissue paper, if you wish, for a small additional fee, depending on the size of the item. That way you will have enough for the piece you are purchasing.
Storage of Fine Linens: Do store your antique and vintage linens close at hand. If you make the whole storage process too fussy you won't want to use them! I place a piece of acid free tissue over a cardboard pants hanger and carefully drape pieces over it. Then I place a piece of acid free tissue directly over the linens to keep the dust off and hang them in the closet. I have a few pieces I keep in my old oak sideboard. Those I fold with the acid free tissue layered between and among the folds. If I haven't used them in a year or so I unfold and change out the tissue. The pieces I display in my home I launder or hand wash one or more times a year to remove the dust and freshen them. I also try to remember to not store something I have not first washed. This is a good habit to get into and will prevent all kinds of problems in the future.
Ironing and Using Antique Linens: Do not iron your antique linens until you are ready to use them. Most people find it hard to believe, but I love to iron!!! I can't imagine never being allowed to iron again! Sounds crazy, huh? Well, this gal took her profits from her first few sales and bought a Rowenta Professional iron. My mother flipped when she heard how much it cost. But I swear by it and won't let anyone else use it. I damp iron everything, testing the fabric with a lower setting until I am confident it can take the higher heat. To dampen my antique linens I spray them with distilled water mist or take them straight from the lawn, not quite dry, to the ironing board. I set the iron on the "no steam" setting and go at it. I use only spring water in my iron and dampen only with distilled water. This has all but eliminated those mysterious rust spots that appear on beautifully white linens (I think my Rowenta might have something to do with it, too)!
I do not starch my linens. Though starching does make linens temporarily more wrinkle resistant, they just don't feel natural to me. There is nothing worse than to dob your face with a napkin that is stiff as a board! Starch breaks down and gradually turns linens yellow and then a nasty brownish color. It can hasten the breakdown of delicate antique linen fabrics and all but ruin a fine organza or lightweight linen in just a few years. So, being a purist, I don't starch and I also don't iron my inventory linens until I'm ready to photograph them. I do not iron creases in things either because over time, those areas become weak spots that tear. If you must starch, do so just before use and then immediately wash your pieces before you put them away.
And so it goes: launder, hang/store, iron, use, launder....If you do these things you will both enjoy your linens and they'll be beautiful enough to pass to your grandkids someday!
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