cleaning old linens

kate38September 7, 2012

I have 2 trunkloads of old linens including tablecloths, napkins, lace dress collars and cuffs (they must have been taken off worn dresses and saved for use on others?), towels and other things that are very pretty but very dingy, yellowed or gray, and dusty. What is the best way to clean these? I was once told to soak them in Oxyclean, but I'd like to know what others do. Also, if I were to try to sell them, should I clean them first or leave them as is?

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Clean always sells better....because with old textiles, there is always the question..."will it fall apart if I wash it."

Next is the matter of "what is old?'...1940? 1930? or 1890 or older??
Stuff from the 1940's in good condition, without colored embroidery, should do well soaked in oxyclean and just squeezed out (not wrung!) and laid out to dry.

Older things or more delicate...hand done lace, gauzy fabrics are best soaked in a non ionic Orvis...look at a quilt shop.
then remember that wet fabric is don't lift it by an edge, support it with your hands...soap residue weakens fabric....rinse well but very gently, and anything cardboard weakens and yellows the fabric.

So if you have some really old and nice things....soak in a plastic tub (like those storage containers) with distilled water and orvis....soak until the stains are gone....2, 3, 4 or more days. Squeeze our and replace with more distilled water..., gently press down into the water to rinse...repeat, several times until, with litmus paper, the water tests neutral.
Carefully lay out to dry in front of an electric fan....keep the cat off your drying linens!!!

    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 1:57PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Some of these things, like the collars and cuffs, I would guess are from the late 1800s or very early 1900s. Others are perhaps 1920-1930 when my grandparents were setting up their home. I just came across a piece that looks like part of a blouse that one might wear under a jacket (kind of like the dickeys of some years ago only it comes down to the waist and is very lacy and feminine). It definitely never had sleeves. It's a very thin cotton, not linen. I'm familiar with Orvus soap, but where can I purchase litmus paper?

    Bookmark   September 8, 2012 at 7:08AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

should be able to find litmus paper at a pharmacy...or on line.

That lacy thing is called a jabot. Look closely for hand made lace and hand loomed fabric. I would love to help you sort that stuff!!!!

    Bookmark   September 8, 2012 at 9:34AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks Linda...your answer is basically the same as my very novice one and I learned something too! Orvus (Orvis?) can be found easily in feed horse care (I have been told) product. But it works well. Distilled water I had never considered. I have washed many antique doll clothes where the fabric was fragile in the first place with good results. Have never had to, but have been told that you can soak those yellowed items for very extended times. No patience here, so that hasn't happened.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2012 at 6:23PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Don't laugh, but if, after removing stains, the linens are still yellow, would a little bluing in the final rinse be ok? Since I started using bluing on whites I have beautiful snowy white towels, t-shirts, lingerie, etc. Even old yellow t-shirts look bright again. I swear by the stuff.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2012 at 7:31PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Blueing helps....and a pinch you can use blue food coloring!

I haven seen blueing in years.....I remember loving it as a kid...I would be allowed to swish the blueing bag in the rinse water....what fun! Mrs' Stewart's Blueing!

    Bookmark   September 8, 2012 at 10:14PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yes, Linda, it's Mrs Stewarts! Great stuff, available right next to all the other laundry products in my stores. Plus, there is a website.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2012 at 10:48AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Let me recommend this cleaner, you can read all the comments about it

Here is a link that might be useful: Linen cleaner

    Bookmark   September 10, 2012 at 11:18AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Pieces like cuffs, collars, and ruffles may have been starched and ironed. For pieces that are starched, the cleaning product will have to contend with the starch. Starched pieces loose their stiffness and sheen after laundering. The pieces may need starching again to recover stiffness. I'd be hesitant about ironing really old cloth.

The natural color of early linens were not snow white.

Closely examine the lace trims for hand made bobbin lace. The repeating pattern of machine made lace will be very regular and consistent; Hand made lace, on the other hand, may show minor variations in the repeated pattern. (My daughter does bobbin lace at Ren fairs.) Hand made lace may date the piece to an early date.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2012 at 12:12AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Starch is water soluble and washes out very easily. But linen doesn't need starching, it is a thermo plastic fiber that stiffens naturally when ironed. But iron carefully. Rinse well before ironing as soap residue scorches....and have the pieces very wet when ironing.
And you may find hand made bobbin lace as well as needle lace on old linens....and on new ones too...if they are high end!

    Bookmark   September 11, 2012 at 12:38AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I am definitely seeing hand-made lace on some of the items. Haven't had time to start to clean them yet, though, but I appreciate the recommendations. I will order some litmus strips online (100 for $2.00 at Edmund's Scientific). Most recently I came across a hand stitched patchwork quilt. Haven't unfolded it yet, but it looks surprisingly clean considering where it's been stored for at least 60 years.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2012 at 12:30PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Take pictures....for those of us who want to enjoy your find vicariously!

    Bookmark   September 11, 2012 at 5:24PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant. It is not a thermplastic. For example, nylon and rayon are thermoplactics. Phenolic and melamine are thermoset plastics.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2012 at 3:57AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Jem...I suspect you have never ironed a linen napkin. When a very damp linen napkin is ironed with a hot iron, it becomes stiff as if starched and very glossy. If linen is hard creased with a hot iron, it can be almost impossible to remove that remains even after washing and ironing several times. Thermoplastic means that it becomes more "plastic" with to have creases heat set. Linen is able to do that.
I iron linen napkins, wet from the washer with a very hot "non-steam" iron and hang over a dowel until completely dry. Then I go over them again quickly with an iron, and fold to store. They look and feel starched, stiff and shiny
Else where you may read that chlorine bleach yellows linen...not true...but it will weaken the fibers.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2012 at 12:09PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


I'm sorry about that. My technical side popped up to have a say, and it isn't very diplomatic. I do agree with you that several frabics, linen in particular, will take a set and hold creases and flat shiny surfaces if dampened and ironed. When my mother laundered her crocheted doilies, she heavily starched those to make the ruffles stand up and the piece to hold its shape. Back when she made those, she used cotton cord/thread. (I had to request her not to starch my hankies, starch only the ones that were to be placed in a suit jacket breast pocket.) And yes, I have ironed a few articles of my own clothing. I avoid it as much as I can [smile].

The use of the term, thermoplastic, has a very specific definition in the business I was in (as applied to materials). I have designed many molded parts in both thermplastic and thermset plastics for a living.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2012 at 1:31AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I should have said "thermoplastic"....

    Bookmark   September 13, 2012 at 10:14AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I'm a big fan of Orvus. You can use it to soak your antique linens, and you can use it to wash your horse. I purchased a big tub of it at the feed store.

Don't forget about the magic of sunshine. After a good several-day soaking, followed by a thorough and gentle rinse, lay the items out on the grass (on a sunny day). That will take care of many remaining spots. Really amazing! I think colors might fade, but it sure works on white and ecru. I don't think there is a risk of your horse fading.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2012 at 7:43PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I wanted to echo what Hounds just said about laying out on the grass. Works REALLY well! (I had to borrow my neighbor's lawn last time I laundered antique linens, but they were beautiful!)

    Bookmark   September 22, 2012 at 2:36PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yep....sunshine works wonders....and also damages fabric. Ever seen drapery lining that has "gone to pieces" in a south window. I also have seen curtains that fell apart on the pleats.
But I'm not saying that an afternoon in the sunshine would do that. We used to have a closely trimmed hedge that would support a napkin with a stain, without the danger of the dog walking on it.

    Bookmark   September 22, 2012 at 3:09PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks for all the great tips. I am inundated with stuff to clear out of the house, but will try to post pictures of the interesting stuff, including the quilt.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2012 at 12:16PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Antique/Retro Fridge Loud Vibration noise
My retro 1946 Frigidaire fridge started making very...
Tina Jansen
Help with print
Have some one seen this name on artwork or know of...
Help Glassware/Stemware Experts
Please any glassware experts out there know...
Home Design Show in NYC
click to win tickets
Help with age and materials of chair
I just purchased this chair, used, with the idea of...
Sponsored Products
Signature Grommet Grey 50 x 108-Inch Blackout Curtain
$104.95 | Bellacor
Juno Round Braided Outdoor Rug
$695.00 | FRONTGATE
nuLOOM Handmade Norwegian Floral Pattern Venom Rug (6' x 9')
Jade Olive Green Travel Yoga Mat - 868OL
$49.45 | Hayneedle
COPO Milk Jug by Blomus
$31.49 | Lumens
Safavieh Indoor/Outdoor Area Rug: Safavieh Rugs Courtyard Natural/Blue 6 ft. 7
Home Depot
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™