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The Care and Storage of Vintage Linens

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    • 61 posts
    August 1, 2015 11:26 AM EDT

    posted by Luv2Luv Antques  10-4-2010

    Vintage Simtex Plaid Tablecloth ~ Great with Fiestaware or Russel Wright Tableware ~

    Vintage linens need to be washed by hand and line dried, to prevent damage to the fibers. Do not use a washer & dryer, as the agitation of the washing machine will cause holes, and heat from the dryer will cause fiber loss and shrinkage. A front loading washer may be a possibility for sturdier linens.
    Use a plastic tub to wash your linens, as metal has an oxidation process which may cause rust. (I found a clear plastic tub with handles, that fits in one of my kitchen sinks, at WalMart.) A clear plastic tub is best, as you can see if colors run, while you are soaking your vintage linens. If color starts to run, immediately rinse the cloth with cold water to remove the solution. Some old things cannot handle hot water.
    One of the VTLC members suggested soaking a vintage linen in plain tepid, or lukewarm water, to loosen old dirt, soaps, and stains, that are in the fibers, before you even use a presoak, such as Biz. (There may be alot of old soap, or starch, residue left in the vintage 'cloth.) I did this and saw old soap, and alot of dirt come out! I use Biz now most of the time. It is terrific. I may soak something in a Biz, or Oxyclean solution, first...for about 30 minutes to one hour (or more), and then change the water...putting Ivory Snow, or All Detergent in (depending on the type, age, and content of the vintage linen). There is still quite a bit of the Biz on the 'cloth (as you have not rinsed it) which will continue to work. Biz can be too harsh for very delicate things. For extremely delicate, older things, use plain water presoak, rinse, and soak in Ivory Snow solution. CAUTION: The new Biz has OXY products in it!!! Oxy cleaners may damage rayon or linen blended fabrics, and even make holes in fabrics with metallic threads!
    So, put cool water, with Ivory Snow Liquid Detergent, in the plastic basin. Soak your vintage linen 2 hours to 48 hours, depending on how dirty it is. You must move the item around once in a while, to make sure all areas soak properly. Ivory Snow is safe for even the older vintage cloths (30's & 40's), embroidery, crochet, and even cloths with metallic threads (as silver & gold metallic threads in some Christmas Tablecloths.) Rinse your cloth with cool water, until the water runs clear. Leaving soap in the cloth can weaken the fibers. Never wring or twist the cloth, just squeeze gently. Then hang to dry outside on a clothes line, or lay flat on towels on a table. Hang the vintage linen part way over the line, as hanging at the corners can stretch it and leave marks. Use plastic clothes pins, as the wooden ones can leave marks.
    If you would like to try to remove spots from tablecloths, you could try using "Simple Green" Household spray. After you have wet your cloth in the basin of Ivory Snow solution, you can spray the Simple Green on the spots to soak. This is not an oxygen product, so it is safer for older fabrics. Try it first on an outside area of the cloth to be safe. (Make sure you have good air filtration, as it has quite a strong odor!)
    If you are washing a 50's or later tablecloth (for example) you could try soaking it in "Biz" (which quite a few vintage collectors do). I soaked two vintage white damask tablecloth and napkin sets, a print tablecloth, and an embroidered dresser scarf, in biz, with beautiful results. I have tried soaking the 50's & 60's cloths in Oxy Magic, with some detergent, such as Ivory Snow Liquid. I have also tried a soak with Ivory Snow Liquid and putting Oxy Clean Liquid on spots, after the cloth is wet. There are other Oxy products as well. Also, I have soaked 50's & 60's cloths in Woolite in cold water, sometimes spotting with "Simple Green". Remember not to use the Oxy products, or Woolite, on crochet, embroidery, metallic threads, finer, and/or older cloths, etc. These fabrics cannot take the brighteners! Never use chlorine bleach!!! It will weaken fibers, erase patterns, possibly make holes, and leave white areas. I cringe at the thought of the bleach pens that some people, selling linens on auction, suggest you use to remove stains!
    Sun Crofting is using the sun's rays to naturally bleach a cloth. I have placed a vintage tablecloth, that I have soaked, on teri towels on top of a folding table outside in the sun. Some collectors place the tablecloth directly on green grass, to use the oxygen released by the grass's photosynthesis process. (I don't do that as we spray alot of bug sprays, plus we have pets.) I had great results using the table outside, suncrofting to remove extremely bad storage stains, from a Luther Travis Tablecloth. When you do this, make sure you spray cool water on the tablecloth to keep it damp. I used a clean spray bottle on fine spray and cool water. You need to constantly watch your linen in the sun. Don't forget about it...leave it out too long and it could start to fade!
    I have tried ddseven spot remover on the white background of a cotton tablecloth, to remove old dye, and grease. This is a strong spot remover, so be careful! It starts to make color run, so don't put it on the colored part! And you need good ventilation! ddseven with lemon juice is great to remove rust stains. Sometimes lemon juice alone (if the rust stain is fairly recent) will work on it's own. (If there is alot of rust stain, when you remove it there may be a hole, as the fibers have been 'eaten' away!
    To remove musty odors in linens, VTLC club members have suggested a soak in Arm & Hammer Washing Soda (detergent boost & household cleaner), a soak in pure baking soda and warm water (not too for dye runs!), or vinegar in a rinse. Also, Biz will get out odors, as I had removed musty odor and alot of dirt from vintage crocheted table lace. (Another club member had the same results with vintage lace. This was the 'old' Biz before they added the oxy to it.) If you have tea stained vintage lace, Biz will cause the dye to run! I quickly rinsed my lace with cold water and it was OK.
    I have used Fabri-Tac Permanent Adhesive, made by Beacon Adhesives, to close tiny pin holes on tablecloths. I bought it at WalMart. I liked it better than Fray Check, which I found runny. Fabri-Tac is more like a gel. I applied it sparingly using my fingernail and a toothpick, to close the fibers of the cloth. On a linen tablecloth, it looked like a flub in the cloth, when I was done. This has a strong odor also! You need good ventilation! If you resell a tablecloth you have tacked pin holes on, please list it in your auction description. If you are not "excellent" at doing this, maybe it's best to just point out the tiny pin holes in your auction.
    I did another "tablecloth rescue". I purchased a late 1940's? french blue and white colored water lily patterned tablecloth. It was hole free, and a heavy cotton sailcloth material. It had horrid stains, some looking like rust. I soaked it in just water, then in Biz, then in oxyclean with Ivory Snow Liquid, then I spot removed with a paste of Oxy Magic powder placed on each stain. I went over the tablecloth about 3 times! Then it was rinsed, and rinsed, and rinsed, by hand, and hung outside in the sun. It takes a lot of patience and hard work, but it's possible to change a seriously horrid looking tablecloth into a gorgeous one!
    I am sharing my experiences with you. Nothing is fool proof when you are learning to clean vintage cloths. Even the experts have made take your chances. Make sure a fabric is washable by testing an inconspicuous outside corner, if possible. Some fabrics with silk or rayon, may have to be drycleaned. I had great success getting storage stains out of 50's barkcloth curtains, by soaking in Ivory Snow Liquid and spotting with "Simple Green". Hanging on the line in the sun did them good also.
    To store vintage fabrics, make sure they are clean. Then wrap them is acid free white tissue paper, or washed unbleached muslin. I think the muslin is great as it won't tear. Every 3-4 months you should refold your tablecloths to prevent fiber damage. Using spray starch on fabrics creates a sugar treat for bugs, so I do not want to use it. If you use it on a tablecloth, you need to completely wash out the spray starch, before you store the tablecloth. If you're storing your items in a closet, put moth/bug repelling sachets in the closet, especially using cedar and lavender. I have a cedar lined chest that I'm using for cloths. Make sure the cloths do not touch the wood, even cedar, as it breaks down the fibers. Being near paper or cardboard hurts too. Plastic bags and containers give off gas vapors. It'll cause storage stains and even holes.
    I hope this has been helpful. My favorite vintage tablecloth books are:
    Collectors' Guide to Vintage Tablecloths by Pamela Glasell, a Schiffer Book
    Collectors' Guide to Vintage Souvenir Tablecloths & Linens by Pamela Glasell, a Schiffer Book
    Colorful Tablecloths 1930s - 1960s Threads of the Past by Yvonne Barineau & Erin Henderson
    Elegant Table Linens From Weil & Durrse including Wilendur w Price Guide by Michelle Hayes

    • 2 posts
    August 3, 2015 2:57 AM EDT

    Caroline, thanks so much for posting my notes. I have a newer one that is updated a bit. Take care, Diane  :O)

  • February 22, 2016 5:06 PM EST

    I say your info on cleaning old linens and wanted to add some additional information that may be helpful for both linens but especially antique quilts.

    Never dryclean old vintage fabrics !  Dry cleaning chemicals can destroy old fabrics and you will soon have just a plie of threads after the chemicals start to interact with the old fabric and the startch and dirt in them.

    After selling and collecting antique quilts and fabric for over 40 years, we have seen and tried many different products and solutions and have found that most new techniques lacking the results of the old time proven methods.  The new fabric cleaners with OXY clean and other additives should only be used with the understanding that they are far too new to have any proven history of what will happen to the fabrics that have this reside left in them for a period of time.

    Below is some information that we have accumulated over many years and have found to work well but does not damage old vintage fabrics.

    Historic Textiles  -  Safe Storage and Cleaning Methods

    What destroys a textile ?


    The most damaging and irreversible environmental agent on textiles is light. 

    Sources of light:  Daylight, Flourescent lights, Tungsten (incandescent).

    Protect by placing filters over flourescent tubes, reducing exposure to sunlight, use tungsten bulbs.

    Relative Humidity:

    Fluctuations encourage mold growth, pest damage, decay, dye migration.  Ideal humidity levels are 45-55% for fibers.  Stabilize humidity levels in storage containers by using a desiccant.


    Fluctuations encourage pest growth, speeds up chemical reactions and crack fibers.  Textiles should not be stored in attics or basements.  Both locations hasten decomposition in textiles.   Ideal storage temperatures are 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. 



    Cedar chests are used to ward off clothes moth, a common pest to wool.  Periodic sanding of the inside of the cedar is required to keep the scent active.  Fibers are harmed by substances in the wood, so a barrier must be used.  Metal shelving can rust and may have sharp edges or corners.  Plastic can encourage mold and mildew growth by limiting air circulation.  Use a barrier of acid free products or washed unbleached muslin between the artifact and it's storage container.  Acid free boxes and tissue are the safest storage containers. 

    If the texile is sturdy enough, hanging is appropriate using padded hangers.  Quilts, rugs and linens should be rolled, rotating the roll over time.  Artifacts may also be stored flat in containers, heavier items on the bottom, fragile ones on the top.  Periodically refold the textiles to reposition the fold lines to other areas.  Monitor storage for the appearance of new stains that can appear in storage and check for for pests. 

    Diagnosing Stains:

    Brown stains are usually caused by starch/soap/detergent or sugar left in the fabric.  Yellowing occurs in cotton and linens, resulting from starch left in the textile.  Silk and wool can yellow from exposure to UV light and with age. 

    Choosing Cleaning Method:

    Always test for colorfastness of the artifact by using distilled water to drop in an inconspicuous area.  Blot with a clean white cloth and check for dye transfer.  If no dye transfers, test with distilled water and a mild detergent in the same spot and again check for dye transfer.  Each different fabric, trim and color must be colorfast.  If any dye transfers to the blotting cloth, DO NOT attempt to wet clean the artifact. 

    Wet Cleaning Procedure: 

    Clean your bath tub really well to remove all soap residue and rinse all the cleaner out with hot water.  Lay clean towels on the bottom of the tub and lay the quilt on the towels.  A bed sheet may work better for you.  Then fill the tub with several inches of luke warm water.  (Don't let the water run directly on the quilt, as the force of the water may cause holes.)  Let it soak in plain water for a while, for the old soap and a lot of dirt to come out.  Then empty the bath tub letting the water drain from the quilt for a while.  You may gently roll the quilt up in the towels, removing it from the tub.  (Have a garbage bag on the floor to sit it in, as it will be soaking wet.)  

    If you've found the colors to be colorfast, you can try a bit warmer water temperature in the tub.  You can add a mild detergent such as Arm & Hammer Detergent in the water,  mixing it well.  (Arm & Hammer has the baking soda to get rid of odors and it removes stains well.  You may also try any of the commerical quilt cleaners or the old favorite of using apple cider vinegar.  Also a possible choice is horse shampoo as it has natural PH balance. 

    Unroll the quilt gently, placing it in the tub, still on top of the towels.  (Never lift up on the wet quilt itself, as it may tear.)  Let the quilt soak for a few hours.  (You can move it around a few times and very gently work or massage the areas with any stains, working the solution into the fabrics.)  Then drain the water and rinse the quilt well, several times until the water runs clear.  Let the quilt drain for a while, and then roll it up in the towels, remove it from the tub to sit on the floor in a clean garbage bag again.  You may need to repeat these steps if the quilt is really dirty. 

    Vintage fabric experts say to lay the wet quilt directly on the grass in the yard in the sun to dry.  The natural oxygenation process of the grass (chlorophyll in the grass) and the sun will help to remove stains also.  This is called "sun crofting".  If you have dogs or feel more comfortable, you can lay the quilt on towels on a table to dry in the sun.  That's the second choice.    

    It is a lot of work, but the quilt will have minimal damage, unless it has dry rot.  You will preserve the quilt, as leaving it dirty, with increasing storage stains, will continue to break down the fabric.  If you have rust, it will oxidize and spread over a larger area, literally eating holes in the fabric. 

     You can display your quilt on a quilt rack, chair, bed or hang it on a wall.  


    Prepare fiberglass screening with fabric bound edges for protection.  Use a low-suction hand-held vacuum with a HEPA filter and an upholstery tool without bristles.  Make sure to stablize loose, worn, or torn areas prior to treatment by placing screening over the artifact.  Vacuum both sides and go with the grain of the fabric.  Be extremely gentle when doing the vacuuming and to not apply any pressure to the fabric or screening.