How to Clean Vintage Linens
Do you have some vintage linens that you think are hopeless, dirty and dull or even brown and crackly? There is hope for them! I learned an antique dealers’ trick to make old linens look nearly as good as new. The secret is to use an oxygen detergent like oxyclean and boiling water.
I’m starting with vintage pillowcases that I picked up at a garage sale for next to nothing. I love the faded rose print by Lady Pepperell. You’d have to pay a lot of money to get this kind of quality today, and all it will take is an oxy bath to take these from grungy to gorgeous.
- Use a large pot that is bigger than the items you want to clean. I use an old canning pot I picked up for $2 that I don’t use for food use. It’s also handy for dyeing and other messy crafts.
- Fill the pot 2/3 of the way or so with water and heat to boiling.
- Once the water is heated to a good rolling boil, turn the burner off and add a couple scoops of oxy. Do not stand over the pot and get a face full of fumes!
- You can add most items right away (see the notes about color-fastness below). It helps to have a set of tongs to push the items below the water level.
- Then, let the item soak. The dirtier the item, the longer it needs to soak. For these yellowed pillowcases, an overnight soak was necessary. Repeat the process if the stains are really stubborn.
- When the item is clean, run it through your rinse cycle or hand wash if it’s delicate. Make sure you get all of the oxy out, or it will turn brown again.
- I use an off-brand oxygen detergent that is cheaper. It works just as well.
- For smaller items, you can heat small amounts of water in the microwave or in a tea kettle.
Now they’re clean, pressed, and ready for my guest room! Keep reading below for more information on colorfastness, the types of fabrics you can clean with this method, and what to do if you have an heirloom that needs cleaned.
NOTES ABOUT COLORFASTNESS:
- If your item is white, off white, or ecru, boil away.
- If your item is a vintage tablecloth: I’ve cleaned dozens for sale, and the only colors I’ve ever had run are red and pink on tablecloths that had never been laundered. Even then, the color that ran was removed with a second oxy bath. That said, if the color in your item is practically pristine, add the oxy while the water is boiling, then let it cool for a while before adding the item.
- If your item is vintage embroidery: if your have an embroidered tablecloth, pillowcase, or other household item on cotton or linen, you should be able to use the oxy method. Old embroidery floss was usually “boil fast,” so the colors wouldn’t run even if laundered in boiling water. I’ve never had one run. If the item is very precious, see the note about heirlooms below.
- If the items have already faded, you should be safe to boil with no problem.
- Vintage feed sacks: this method works beautifully on feed sacks. I’ve made many that looked like lost causes look like new!
TYPES OF FABRIC YOU CAN CLEAN
This method works extremely well on cotton and linen. Old cotton can get fragile while wet, so handle carefully. Linen, on the other hand, is extremely tough.
DO NOT use this method on wool, silk, or rayon.
IF YOU HAVE A PRECIOUS HEIRLOOM
If the item that needs cleaned is a precious heirloom, please consider taking it to a professional. If you are willing to risk it, proceed cautiously. If you’re sure that it is linen or cotton, let the water cool considerably before soaking. Increase the temp slowly to clean it at the lowest temperature that will still be effective.
If you aren’t sure what kind of fabric your item is, or if it is your great-grandmother’s elaborately embroidered christening dress, you should consider taking it to a restoration specialist (or consult the source below).
I learned about this technique at the eBay Needle Arts & Vintage Textiles board. The ladies there know just about everything there is to know about vintage textiles. Check it out if you love vintage linens, quilts, and textiles!