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.

Yellowed pillowcases
Vintage pillowcases that have yellowed badly
Stained pillowcases
Lots of stains!

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.

THE PROCESS:

  • 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.

THE RESULT:

Cleaned pillowcases

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.

Close up of pillowcase
Isn't that vintage print great!

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!

—Loryn

14 thoughts on “How to Clean Vintage Linens

  1. Very helpful article but what about cleaning items that have not been embroidered yet? I just purchased a box lot of vintage pillowcases, bureau scarfs and tea towels that have either been started but not finished or not started at all. They are all water stained, brown from age and quite musty smelling. Any hope for these? I’d like to clean them but don’t want to lose the patterns. Thank you.

  2. I just tried this, using Resolve Oxi-action powder. When I added the powder after turning off the heat, the water boiled and foamed up and over the edges of my deep pot, spilling all over the stove, floor, etc. All that to say: it would be good if you put down an actual brand name for the oxi powder you use.

  3. grrrrr … wish I had read the comments before adding the Oxi-clean. My stove top was a MESS!!! not to mention the soapy water that ran down between the glass panels of my oven door!!! DEFINITELY move the pot to the sink before adding the Oxi-clean!

  4. Please edit these instructions. I’m lucky I am not in the burn unit right now. I did not read the comments section and added my detergent too quickly while still on the stove. It erupted like a geyser! Boiling water everywhere. Somebody is going to get hurt.

    1. Kara, can you give me some more information about your exact process. I have used these technique nearly weekly for more than ten years and haven’t experienced anything like what you describe. What brand of oxy did you use? How much did you put in? What size pan did you use, and how full was it? All of these things can help me add tips to the instructions. Thanks!

    2. This sounds like a chemical reaction between the metal in your pan and the active ingredients in the detergent. I have used the above method and have never had this type of reaction. It’s been my experience that a good rule of thumb for doing these types of projects is to take it outside and always wear heavy duty rubber gloves. For this job, I prefer to start early in the morning – I boil the water, set it on a thick towel on my driveway, and let it “stew” for the day.

  5. So, my daughter has two raggedy Ann dolls from the 40s that she loves to pieces. But they are both extremely dirty and I don’t have the heart to take them away. I’d love to boil them this way but one has synthetic hair and the other has cotton.
    I’ve tried the dry cleaner and they won’t help. They told me old dolls are too delicate.

  6. I used a 16 qt. granite wear stock pot and had it filled less than 2/3 full. Mine also started to foam up when I added the Oxy-Clean, but I was lucky enough to have potholders ready and I was close to the sink, so I got it over there in time before it boiled over. It would have been a real mess if I hadn’t been ready. I will say that this process worked very well and my feedsack embroidered by my great great-grandma came out looking fantastic.

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