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.


  • 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.


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!


  • 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!


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 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!



27 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.

    1. Same thing happened to me-it foamed everywhere. Second time did it I took the pot off the stove and added the oxyclean a little at a time. Also, I put less water in the pot and added more boiling water later. Got incredible results!

  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!

      1. Absolutely. I would love to help. I used a 3 gallon, stainless steel pot. It looks exactly like the one in your photo. (Rivets, handles, etc.) On the bottom it simply says Stainless Steel Thailand. I filled it about three-quarters full.

        I used the real stuff. Oxi Clean Versatile Stain Remover, powder form, 65 loads per container, but it is marked for all machines including high-efficiency. Maybe that’s the difference. Dye, perfume, chlorine free. The scoop is a half-cup size, but I used closer to 1/3. Your instructions say 2 scoops, but I didn’t get a chance to add the second scoop. It was already spewing after only part of the first measure.

        I tried it again tonight only this time I poured the boiling water into a large mop bucket – a new one I had rinsed and dried. I slowly added the Oxi Clean to the water. Same result. Much slower this time because it was a 5 gallon bucket with only two gallons of water in it, but it foamed up and grew to the top of the bucket, then flowed over the side for a good two minutes or so.

        We have a high level of iron in our water. Could that be it?


      2. I think I’ve figured out a workable solution. Mix up the detergent and a small amount of warm water first. I put that into my soaking container, then added the hot water a few minutes later. Ta Da! Old Faithful has been capped.

    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.

  7. Before I do this to a 1930’s hand-stitched quilt, does anyone know if this process will hurt the value of the item? Maybe collectors value the “patina” or feel this alters the fabric.

  8. oxycleaners are usually Sodium percarbonate at 30% the rest is washing soda..

    it maybe an idea to use washing soda with some borax to start soak for 24 hours going full tilt of boiling water and oxy bleach is a little brutal.
    washing soda is superb,borax takes the cleaning to another level.
    half scoop washing soda,half scoop borax quarter scoop oxy maybe.

    soaking for 24 or even 48 hours is a better solution.

    avoid all modern detergents and anything with optical brightners in not good.

    washing soda,castille soap,borax,vinegar,baking or bicarbonate of soda,citric acid powder
    all these are a much more natural and safer approach than toxic products from the oil petrochemical industries.

    when in doubt soak it in washing soda and borax

    1. Tony, from personal experience I agree with you totally. I had purchased OxiClean because it was advertised as NOT a bleach. It is most certainly a bleach. OxiClean is worse than brutal, because the advertising is MISLEADING, because it claims not to be a bleach. First it discolored my extremely costly bed sheets turning them white from the original ivory. I cannot afford to replace these fine bed linens and they are ruined, not only were they bleached white, but bleach weakens fibers. I didn’t learn from that expensive disaster however. Since I was then aware that OxiClean IS really a bleach, I decided to soak a dish towel that was badly stained in a five gallon bucket with some OxiClean and within half an hour it was in shreds. The OxiClean literally ate my dish towel. The unused OxiClean I had was used to clean the toilet, just to get rid of it.

      I am really heartbroken that my new once gorgeous very fine bed linens were ruined by their first washing in OxiClean. I am talking in the five hundred dollar range.

      OxiClean IS a bleach. If consumers want to use a bleach, then why not use Clorox, that costs a fraction of the price and the end result is the same? At least Clorox is truthful and advertises as a bleach.

  9. I have an old pieced quilt top. It is mostly white, with red crosses. I am nervous the red may bleed. It does look pretty old and faded though. If it did bleed, how would I fix that?

    1. I would really be nervous washing anything with red. It will bleed, even if only slightly and there is no guarantee that you could get all of it out. Rit Dye makes a product to remove bleeding colors, but I would think it would be too harsh.

  10. I tried this just as described but it bubbled up and went all over the place. I suggest letting it cool a bit more or adding a cup of cold water to the pot before adding the oxiclean.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s