vintage linens – what’s in YOUR closet?

We know some of our blog followers have not had a chance to peek inside the July/August 2013 issue of Create & Decorate yet, so we are sharing an excerpt from the magazine about caring for your vintage linens.

Picture 16

CD_August_JanesCollection_1 copy

It took me awhile, but I finally found several old clothes hangers for children on which to display my vintage dresses. The little pink rabbit hanger is my favorite, as is this hand stitched wool slip.

Let me first start by saying that I do not claim to be a textile expert on taking care of antique linens, however, I’ve learned a few common sense approaches from my grandmother and some of my own trial-and-(unfortunate) error methods for keeping the pieces I have in as good and as clean condition as I can. And of course, my pieces aren’t museum quality, and perhaps yours aren’t either, but that doesn’t mean they are any less valued. You love what you love…right? Having vintage linens is not the same as keeping them, however. Any antique worth having is worth taking care of, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned in preserving the pieces I have.

washing and drying

The first rule of thumb is never use chlorine bleach to wash any of your antique linens! I learned this the hard way: I was trying to remove a stain from the sweetest little hand-stitched blouse. I didn’t use very much bleach on it, but it was more fragile than I realized and the bleach ate through the stain and the entire garment as well (heartbreak!). Keep in mind that some fabrics have been weakened over time by improper storing and folding, or uncared-for stains. Non-chlorine bleach is okay, but use in small amounts and very sparingly.

Cotton or linen items in good condition without lace trims or cutwork such as tablecloths, napkins, runners, place mats, and bedding are okay to machine wash. Set your machine on the delicate (or gentle) cycle, then use hot water with detergent. Back in the day, I used Ivory Flakes simply because that’s what my grandmother used, but since it’s no longer available, I use laundry soap for babies. Don’t overcrowd the pieces to be washed; it’s better to run two small loads than one large one. I also like to have my linen go through two rinse cycles to make sure that all the soap has been thoroughly removed. In good weather, I hang everything outside to dry, but I also use the clothes dryer (set on low) for a few minutes to fluff them up in bad weather. Then I hang them up until they’re completely dry.

I hand wash delicate and cutwork items and pieces in warm water. Again, wash just a few items at a time and rinse, rinse, rinse! I have quite a few lovely lace hankies, and I find what works best for rinsing these are putting them inside net bags, then running through the rinse and spin cycles on my washing machine.

CD_August_JanesCollection_3 copy

Assortment of embroidered and lace-trim hankies displayed in a whimsical Victorian candy box. Once all the chocolates had been enjoyed, it was meant to hold small trinkets. The pillow cases were accompanied by a lovely duvet cover (not shown). Loosely translated, their embroidered sentiments mean “Sweet Dreams.”


This can be a challenge. Again, I’ve learned the hard way. It’s very important that the surface of the iron is perfectly clean and that there are no mineral deposits built up inside. Once when I was ironing the bodice of one little dress, my steam iron spat out water that formed a stain, forcing me back to the task of working hard to remove the stain rewashing, drying, and pressing. I now put a cloth over the piece I’m ironing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.


Some stains are easily removed with simple washing. All I can say about removing stubborn stains is that you’re going to need a lot of patience, and you might have to treat the stain more than once, but it is well worth the time and effort. My grandmother would sprinkle salt on red wine stains on her holiday tablecloths and napkins, then put them in cold water to soak. If the stain was still there, she’d rub it again with salt and lemon (this combination is also how I clean my copper pieces, by the way). Baking soda and club soda are other options you can try using to remove red wine stains. White wine usually comes out with a regular washing in hot water and soap.

Some yellow and brown age stains can be removed by soaking and then gently washing the item, but I’ve had some stains that have stubbornly resisted all of my previous remedies. I recently discovered, however, a product called Retro Clean that yielded wonderful results on removing these discolorations on many of my treasures. It’s easy to use and requires only a few tablespoons of detergent dissolved in warm water before putting your things in to soak. I was very happy with the results.

Candle wax is tricky, especially if the candles are colored. Press an ice cube over the wax to harden it, and then gently remove the wax. If a wax residue remains, place the item between clean brown bags, then apply a warm iron over the wax. The brown bag should absorb the rest of the remaining wax. If the wax stain is still there, apply rubbing alcohol before washing. If all of this fails, take it to the dry cleaners and resolve to use only non-colored candles in the future!

As much as I love chocolate, I don’t like it on my linens. Sturdier, chocolate-stained linens should be sprinkled with Borax and left to sit for a time. More delicate items should be soaked in warm water, then gently dabbed with a clean cloth until the stain is gone.

Tea and coffee stains require another treatment altogether. If the stained item is durable, such as a heavy cotton or linen tablecloth, stretch the stained area over a big bowl or pot. Boil a kettle of water. When it’s steaming, slowly pour the water over the stain from a height of about 2” or so. It’s best to place the bowl in the bathtub when pouring so you don’t scald yourself. (It’s also easier on your back since you might be doing this for a while.)


Some of the vintage children’s dresses I’ve acquired are wrapped in tissue. My grandmother always kept her finer linens in tissue, so I like to think that I’m keeping the tradition alive. For larger items like quilts, the recommended wrap is clean linen or cotton sheeting, and rolling is preferred over folding. Do not use plastic bags, however, as they can trap moisture, resulting in mildew and mold.

Over the years, I’ve given away a number of things from my collection due to downsizing my household, and although I still have some items that are packed away, I have quite a few things on display to be enjoyed every day. My children’s dresses in particular are hung on a variety of small clothes hangers and placed throughout my home. I think it’s important to surround yourself with the things you love, and there’s no better way to add small slices of joy to your life. 🙂



8 thoughts on “vintage linens – what’s in YOUR closet?

  1. I know I have some vintage linens that need cleaning tucked away somewhere. I’ll have to find them and clean them up thanks to your tips

  2. I would be thrilled to win retro clean. I have a very old babies baptism gown, that I purchased years ago at an antique shop. I did try washing it gently by hand with regular soap, but it still is not white, but a tinge grey. I have it hanging in my bedroom, so it would be so nice, to see if your product might just be the answer to this dingy gown. I thank you for the chance to win.

  3. Ok, I’m gonna be honest in saying that I doubt any cleaner on the market can get a linen that clean. That is truly amazing!! My way of taking care of the stains has always been to tea stain them because it blends in and doesn’t show as well, lol! I can’t believe there is something out there that can whiten linens that well. I’ve added it to my shopping list, just hope I can find it. Thanks so much for the tip!!

  4. I have a vintage cutwork tablecloth that I’ve always been afraid to clean. Thank you for such an informative post. I may just feel confident enough now to try.

  5. I love your magazine and the quirky items you put here to try and identify. I’m thinking that the many I can always figure out is because I’ve been around awhile.

  6. I would love to win the cleaning product Retro Clean. I started a cross stitch design 37 years ago when my husband and I were first married. We were both in the army and serving overseas at the time. With all the moves, packing and unpacking, I lost track of it. Resently found it… was sad to see rust stains left by the hoop. Would love to see if this product could bring it back to life. thanks

  7. Thanks for this helpful information. I just acquired some vintage dishtowels with yellowish stains and had been wondering how best to remove those stains. Retro Clean sounds like fantastic stuff and I appreciate the opportunity to win some!

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