It's January, and that historically means "white sales" on linens. There's something to be said for starting the new year with fresh, crisp new bed sheets and soft fluffy towels. But there's also a place in our hearts for vintage linens - from aprons and tea towels, to crocheted doilies and hand-stitched quilts. Often these mainstays come to us with some stains and tears, but they've stood the test of time. Here are some tips for cleaning and refreshing them so they can continue to serve us and the generations that will follow us.
We do love vintage linens, and we tend to accumulate them fairly frequently on our picking forays. Sometimes they have been beautifully and lovingly cared for. Other times, we pluck them out, and they're bedraggled and grungy from old set-in stains. But when the piece is in great shape, and the stitching is intact, we have discovered the stains are usually not permanent, so they can be laundered and made to look beautiful again.
There are many home remedies for removing stains, from baking or washing powder, to lemon juice and vinegar. Most experts agree (and we concur) that chlorine bleach is hard on fabric, and definitely takes its on older, fragile pieces. But we've found hydrogen peroxide cleaners (such as OxiClean) will tackle just about any set-in stain we come across.
It is a process that requires some time and patience. We start by boiling a kettle full of water on the stove. Once it's come to a rolling boil, fill a kitchen sink with the hottest water the tap will provide. Sprinkle in some OxiClean and stir with a non-reactive stainless or plastic spoon to dissolve. Add linens - we typically clean 4-8 pieces at a time unless they are large, and then we'll scale it back.
Pour the boiling water on the linens in the sink, using caution to avoid scalding or burning yourself or anyone in the kitchen with you. Gently stir to make sure the linens can move freely in the water and they are fully submerged.
This is where the patience comes into play. Allow the linens to remain in the sink until the water has cooled to room temperature. Inspect them to see if the stains have lifted. It not, drain and repeat the entire process. (It may take 2-3 cleanings to remove the longtime stubborn stains.)
If you search the internet, you'll find instructions that advise adding your linens to the kettle and boiling them on the stove. We don't do that for a couple reasons:
When the stains are gone, gently hand-wring and move to your washer. Put on a delicate cycle with an extra rinse, and a little vinegar instead of liquid softener. When the load is complete, place linens on racks to air dry.
Blood and rust stains can be among the hardest to remove, so don't feel bad if it takes several attempts to get them cleaned up.
Our favorite tip: instead of starching your fresh-laundered linens, press them when they are barely damp. They'll be crisp like starched linens, but without the risk of degrading your fabric over time.
Whatever you do, we hope you'll find a way to display or use them. These hand-crafted treasures from days past were meant to be used and appreciated.
This article was originally published in the Busy Bee Trader, a regional directory of antique and vintage stores throughout middle Tennessee and surrounding areas.
WHO WRITES THIS STUFF?
I'm Terry Lea, owner of Re-Invintage Home, a vintage home goods shop just south of Nashville in Murfreesboro, TN. A lifelong passion for vintage picking led me to open a shop with my picking pal, Sherri in 2017. Come see us!