How to Care for your Antique Linens
There is a big difference between cleaning linens which have already been restored and trying to bring back linens which have sat untouched in the attic for decades. When you buy linens from me, the hard part is already done. All you will need to know how to maintain them. Still, as two of the most frequent questions Iím asked are ďHow do you get your linens so white againĒ and ďHow do I launder the linens I bought from youĒ, I will answer them both. Although it would take volumes to tell you everything Iíve learned over the years, I can try to give you a good overall summary to use as a reference.
HOW I PREPARE THE LINENS I SELL TO YOU
First, I'd like to let you know that I too have purchased linens on the internet - I've also been burned more times than I care to remember. I assure you I take great pride in what I sell and NOTHING leaves my home that I wouldn't be elated to own myself. I've been told I'm wayyy too picky. Well... so be it. Then I'm way to picky. I sleep very well at night knowing that every time I mail a package, the new owner will be delighted with what they receive. Most all of my linens are hand washed, air dried and ironed with distilled water using the same methods as I will describe below. Everything gets soaked in tubs and gently agitated with my favorite tool in the whole world, an antique potato masher. My extremely delicate pieces and silks are personally handed over to my friend Dave. He owns a string of laundry companies here in town and uses a gentle CO 2 process which I can't do.
HOW TO LAUNDER THE LINENS YOU BUY FROM ME
Unless otherwise noted, the linens your buy from me will be clean and relatively easy to maintain. If you really want to extend the life of your linens, I emphatically recommend you clean them by hand and launder them ONLY WHEN THEY REALLY NEED IT as laundering is the toughest challange any textile will ever endure. Why? Do your own test. Put a nylon stocking over your hand and rub the drums inside your washer and dryer. You'll notice how it snags. This is from washing zippers, buttons, keys, coins, etc... Then, of course there's the pull and tug and pull and tug from the washing maching and the rub, rub, rub, rub, rub, rub from the automatic dryer. To remove simple dust gently blow them with a hair dryer or pat them outside on a windy day. When the day comes (and it will) they simply have to be washed, proceed as follows...
~Treat and launder any stains as soon as possible. I use OxyMagic but there are several other good ones out there as well. Let it sit for a good half hour so it has a chance to work.
~You'll need a big tub or kettle. I use a collection of old canners I've picked up at various auctions and garage sales which work beautifully.
~Textiles clean up much better in soft water. Some are blessed with naturally soft water or a water softener. Iím not blessed with either so I soften up the water with a product made by Calgon which I buy at the grocery store. To avoid rust spots popping up later I start with cold water and heat it up either on the stove or microwave (hot water from the tap will be full of impurities from the pipes). For the most part, the soap I use I buy in bulk from a man who owns a laundering service in Canada. I have never seen if for sale here. However, a good equivelent is Oxyclean. Use the amount they recommend on the box.
~The BIG secret for cleaning linens is to use hot water. The hotter the water, the better the detergent works. Add the soap and the water softener and stir to dissolve. Then add the linens. Although the soap will do most of the work, you will still need to gently agitate from time to time. My favorite tool for that is an antique pototo masher. The most important thing is time. Often I start a batch in the evening and let it sit overnight. That usually does the trick. If not, I dump out the water and repeat as many times as I need to until theyíre clean. Never use chlorine bleach as itís way too harsh. Chlorine bleach works by eating away the stains - however, it also eats away at the fabric. Iíve also on occasion used a mixture of salt and lemon juice with fairly good results.
~I canít stress enough how important the rinsing process is. Soap left in your linens will turn brown when ironed and will also eat away at the fibers all over time. Whether you choose to rinse them by hand or run them through the rinse cycle in your washing machine (a bed sheet is virtually impossible to rinse in the sink), know that one quick rinse wonít get all the soap out. As you rinse do the sniff test. If it still smells perfumy or like soap, youíre not finished. When it smells like absolutely nothing, youíre done. For large or sturdy linens I rinse most of the soap out in the sink and then put them on a full cycle in the washing machine. A full cycle with no soap is a double rinse. However you choose to rinse, again, GET ALL THE SOAP OUT! Let me share a quick story with you. We have friends who are avid joggers. One particularly hot day they decided to add an extra mile to their regular route. When theyíd finished they walked to their car and were toweling off when the wife happened to glace at her husbandís black shorts. They were covered with foam. She checked her own and they were the same. Hmmmm. They now use less detergent and double rinse everything.
~DO NOT WRING as wet fibers are weak and will break. Instead, lay them on a towel and roll them up to soak up the excess moisture. I recommend you air dry everything. Itís not the heat of the dryer thatís harmful. Itís the rub, rub, rub, rub, rub
The heat of the dryer will also permanently set any stains you missed (as will a hot iron). If a rust spot should appear, use Whink to remove it but itís strong stuff so only leave it on for a few seconds and rinse well immediately. Repeat as needed.
HOW TO RESTORE OLD STAINED AND YELLOWED LINENS
A hundred trips through the washing machine WILL NOT get 50 years of yellowing and stains out of old linens. It has to soak out. The process is almost just as Iíve just described above. However, youíll have to repeat it over and over (which often takes several days) and use about 3 times as much Oxyclean each time. I caution you before you start... There is no guarantee they will come out perfect. The dyes may not be stable and will fade or bleed and an old stain may come out and take the fabric right along with it leaving a hole. Many give up too soon and are left with linens that have a slightly dingy appearance. Still, if you have an old family heirloom, I encourage you to try. If it doesnít turn out perfect, simply enjoy it as is. If youíre too hesitant to try, find a reputable cleaner and hand it over personally to the Head cleaning guru and not some college kid trying to make a buck over the summer. Theyíll usually make you sign a waiver as they canít give you any guarantees it will come out perfect either.
HOW TO PRESS AND STORE LINENS
To press use distilled water and a dry iron. A good iron makes all the difference in the world. Youíll laugh but I love to iron. I love watching the patterns spring to life and the undefined edges become straight and smart again. When I was a young girl I ironed next to my mother with my own little iron which actually heated up! She ironed dadís shirts while I was given the task of the handkerchiefs and napkins. Sheíd finish up by running the sheets and pillowcases through an old fashioned mangle. Oh, the smells emitted from the freshly laundered linens. But, I digress!
~Embroidery should be placed face down on a fluffy towel and ironed from the back side. This way you avoid catching the tip of the iron on the threads (easy to do, especially with French knots). It also pushes the embroidery out instead of squashing it as flat as a pancake.
~Donít iron creases as it can actually break the threads and is unnecessary. Rather, fold them and run over it with your thumb (that's called finger pressing).
~If you press over a stain you can pretty much consider it there for life as heat sets stains. Spot treat any stains you missed before you continue.
~Store your linens ironed or unironed. It doesnít matter. However, donít store anything ironed with starch for long periods of time. Bugs (especially silverfish) love starch and as they dine on the starch, they dine on your linens as well. Moths fly right in the front door, never to be seen again and they also love starch. Please donít fool yourself into believing you donít have bugs. If you have plumbing you have bugs. They are small and live in the sewer pipes and only come out when itís dark. Donít store linens in plastic tubs as they need to breathe. Cedar repels bugs so if youíre fortunate enough to own a closet or chest lined with cedar, by all means, use it - just remember to line the wood with paper an old towel or a sheet. As cedar makes my face swell up like a basketball I donít have any in the house. Instead my linens either go in a regular linen closet, my grandfatherís steamer trunk, or the drawers in my hutch. Wood leeches natural oils which the linens will soak up over time so everything should first lined with old towels. I often see other linen dealers tempting their customers with over-priced acid free tissue paper to wrap their linens in. It's a LOT cheaper (and easier) to tuck them neatly into old cotton pillowcases with the edges folded under.
Finally, have fun with your linens. I have a friend who is known about town for her tea and dinner parties. She sets her tables with mismatched china, mismatched silverware and mismatched linens. The only thing constant is the fact that nothing matches. The results are outstanding and an invitation to one of her parties is considered an honor. There is a pub in Wisconsin worth mentioning which uses old hankies for cocktail napkins (my kind of place!). The possibilities are endless! Use them. Display them. Show them off to your friends! I can think of no finer tribute to the women who spent endless hours making them to look down from the heavens and see how much we now delight in the work they did.