I’ve always been quite relaxed with my vintage linens and believe that they should be used. I’ve just thrown them in the washing machine after I’ve bought them – especially if they’ve clearly been in storage or are marked (however I now don’t advise this, read on…). Several of mine are not victim to historical abuse but modern day spills such as the dreaded tomato. I now have a couple that are reserved for saucy dinners!
You’ll often hear brown marks you sometimes see on linens referred to as ‘rust stains’. These come from wooden cupboards and drawers where oils from the tannin settle into the fabric. Some are discoloured from old starch or just where dirt has settled into the folds.
Our modern taste for linens is to be bright white – in days passed they wouldn’t have been so white.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO WITH LINENS IN A ‘FOUND STATE’?
First you have to consider how precious they are. If they are older or the fabric is quite fine then you should certainly be more cautious in your treatment, the same applies if there is a lot of delicate embroidery or visible thread damage.
HOW TO WASH VINTAGE LINENS
As a general rule you should soak your piece in plain water first and hydrate the fibres, this will loosen staining and then depending on how you feel you can hand wash using a delicate liquid followed by drying outside or just put it in your washing machine and see what happens (with caution – this is totally up to you)!
After an initial wash you can see what you are working with. Any treatment from here will carry risk. While it is tempting to reach for the bleach, this can potentially damage the fibre. Even the salt and lemon juice method for stain removal could cause damage – after all lemon is acidic. For spot stain removal it is best to test any method on a small area and for a limited time to begin with.
PRESSING AND STORAGE
Try to press pure linen or cotton when it is very slightly damp – not dry and crispy, as ironing will be much easier and give you a better finish.
If your piece has embroidery, iron it on the reverse side and if necessary around the design on the front. This is so that you don’t flatten the design.
If you know that you are going to use your linens, they will be ok stored in your regular drawers. But if you want to put them away for any length of time, then it is good to wrap them in some acid free tissue and put into other storage boxes – not next to wood.
To be extra careful, put your tissue between the folds and make sure you get them out every so often so that there isn’t ongoing strain on the fibres in the folds.