Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How To Clean Vintage Linens (C&G Style)

I love the look of vintage linens hanging on the line!  So classic!  Plus, it usually means that all the hard parts are done.  Cleaning vintage linens can be a challenge, but, if it works, it can also be a great reward.  Sometimes you work for hours on something and the darn stains still won't budge.  Sometimes you take a risk on something you are fairly certain is hopeless, and, suddenly, the dinge all washes away!

A week or so ago I posted this pic of a box in my Where Do You FIND That stuff? post.  I told you it needed work and did it ever!  I decided to use it as the poster child for this post, so, I documented each step of how I dealt with the box.

There were some great vintage tablecloths in there but boy were they a mess!  All fantastic patterns, however, and, almost no holes or other fabric damage, so, an attempt at cleaning seemed worthwhile.

I always start off with some sort of stain remover.  I honestly cannot say which I have found to work the best.  For a long time I swore by the Oxi-Clean; then, someone said "Greased Lightning cleans ANYTHING" so I tried that, then, Spray 'n' Wash started running adds for it's new "Max" product and friends raved about that so I tried that as well.  Whatever product you think is best is what you should use.  Start with one of these.  Spray the heck out of any stains you see and let it sit according to the bottle label instructions before starting the next step.  Set in stains are tough but every so often one of these lifts something nicely from the get go.

You hear a lot of vintage linens sellers talking about "holding to the light" as opposed to "on the table."  This is because vintage linens, when held to the light, reveal the worst of their stains.  This is therefore a good technique to use not only when purchasing linens, but, as you start to clean them.  Holding them to the light will often reveal stains you would not see if they were simply laid out flat.  This will enable you to attack all areas with your stain remover from the beginning!

Many of the techniques I am about to share are NOT my own by any means!  They are a result of experimentation  (both successes and failures!) and the incredibly helpful and comprehensive posts at the following two sites:
1. Tipnut: Vintage Linens - 
Soaking & Cleaning Recipes

2. Vintage Indie: Cleaning Vintage Linens
Part One and Part Two 

Both of these sites did a LOT of homework that was very helpful to me.  I wish to give credit where credit is due! Be sure to read and bookmark both of these posts as I do not cover all the details and options here that they cover there.
First step was to soak in a mixture of cold water and vinegar.  I have found that this technique works very well with age stains (i.e.: the yellowing you might find on vintage crocheted work like this.) It also works very well as a first step for removing bad cigarette staining.   (Often when I soak cigarette stained cotton drapes in the vinegar, the water looks like brewed coffee in minutes!)  The photos above show the effectiveness on these old food-stained tablecloths and aprons.  The vinegar is not as effective on these, but, as a first step, I usually still try it.  Ideally, you want the water after the items are removed to be nice and dark!  All that darkness is removed stain.  At least this started to pull out some of the yellowness from the items.

Always watch and learn!  This time, the vinegar bath caused this blue apron to leave imprints on my white sink!  Luckily, there was no transfer of the blue to other fabric items, and, the sink cleaned up in the next step.  You should always watch what is happening closely, however, and, as you would with any laundry, be mindful of items you decide to wash together.  Testing first is always a good idea.  There are some items I would never combine and others I might.  Vintage printed tablecloths are usually OK, but, anything older than the 1940's or 1950's I would be less likely to "group" as the colors may be less color-fast and more unpredictable once immersed.

The next step is the Borax soak.  As described carefully in the Vintage Indie link above, use the hottest water that is safe for the fabric you are working with, and, be sure to dissolve it all before adding the fabric.  You can also add this directly to the wash and I often do that after the soaking step for extra effectiveness.  You can see above that this same group (I pulled out that blue apron to finish that one its own) released another layer of "ick" by passing through this step...  At this point you need to decide if you want to repeat any of the above steps.  For handwash items, at this point, I wash and rinse very carefully before air-drying.  For items that can withstand a regular or delicate wash in the machine, (I put these tablecloths in that category) it's time to machine wash with detergent, and, maybe a little more Borax dissolved in before adding the linens.  In either case, always be sure to completely rinse all vinegar, soaps, bleaches, boosters, and anything else used!  What often causes linens to weaken and/or discolor is soap not properly removed from the fibers. 

Some experts tell you to hang in the sun, some say to never hang your vintage linens in the sun.  My yard and line only gets sun for a few hours so I usually hang them in the sun at this step.  ONLY at this "first washing" when I am trying to allow the sun to also help fade any stains that may be present.  Do not continue to hang your vintage printed linens in the sun every time you wash them or they will fade.  Also, do not put them into the dryer.  The best drying method for continued use is to air-dry in the shade.  If you must dry in the sun, turn them so that the reverse side is facing the sun and take them out as soon as most of the moisture is removed.  If you must dry in a dryer, dry on a low-heat setting until most but not all of the dampness is removed.  Then, drape over a railing or across a couple of chairs until the rest of the water evaporates.  This will keep your patterns from fading over time.

This nasty stain on this great mid-century abstracted pattern cloth was holding fast so I went to my last resort.  Again, some people will advocate a mild bleach solution while others cringe at the idea.  I only turn to bleach in extreme cases (and, will add a tablespoon to the Borax soak above on occasion if the fabric has little color and/or I think it can take it.)  I keep a very mild solution of bleach and water in this spray bottle.  If there are stains like those above that are on a white area, and, just will not respond to anything else, I will give them a spritz of the mild bleach while hanging in the sun.  I blot around the edges of the stain as I spritz to try and make sure that the bleach does not bleed into any colored/patterned areas.  I also do this while the fabric is still damp so that the bleached area will blend more softly into the surrounding areas and not create a hard edge.

This can sometimes create the opposite effect when held to the light.  (i.e.: you will see brighter spots as opposed to stain spots).  You need to make a decision about what you think works the best.  You may make one decision if you are keeping the piece for yourself and another if you are planning to resell it or give it as a gift.  For reselling, I am always upfront about condition and measures taken.  It is not fair to go through all of these processes and sell something to someone "with minor stains" as if they may be able to get them out.  You need to let people know if they are in the best shape they are likely  to get!  I think the bleach above was worth it, don't you?  This cloth has a great pattern, and, the stains are now mostly invisible "on the table."  I will sell this at a lesser cost than a cloth in better condition, but, someone will be happy to own this!

In fact, I think the efforts were worth it on all of these, don't you?  One final word of caution: never leave these items unattended for long.  Keep them moving and constantly check for colorfastness even if you already checked!  When using these techniques on embroidered vintage linens such as these, wash them alone, use cool water and keep them moving at all times.  Rinse thoroughly and do not allow them to lie across themselves or touch other pieces.  The colored threads can start to bleed at any time and often "release" even after you may have checked for fastness.  Reds are the biggest culprits, so wash with great care!

If you are now Jonesing for a vintage cloth for yourself, there are many great options available on Etsy.  Here are a few to get your heart pumping:

This design, from The Collector's Closet is awesome!

Fantastic Mexican Motif from Uncle Bunk's Trunk!

If you liked that mid-century Yule Log from my own collection
I posted the other day, look!  Stacieenv has got one for you!

Don't feel like going through all this work?  Who can blame you!
My friend Claudia at 23 Burton Avenue has this oilcloth just-wipe-me-down beauty!

If harder-to-mind Mid-century is in your budget
(always a good investment!) Call Me Jasper has not only
this lovely, but several others to drool over...

Of course, we try to always keep a few in-stock at
Carmen and Ginger so stop by and check us out!
We are adding new Christmas themed cloths each week
for the next month or two so stop back soon!


  1. Great information on removing stains from the tablecloths. When I read Warning-don't leave these unattended for long I thought you were referring to putting the box down at a Flea Market. I love the Mexican Motif one and may have to check it out for my collection. Your anonymous MOM.

  2. I think the warning of "Keep An Eye On Your Stuff" applies any time anyone is shopping with or near Find Me A Memory!

  3. Christine, I think when you accumulate a hefty body of these blog posts you should think about editing them and publishing them as a how-to book for vintage collectors and dealers. Or maybe as a subscription e-newsletter for a reasonable fee. There is SO MUCH good information in here, clearly stated and beautifully presented with photos.
    Or maybe that's just me, always thinking about publishing and/or "re-purposing"! :)

  4. Great stuff! My friend at Uncle Bunk's Trunk is a wizard at cleaning and restoring vintage linens. I'm afraid I'm far too lazy, most of the time, but I do love the option of drying textiles on the grass on a sunny day...the sun sucks out some very stubborn stains. Thanks for including my Christmas trees!

  5. oh so ghelpful, will save this post - I have a cardigan in need of help. Posted here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22936474@N04/3448884034

  6. Well, Eyeliah - you are lucky it is on the white part! Gives you many options...what is the fabric? Email me and we can chat...

  7. More attractive than an elastic table cover, this reusable Gingham Oilcloth Tablecloth wipes clean easily with a damp cloth. this site

  8. You don't give any details on Soak Time ? Minutes. Hours. Days?


Thanks for sharing your thoughts at Carmen and Ginger! Comments may take up to 12 hours to post to the blog.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.




Related Posts with Thumbnails