Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Taking Care of Embroidered Goods, Linens, and Whatnot


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Unfinished embroidery projects, embroidered household linens, little embroidered keepsakes, or even just plain fabric you plan to use for your needlework – all these items require, believe it or not, special care, especially in storing them. So I wanted to share a couple tips with you that I’ve learned either through experience or through that Fountain of All Useful Knowledge & Wisdom – my Mom.

For the following tips, I’m generally speaking of embroidery projects that are used in the home, that are worked in cotton on a natural fiber fabric, such as linen or cotton. Certainly, silk (whether used as a floss or as the ground fabric) and synthetics may require completely different care!

Cleaning your embroidery project requires special care. I suggest hand-washing with a mild detergent such as wool-lite, or even with a mild dish soap. The best scenario is to work carefully and avoid having to wash it at all, but if you’re making cloth napkins, dishtowels, or household items like dresser scarves and so forth, you’re going to have to wash them at some point.

I’ve gotten several questions about getting stains out of linen. For linen embroidered with white only, I generally use Biz if I’ve got tough spots. For really tough spots, as a last option because it’s kind of a pain in the neck, I use cream-of-tartar in boiling water. Boil a pot of water, add a few teaspoons of cream of tartar, stir, submerge your item, wait ten minutes and rinse. I stir it now and then as it soaks. This works pretty well for me with linen that isn’t embroidered in heavy colors, even removing old wine stains, etc. So that’s an option. I’ve never tried it with dark colors, though I have with pale, and it works without damaging the color.

Never dry your embroidery projects in your dryer! Hang them or lay the flat to dry. This goes as well for vintage embroideries, etc. I think dishtowels are ok for the dryer, but finer projects are better off laid flat or hung to dry.

What about ironing? That project you just spent hours and hours on, and you’ve finally completed, and you are so proud of — don’t just throw it on your ironing board and go at it! Oh, no! When you press a piece of embroidery, you need to do it with care.

  • Use a clean, soft white towel or other cloth to line your ironing board. Residue on your ironing board cover may not come off – but then again, it just may. Why risk it?
  • Use another clean cloth to cover your work before you iron it. So you need two cloths, at least.
  • Starting with the right side up, lay your piece of embroidery on the cloth covering your ironing board. Put the second cloth over it. I use a light steam setting – some people debate this, but the covering cloth protects the embroidered piece and the steam helps press.
  • Do not “rub” the iron back on forth when ironing the front – rather, lay it on, then lift it, then lay it on again. This way, you avoid displacing any stitching. If you have a highly textured embroidered surface (lots of French knots, etc.), you may wish to skip ironing the front altogether.
  • Then turn your piece over, front side down on the cloth covering your board, and now you can either cover it or not with the other piece of cloth. If your iron isn’t trusty, I’d cover it. I’ve got a great iron (a Rowenta professional – made in Germany, not China as some of the cheaper Rowentas are), and I’ve never had to worry about a water misshap or anything like that.
  • When ironing the back, you may “rub” the iron, but do it with care.
  • For highly textured pieces of embroidery, use several layers of soft cloth on your ironing board. This gives your stitches something to sink into and keeps them from getting squashed flat.

To starch or not to starch:

  • If you’ve embroidered napkins, tablecoths, or other household linens that are used frequently, starch them. The starch helps protect the fabric from dust and such that can discolor your work or make it look grimey.
  • If you don’t use the pieces frequently and keep them stored most of the time (taking them out for special occasions only), don’t starch them until you iron them for use. Afterwards, clean them, let them dry, and put them away without starching them. Starch can lend to storage discoloration, and can also cause undesirable creasing that’s really difficult to remove.

For storing embroidered works, here are a couple tips:

  • Don’t fold them! Either lay them flat or roll them on a cardboard tube that’s either acid-free, or covered with a piece of acid-free tissue paper (or even with a piece of white linen).
  • Do not store them in plastic. It doesn’t breathe. You can get mildew and whatnot – or just a plain stinky smell – from storing in plastic. You’re better off with a lined cardboard box (they make archival boxes that you could use), or just a drawer.
  • However, if you are storing them in a drawer, beware of the wood! Wood will discolor your fabric over time. Line your storage drawer with white tissue paper or with white linen. I prefer tissue paper – it’s cheaper!
  • Alternately, you can roll your pieces up (as mentioned above), and then wrap an extra layer of tissue around the roll.

Well, those are the tips I’ve gleaned over the years. What about you?? Do you have any tips or tricks for taking care of your work? If so, please share! Also, if anything above looks strange to you, or hasn’t worked in your experience, please do let the rest of us know!


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(28) Comments

  1. Thanks, Ginger!

    I’ve read that as well – I read somewhere that, in the past, some starches had sugar in them, some flour, etc. I don’t know if they still do, but it’s an excellent point. Nothing worse than bug-eaten cloth!

    Thanks again!

    1. Yes, do not starch your fabrics until right before you are ready to embroider with them, and then wash (by hand or your preferred methods listed above) afterwards before storing. Starch will attract silver fish and they will eat the fabric, well, the starch in the fabric.

      There are two products that I use with quilting that I believe will help/transfer to embroidery, though I have not tried them with embroidery. One is Retayne – to prevent bleeding. Use it either by hand washing or in your machine. I would imagine with tea-towels you’re going to need to wash them by machine when you use them regularly. You only need to use it once. Another alternative to help prevent bleeding is add 2 teaspoons of Dawn dish-washing liquid (it has to be Dawn) to help prevent bleeding. Like I said, I have never used it for embroidery, but the concept it the same, trying to prevent bleeding of colors.

      The second item is “Best Press” and sold at quilting stores/online quilting stores. Yes, it might be a bit expensive, but hey, we’re creating heirlooms here, aren’t we? It’s better than having those pesky silver fish eating up starch in our fabric! ;0-)

      Keep up the wonderful advice you give Mary! I love reading your blog, especially the comments as the readers here also offer great advice, especially to those of us who are new to embroidery.

      I do have a separate question…I looked at the “Ask & Share” section here on Needle and Thread, and it doesn’t look like it’s used to much. It would be wonderful if more people would use it, I know I would! I am doing my first project, which was/is inspired by one of your articles on DIY on DMC website, and I would love to have some constructive criticism once it’s finished! I don’t have a blog or any other accounts to store pictures, so perhaps uploading them in “Ask and Share” section would be okay? Maybe a post promoting “Ask and Share”? There might be others like me who would participate if we didn’t believe it was a dead section. I read a couple of threads and the readers/posters offer great advice!

      Happy Stitching!!! ;0-)

  2. You mentioned the problem of wood staining linens but you did not mention if there is a way to remove the stain. I found old linens from my mother and grandmother that are stained from the drawer they were in. Do you have any suggestions.
    thanks so much.

  3. Hi, Julia –

    Well, wood and age stains are difficult to remove, if not impossible. My “stand-by” is boiling water and cream of tartar. Boil a pot of water, turn off the heat, add a couple teaspoons of cream of tarter, and submerge your linen in it for ten minutes. Rinse. Repeat if necessary.

    If that doesn’t work, try BIZ. Make a paste and rub it in, and then soak it in a bucket of BIZ dissolved in water for 10 minutes. Rinse WELL.

    The last resort is always bleach. It will eat the fibers. But there’s where you have to weigh and measure – do you want to be able to use the linens, or do you want them to remain stained and unusable? But again, bleach is a last resort. And make it a weak solution, diluted with water, and a short soak.

    Good luck!

  4. Julia-

    There is also a great product called Melaeuca. They are all natural and have a great stain remover. You can become a member or you can just order there product online. http://www.melaleuca.com. Another great remover is Oxy Clean. It takes out almost everything. I have not found a stain that I could not get out without using bleach.

  5. Hi Mary ~

    I just finished reading your tips on storing and caring for embroidered works and linens and have some questions.

    Is it alright to use muslin in place of tissue paper to store my fabrics. I have a few pieces of nice linen and want to be sure I store it properly until I’m ready to use it.

    And what about my threads? Is it alright to use muslin as a liner in a decorative cardboard box? Incidentally, that is also the type of box I’d like to store my linen and other fabrics in.

    Regarding plastic bags . . . I have been keeping my current project in a zip lock bag for easy portability on a day to day basis. Should I not do this? I live in Colorado and we do not often experience high humidity here.

    Thanks so much for your time, Mary, and I love your website.


    1. Hi, Diane –

      I think a ziplock bag for a project is fine. I do that all the time. When I’m talking about thread storage, I’m talking about long term storage, where the thread will be safe from light, dust, and from any damaging chemicals in the container materials. Lining the container with muslin or acid-free tissue is a good solution. Same with the linen! If you can roll the linen instead of fold it, that would be even better. But if it is wide, it probably can’t be rolled….

      Hope that helps –


  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mary!

    Don’t know how you do it all. You are so appreciated for what you offer to those of us who are addicted to your site. I have learned so much and have gained a good measure of confidence in my embroidered work since being away from it for so long.


  7. Thanks for the tip of using cream of tartar for linen stains. I’ll have to pass that on to the ladies of our altar guild! I’ve used a paste of cream of tartar to get stains off of an old cast enamel sink but I didn’t know that it would work on fabrics as well. Any thoughts on a good source for buying it? It is very pricey if you pick it up at a grocery store in the spice area but I haven’t had any luck finding it anywhere else.

    1. It doesn’t take a whole lot of cream of tartar – I usually get it in the spice section at the grocery store. A teaspoon or so in the pot will do it. ~MC

  8. Hello – Thank you so much for your wonderful website. Have you ever used anything to fuse onto the back of your embroidery? The piece will have a back sewn on as well. The ladies at the fabric store suggested I iron “light & soft fuse-on” to the back of the completed piece. just over the embroidered part, to help keep the thread stable. I don’t see any mention of it from you – and I’m nervous to try it. Your thoughts?

    1. Hi, Michelle… well. Um. Hm. I did it once, in a project that called for it. I embroidered a really pretty panel for the outside of a tote bag pocket, and the instructions for the whole bag required the fusing of a lightweight interfacing to the back of the embroidery, to give the pocket more stability. I did not like the results at all. I’m pretty familiar with how to use interfacings, so I know I didn’t apply it incorrectly, but the interfacing took all the crispness away from the finished piece – kind of mottled it up a bit. I think if you’re going to use fusible interfacing on something that needs stiffness, fuse it to the backing fabric rather than to the back of the embroidery. Besides, if you ever want to use the embroidery differently, you won’t have the mess of the interfacing to worry about. That’s just my take on it. I’ve seen instructions for using fusible interfacing on different types of projects, so I know some people do it. I just don’t like the results.

      As for stabilizing the back of your threads, that’s not really a reason to use it. You’re going to have a backing fabric on there, right? Unless for some reason your stitches are really loose and the back of your threads aren’t anchored at all, and you’re afraid it’s likely the stitches will come undone, I don’t see a reason to to fuse on interfacing, just to make them stable. Think of all the hand embroidery that’s been produced in this world over time, and all the examples that exist in museums today, with their stitches perfectly stable, and without the use of fusible interfacing…

      Personally, I wouldn’t do it. But it’s your piece! So that’s up to you!


  9. Mary – Thank you so much for your reply. You’re right – there is really no reason to stabilize the thread. This is my first “non practice” piece – I’ve needle painted birds on the corner of a small table cloth runner. I’m so glad I asked!! Thanks again – for everything!

  10. I just finished my first “official” project (a Christmas present– which was dumb) and I wasn’t aware that it’s a bad idea to use pencil to make guide marks that you plan on getting rid of later. I’m trying to erase the marks now and it’s wearing out the fabric and making little pills. I’m too scared to try washing the piece with detergent or cream of tartar or anything because I’m afraid the dye from the thread will bleed. Do you have any other really good way to get pencil marks off of linens?

    1. Hi, Madeline – what type of thread did you use?

      Normally, if you’re going to use pencil to transfer, if you spray starch the fabric first really well, then use a light pencil, the pencil will wash right out (that’s for future information).

      If you used DMC floss, there’s no reason why you can’t wash it in cool to lukewarm water, with a simple detergent like Ivory soap (the clear liquid kinds). But before using detergent, just try washing it with water to see if that works. If you used any kind of over dyed threads, though, you won’t want to wash it!


    1. I think the most common Cashel linen on the market is made by Zweigart. And they probably produce a Belfast linen, too, but there are other manufacturers that make Belfast linen. The names, to my knowledge, don’t indicate something particular about the linen today beyond thread count, except that it apparently conjures up the idea of the quality of Irish linen. In fact, there are very few Irish linen manufacturers today.

    2. Cashel (28-count) and Belfast (32-count) are names of Zweigart linens. Each count is named after a city. Also 25 Dublin, 36 Edinburgh and 40 Newcastle. No other fabric manufacturer should be identifying their product with these names. So the answer to your question is the only difference is count!

  11. Hello Mary, I have calico and stranded cotton thread and would like to embroider something practical; which stiches keep well after washing and ironing?

    thank you very much being here;

  12. Help! I’m a beginner. I left the hoop on my linen fabric too long and the center of the embroidery design, where I still need to stitch, is badly stretched out. How do I get it tightened back up? Any suggestions would be so appreciated.

  13. Mary,

    What about silk threads? Do they need the same type of storage as the linen?
    I have been doing some form of needlework since age 7. It is just a hobby for me right now as I am a full time nurse.
    Your posts have taught me so much and I reference your lessons often. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge. I greatly appreciate it.

    Best Wishes,
    Teresa Cuneo
    Berlin, NJ

  14. Hi! Wow, what a great website you have! I’ve been trying to find advice on pearl cotton and found your website. I’ll be using a lot of pearl cotton on a usable bed quilt. Do you think it will hold up to frequent washing and drying in the machine? I’m afraid that it will fray or shred over time and don’t want to put in all the time and effort if it can’t withstand the machine. Thanks so much!

    1. It’s a good choice for threads, but you should definitely do some test runs, to make sure you don’t end up with colors running in the laundry, etc. Even if a thread says it’s colorfast, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is so, when it comes to laundry and hot water and soap and whatnot.

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