I’m an absolute sucker for vintage embroidered linens, especially linens embellished with whitework embroidery.
I don’t collect a lot of them, but what I do have, gets used. A lot.
I figure if you collect something just for the sake of having it, but not for the sake of using and enjoying it, what good is that?
After all, those gorgeous vintage linens that were meticulously hand embroidered by someone, somewhere, at some point in time – well, they were made to be used! They weren’t made to be stored in a drawer or a box forever, to eventually make their way into an attic or… woe is me… a garage sale or a thrift store.
But they often go that route, don’t they?
I think if they were used more – instead of stored away for safe keeping – they would be better appreciated by all who saw them, and they would be treasured by family and friends. They wouldn’t end up cast away at a thrift store.
But I also think many people don’t use vintage pieces and end up getting rid of them simply because they don’t know how to use them and how to take care of them.
If you have a collection of vintage embroidered linens, and if you love them, you should use them. You should derive the pleasure from them that they were intended to give.
When considering what to do with a vintage linen, consider it for what it is.
It is a useful object. A beautiful object, yes – but first and foremost, it is a useful object. A tablecloth covers a table. A pillow case covers a pillow.
When considering using your vintage linens, don’t hold back on what to use them for! If they’re in good shape, use them for their intended use, despite the fact that they might get dirty or stained.
You see, linen is an extremely resilient fabric. It holds up to all kinds of wear and tear, and it holds up to laundering magnificently. In fact, linen becomes more beautiful with use and with laundering.
So, if I’ve halfway convinced you to use your vintage linens – and if you’re ready to break free from the fear that keeps your beautiful linens in a closet – here are some practical points that I’ve discovered through years of using old, gorgeous whitework linens that have held up like a dream.
Delicate and Damaged Vintage Linens
If your item is delicate or damaged, consider where and how you’re going to use it. Occasionally laying it out as a decorative piece where it’s not subject to heavy use, but will still be seen and enjoyed, is a better option than putting it to heavy use, or leaving it forgotten in storage.
You have a delicate table cloth or table runner? Put it on the table for decoration when you’re not using the table. Remove it when it’s time to eat. A whitework pillow case that’s wearing at the seams? Use it on a decorative pillow for a bed (like you would use a sham), taking the pillow off the bed at night. That lovely wedding hankie from days of yore with a fragile edge? Consider using it as a doily on a decorative table, where it isn’t exposed to direct sun or to food & beverages.
Occasionally switch out these linens for cleaning. Store them for short term, and decorate with them again in the future.
Hearty Linens in Good Shape
By hearty linens, I mean linens that are intact, that still have body to them, that are not fraying around the embroidery, and so forth.
For these types of linens, use them as they were intended. Sleep on the pillow cases (have you every slept on an old linen pillow case that’s been freshly cleaned and aired? It’s luxury!). Dine on the tablecloths. Serve tea on the tea cloth. Put a vase of flowers on the doily. Hang the monogrammed towel in your guest bathroom for friends to dry their hands on.
Pressing Before Use
Before you use a beautiful old linen, if it needs pressing, press it and make it presentable. After all, you want to show it off in all its glory!
Assuming that the linen is clean (that it was put away clean and it hasn’t developed any strange stains or spotting), this is how I go about pressing a table linen.
Prepare the Iron
If you’ve used the steam function on your iron and you have water in the reservoir, empty the water and turn the steam function off. (I actually have a separate iron that I use for my embroidery and for embroidered linens, so it doesn’t get gunked up with other general household ironing. I never use the steam function on it.)
Test the iron to make sure no water drips out of the steam vents. Make sure the plate on your iron is clean. If you need to clean your iron, use a vinegar-soaked paper towel to wipe the plate clean. If the plate is really bad, you might have to soak it for a while, by sitting it face down on a paper towel soaked in vinegar. Just make sure the iron’s off when you’re cleaning it!
Pad the Ironing Board
Pad your ironing board with something soft. When ironing embroidery, you need more padding than the cover and regular pad on your ironing board will provide. You can read all about ironing embroidered linen here, including tips on what I use to pad my ironing board.
Prepare the Floor
If you’re ironing a large linen – a tablecloth or anything that will hang onto the floor – lay a clean sheet down first.
You can also line up a couple chairs and feed the ironed linen onto the chairs to keep it off the floor and straight. I usually just lay a sheet down and let the linen fold gently onto the sheet as it comes off the ironing board.
Dampen the Linen
I always use distilled water when ironing my embroidery or vintage linens. It probably won’t ruin them if you don’t use distilled water, but I just prefer it. Use a spray bottle, and mist the linen well all over.
Alternately, if you are not ironing right before storing them for a long time, and if you plan to launder the linen after use and before storing, you can also use spray starch. Linens should not be starched before storing them long-term, but they can certainly be starched before they’re put out for use.
Use the “linen” setting on your iron. Keep the iron moving – don’t hold it in one place for any length of time. If you notice that it seems too hot, cut back the heat. Don’t risk scorching!
Laundering Vintage Linens after Use
Once you’ve used the linens and it’s time to launder them, here are some tips:
1. Normal Stains: Take care of stains right away. That splatter of spaghetti sauce? After dinner, spot it. You can use liquid Shout or other laundry stain removers. Whatever you use, treat the stain as soon as possible. (See below for tough stain problems.)
Let it soak for a little while, and then launder it.
If the stain doesn’t come out after you’ve used this kind of stain remover, don’t dry the linen. Use some of the tough stain removing options below before drying the linen.
2. Laundering: Assuming again that we’re talking about hearty linens with white-on-white cotton or linen embroidery, you can do one of two things: wash them by hand or use your washing machine.
If I’m laundering something that sports needlelace, cutwork, fine crocheted lace edges or anything like that (like the linen in the photo directly above), I prefer to wash by hand.
If I’m laundering something that just has a little bit of simple embroidery on it (like the cloth in the first photo in this article), I’ll use the gentle cycle on the washing machine.
For detergent, for regular cleaning, I like Oxiclean (as long as there is no silk on the embroidery), or even Tide or liquid Biz or the like. I normally start the water in the machine, add the detergent to the water and agitate it, and then add the linen. I use warm water for white linens with whitework embroidery.
I wash vintage linens separately, and never with colored items.
Tough Stains on Vintage Linens
There are different products and different approaches that can take out discoloration and tough stains on vintage linens. Some approaches depend on the situation. If you’re desperate and at the end of your rope with a stain, you might have to take extreme measures to remove stains.
Again, treat any stains that occur on your linens as soon as possible.
First, if the stain didn’t come out with a spray-on laundry stain remover, try soaking the stain with concentrated Biz. You can also use a concentrated Oxiclean paste or the like. With liquid Biz or with an Oxiclean paste made by mixing a bit of Oxiclean with a little water, you can rub it right on the stain with a clean, soft toothbrush. Leave it half an hour, and then rinse thoroughly. This usually will take care of any tough stain from normal usage, like food, wine, coffee.
For smaller cloths, if the stain doesn’t come out with the above approach, try boiling the cloth in a large pot on the stove for 20 minutes. You’d be surprised how much residue boiling water will remove from linen! You can also add a couple teaspoons of cream of tartar to the boiling water, to help remove the stain. This works especially well with red wine stains.
Last-Ditch Efforts for Stain Removal
Finally, a couple approaches for tough spot stains when you’re desperate:
1. Lemon juice & salt: Squeeze fresh lemon juice all over the stain to soak it. Then sprinkle it liberally with salt, and rub it in gently. Let it sit a while (20 or 30 minutes) and then rinse the area with vinegar, followed by warm water. Make sure you rinse really thoroughly.
2. Diluted bleach solution: dilute a tablespoon or so of bleach in a cup of water, soak the stain in it, and if you need to, scrub it with baking soda. It’s not the best solution in the world – it can really take a toll on the fabric fibers – but if there’s nothing else you can possibly do to get the stain out, use it as a last resort.
3. Rust Stains: For rust stains, there’s a product called Whink that works on whites and colorfast fabrics. It’s a pretty heavy-duty cleaner, but in cases where your linens are rust stained for some reason, and you don’t have any other option, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and try it.
For discoloration from age or storage, I like a product called Restoration, by Engleside Products.
I’ve used this to remove yellow age discoloration, stained folding marks, and the like, with very good results. You can follow the manufacturers directions for using the product, but essentially, you fill a bucket or tub with water and about 3 scoops of Restoration per gallon, and soak for several hours (even overnight). Check it after five or so hours and repeat with fresh solution if necessary.
Drying Vintage Linens
You can dry your linens different ways. For small pieces, you can lay them flat on a clean towel and let them air dry.
For larger pieces, you can put them in the dryer on a gentle cycle and dry them until mostly dry.
You can also hang them on a line outside and let them dry outside in the breeze. I like doing this with pillow cases and sheets.
If you’re going to iron, don’t let them dry completely.
Preparing Vintage Linens for Storage
Before long term storage, I like to iron my linens first, while they are still somewhat damp. If I’m going to iron before storing, I don’t let them dry all the way.
I iron them until the wrinkles are out and they are dry. I like to leave them out on a bed, sofa, or table overnight before folding or rolling them for storing. That way, I’m sure they’re completely dry. I never use spray starch on linens that will be stored for a long time.
For linens that are stored short term (I plan to use them at some point in the next year), I don’t mind folding them. For linens that might be stored a year or longer, though, I like to roll them around a sturdy left-over gift paper tube or mailing tube that’s been covered with white acid-free tissue.
What About You?
Do you have any tips to share about using and caring for vintage embroidered linens? Do you have any vintage linens yourself? Do you use them, or keep them safely stored? If you use them, how do you use them? Any encouraging words to help others take their treasures out and enjoy them?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, tips, and so forth! Feel free to join in the conversation below!
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