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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Vintage Stamped Linen Tablecloth: The Quandary of Salvaging



A couple months back, I received one of those surprise packages that are fun to go through but often put me in a quandary!

It was a collection of linens and other fabrics from a reader who was de-stashing and who wanted the goods to go to a good home. (Thanks, Laura!) In the box were nice scraps of linen and silk, good for experimenting on and for using for demonstrations and tutorials.

Due to the whole Christmas hubbub and general life happenings lately, I didn’t have an opportunity to go through and sort the package until just recently. One of the items in it was an older linen table cloth – huge in size – pre-stamped for embroidery. It presents a bit of a quandary.

I’m going to tell you a little bit about the tablecloth, explain the quandary, and tell you my plans. And then, of course, I’d love your input, too! Especially if you’ve had similar experiences (and I know many of you have, because you’ve written to me and asked what to do…), but even if not and you just have some ideas, I’d love to hear from you!

Pre-Stamped Linen Tablecloth for Embroidery

The tablecloth, as I said, is large. It’s linen, and rather weighty, made of a medium to heavy weight linen.

The design is essentially two rectangles, one inside the other, of scallops crossed over with single daisies, as shown above.

On first impression, under regular room lighting, the linen came across as off-white or even ecru, and from afar, it looked “ok,” though perhaps a little dingy.

Pre-Stamped Linen Tablecloth for Embroidery

Some of the motifs have been embroidered, or partially embroidered. The embroidery skill varies between the motifs, so I’m guessing they were done by different people.

I don’t know the history of the whole piece, but I would guess that it was either handed down or found through a second-hand shop and purchased with high hopes of salvaging, or some similar scenario.

Pre-Stamped Linen Tablecloth for Embroidery

The thread isn’t in bad shape, and it doesn’t look too old. It’s stranded cotton.

There is some evidence that there was embroidery on some of the daisies, and the embroidery has been picked out.

Pre-Stamped Linen Tablecloth for Embroidery

On the back, you can clearly see the structure of the stranded cotton. It looks like three strands were used for most of the stitching.

Pre-Stamped Linen Tablecloth for Embroidery

If I were to salvage this piece, I already know that I would pick the embroidery out. There’s not a lot of stitching on it – maybe five or six motifs have the stems and leaves stitched, but that’s it.

There are several reasons I’d pick the embroidery out:

1. I would want to start over with plenty of fresh thread, in a color scheme I prefer. To spend time stitching a project like this, you really want to love the thread and colors you’re working with!

2. Starting over would give me the opportunity to make the embroidery consistent across the whole piece. Again, when you’re putting in time on a project this large, you want the outcome to be as consistent as possible.

3. Mentally, I’d have a different outlook on the piece in general, if I’m starting fresh. To me, there’s something a bit more stimulating about starting completely fresh on a big project, as opposed to picking up where someone else left off. And to approach a project this size, I’d have to have that stimulation!

Pre-Stamped Linen Tablecloth for Embroidery

But, you see, the linen ground is not really in the best shape. It is stained from storage and time – yellowed inconsistently among the folds of the fabric and spotted here and there with what looks like rust stains.

And this presents a problem, especially when dealing with pre-stamped linens.

I don’t think this piece is exceptionally old. But I don’t really know how permanent the design impression is. On most used, pre-stamped goods that I’ve had experience with, the stamping is permanent. I have come across some, though, with stamping that washes out. The latter seem to be older linens. Like I said, I don’t think this piece is too old. I’m guessing it was probably made in the last 20 or so years.

I do know that I don’t want to put any time in on the piece, if there’s any chance that I can’t restore the linen to an acceptable level of beauty. If the ground fabric is permanently stained from the outset, stitching the whole tablecloth would be futile.

So….what to do?

Pre-Stamped Linen Tablecloth for Embroidery

There are two choices, really: 1. Stitch it and hope that the stains in the linen will wash out; or 2. wash it, and hope that the stamped design does not wash out.

The least risky, time wise and expense wise, is the latter: wash it first and see if the linen can be restored. If the stamp washes out, so be it. (I don’t think it will.)

So, to wash this piece, it’s going straight into the washer. No hand-washing here! This needs a heavy duty washing, with a good period of soaking before hand. I’m not going all delicate on detergent choices, either. I’ll use anything it takes, save bleach, to restore the fabric. I’ll start with regular detergents – including a good soaking with Biz – and move on to something like OxiClean if they don’t do the trick.

As far as my time goes, I’m ok with spending some time and effort to clean the piece. But I would never put time into stitching it, if the linen ground can’t be restored.

What it boils down to is this: the most valuable aspect of your embroidery is – and always will be – the time you put into it. It’s the one commodity that we only have so much of, and that we are incapable of creating more of. While I hate the idea of wasting the piece of linen, I am more jealous of the notion of wasting my time.

The linen, if it can’t be stitched, can be salvaged for other things. The areas that clean up ok, for example, can be salvaged into decent toweling for kitchen use, for example.

Your Thoughts?

How would you approach a thing like this? Would you try salvaging it? Would you consider stitching it, before washing it? What would you do with the linen, if the piece can’t be salvaged for stitching? I’d love to hear your take! Feel free to join in the conversation below!

Thanks to all who have inquired about my mom, and for all your prayers, good wishes, and encouragement. She is home and doing much better. The recovery process will take a while, but things are going well so far. Thank you!


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(351) Comments

  1. Mary, I would be tempted to give up! The piece would have to speak to me powerfully before I put time into it. I inherited a small, appliqued quilt top with some of the applique in a strong scarlet color. I was sure it would run in the wash but the white pieces were stained and that had to be tackled. After a couple of years thinking about it, I washed it. The scarlet did not run! Apparently my grandmother had pre-washed it or bought colorfast material. Bless her, she did not leave any notes. One very small rust stain is left but I will embroider a butterfly or applique one over the flower as it is luckily in the right place. I feel very fortunate to have the piece and it’s so worth working on. Good luck! Best, Charlotte

    1. Hi Charlotte!
      Don’t you know how to prevent colour from running and spoiling the item or other items in the wash? Toss a handful of salt in with the wash. It works every time!

  2. Hi Mary,

    It’s a no brainer for me: Wash it first.
    I wouldn’t waste a minute doing anything with it before it’s clean. Just the thought of having to work with dirty fabric is depressing.
    It’s not a piece of sentimental value or historic significance and you plan to take the stitching out anyway.
    I’d wash it even if I didn’t care for the border and just wanted the rest of the fabric for something else.


  3. If it were mine, I would try cleaning it first using a natural approach meaning vinegar soak and wash followed by sunshine if possible. Winter is very uncooperative with the last part of the plan at the moment. If that doesn’t work, synthetic cleaners might work. My one “go to” is the cleaner “Awesome”, which works beautifully and may help here. If all else fails cut and salvage what you can or try to cover up the bad areas by extending the embroidery design. The latter may or may not be possible.

    1. Eve, never heard of the cleaner you mention “Awesome”. Where do you buy it? Who makes it? I’d like to try too as I also some some antique linens – some inherited worth saving, others not. Thx!

    2. Hi Lynne,
      You will not believe this but at a Family Dollar store. It’s inexpensive and yet it really works! Had a friend recommend it for grease removal and I honestly didn’t believe it would work due to the price point but…..works like a champ! I use it all around the house, especially in the kitchen and for stain removal on clothes. Love the stuff!

  4. Good morning Mary (and all other needle enthusiasts)
    I read with pleasure this morning’s post and you asked for our input. Like you, I would remove all the current stitching but then I’d replace it with white work before trying to clean the linen. I love the look of white-work. I’d hate to lose the design to pre-washing although I suppose I could make a copy of it first as it seems to be a simple one.
    And now for more information than you ever thought you’d need about minerals in your water, including that beast, IRON! I live in an area that has a high level of iron and manganese in the water (Pacific Northwest of USA for those who are interested) . The water is treated to keep these elements in suspension however the treatment loses it’s effectiveness over a period of time. The iron will oxidize and ‘fall out’ becoming sediment in your water heater which is really where the iron stains originate. (Knowledge gained from working for the local water district for a number of years.) We recommended to our customers that they drain and flush their hot water tanks on an annual basis and also use a non-perborated instead of chlorine bleach. Chlorine exacerbates the problem even though it makes for an easy disinfectant in a water system. Our water mains were also flushed annually and ‘scrubbed’ by forcing foam cubes through the line with water from a nearby hydrant and called for some reason ‘pigging the line’.
    I’ve stored for future reference your related article of 10/24/2014, it will be very useful should I have to deal with stains. My personal preference would be to store the linens w/o starched and w/o ironing, and has anyone ever thought of using pool noodles to wrap their items on, they can be cut to length or they can be duct taped end to end. Wrap the noodles with muslin or old sheets first of course to make a barrier against off-gassing of any chemicals in the noodles, carpet rolls could also be used the same way if you’ve got a place to put them and have something really large to store.

  5. Agree with your thoughts on time investment. I would also wash the piece, and not particularly gently. My experience with the old stamped linens is that the marks may fade with aggressive washing (more aggressive than I would use on a finished stitched piece), but they never entirely go away.

    If the stamping disappears in a couple of places where you have spot-treated stains, so be it.