Care of Old Linens and Other Textiles

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Treat old and precious items with care.
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Treat old and precious items with care.

Customers sometimes ask me about caring for their old linens. The truth is that linens and cottons are very forgiving, although it goes without saying that the more old and precious an item, the more carefully you should handle it, especially if it has embroidery and/or cutwork.

Dirt is the enemy of old linen and cotton, but so is extreme heat, so forget about the boil wash! 

However, if you have inherited a lovely antique white linen damask tablecloth from your grandmother, want to use it for a special occasion, and then discover that it has been stored away with thirty year old tea stains and other suspicious marks, don't despair. You can usually remove them or at least get them to fade.  I wash almost everything I sell on eBay before I list it, and I have very few disasters. 

First though, check the fabric of the whole cloth. If it is very thin, you will have to handle it carefully and gently at all times. As soon as it is wet, it will become more vulnerable to tears and there is a lot of weight in an old damask which can put additional strain on your cloth.

You need to invest in a modern, gentle stain remover. I use Vanish for the linens I sell on eBay, although there are plenty of others on the market. I use a good scoop of powdered stain remover well dissolved in a large white plastic bucket of lukewarm water and  I soak the cloth overnight. Then, drain off the water and gently squeeze out the excess liquid.  If the stains are still prominent, you can try spraying some stain removing gel directly onto the marks and leaving it for a few minutes before proceeding with the wash. 

You should wash your cloth preferably with a 'non bio' detergent,a little more stain remover and some fabric conditioner in a cool and quite gentle machine wash. You can spin these old tablecloths but it's worth repeating that when old linen is wet it should be handled with care at all times. Small tears can become big rips if you're not careful.  So once again, a gentle spin, and gentle handling is the key. 

Carefully remove it from the machine and - enlisting some help because of the size and weight of it  - straighten it out, smoothing the fibres as much as you can. 

If I possibly can, I like to dry my old tablecloths outside. I'm lucky enough to have a garden and an old fashioned clothes line and I know this isn't always possible. Sunshine and - surprisingly - frost will have the effect of bleaching old linen and a mark that looks prominent when the cloth is wet will tend to fade away as it dries. Marks will also fade over time and successive launderings. The only marks that are almost impossible to shift are those small brown 'rust' marks you sometimes get on old cloths and even they will fade a bit.

Once the cloth is almost dry, press it with a steam iron. If you let it get too dry, it will become almost impossible to iron. At the Scottish Home we use a fairly hefty iron with a water reservoir and a steam cable, rather than an ordinary domestic iron. But whatever you use, make sure the iron plate is clean. If you have a lot of old white and ecru linens, it might be a good idea to reserve one iron wholly for using on your linens, as we do.  It can be very annoying to be ironing away merrily and find that you have ironed a swathe of new marks into your cloth! Interestingly, if you are not quite sure whether something is made of linen or cotton, washing it can be one way of deciding. Once linen is dry it becomes much more crinkly to touch than cotton. 

If you have dried your old linens in a dryer - avoiding the highest temperature - they may become flabby rather than crisp. In this case, a little spray starch, available from any supermarket, as you iron will work wonders and make them smell sweet as well. 

As a rule, the older and more delicate an item, the more carefully you must handle it. But most domestic cotton and linen items can be washed. A textile historian came to photograph my little collection of Ayrshire whitework - essentially embroidered fine cotton - last year and marvelled at how white and clean the baby gowns and bonnets all looked. She asked me how I did it - and I told her that I just washed it all - very carefully. I suppose since it belongs to me, I can risk it - and if you have old and very precious embroidered cotton, muslin or linen in your possession, only you can decide whether you want to risk washing it or not.

I once heard the late Agnes Bryson, the Scottish expert on whitework of all kinds, lecturing some years ago, and she too recommended washing these pieces very carefully in the mildest of soap solutions and rinsing them gently but thoroughly. If you think about it, these pieces were made in or outside rural Scottish cottages in the mid nineteenth century, and must have been very dirty by the time they were completed - so washing was an essential part of the process.

One good tip: if you are hand washing something delicate, never wring or squeeze too roughly. I use a shower head and lukewarm water to rinse, without stretching the fibres too much. If a piece is very discoloured, it can be a good idea to soak, rinse, soak again, slowly floating the dust and dirt from the fibres, but handling very  gently in between times. Then you should carefully squeeze out the excess moisture, shape on a big white towel and dry flat, well away from direct heat or bright sunlight. You can iron whitework, but again very gently and carefully. 

These are, of course, tips for washing every day linens and cottons: tablecloths, napkins, bed linens, etc, things that were meant to be washed. But if you have items in silk, old and delicate lace, other very precious pieces of antique clothing or embroideries that are not colour fast, then please don't wash them at all.

You can't imagine how often I've been sorting through a box of old textiles bought at auction, and have been distraught to find that somebody in the past has tried to wash a lovely old embroidered silk shawl or something similar, only to have all the colours run and effectively ruin it.

If in doubt, you should always consult a textile conservator for advice. 

Finally, try to keep the moths away from your linens and lace. Lavender is useful and a much nicer option than camphor. You can buy dried English lavender by the kilo here on eBay and make your own lavender bags as I do. I also grow my own whenever I can. I store my linens in a dedicated cupboard, with lots of lavender. And if you have delicates such as whitework baby gowns, silk shawls and the like, you should invest in some acid free tissue paper, and store them well away from direct light until you want to use them.  Don't forget that a professional framer will be able to frame up an old embroidery for you. Embroideries should never be glued to a backing- they should be stretched and sometimes stitched in place and then framed using the kind of glass that will stop direct sunlight from damaging your lovely old textile - but still giving you the pleasure of admiring it every day. 


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