With all the laundry treatments out today, it can sometimes be very confusing how to treat old handkerchiefs. The answer is quite simple, treat them exactly the way our ancestors did. We have become a very disposable society but our ancestors used everything they owned until they were completely worn out so it was important to keep them in the best condition as possible. I learned many valuable tips from my grandmother & great-grandmother which I am happy to share with you.
FIRST: Never, ever run your handkerchiefs through a washing machine. Many years ago, there were no washing machines and all handkerchiefs were laundered by hand. Also (yes, you guessed it), there were no dryers either and everything was hung on the line to dry. The sunshine is the most natural bleach you will ever find and if you leave a hankie on the line for a few days in the sunshine you will be amazed how stains disappear. Using bleach on vintage handkerchiefs breaks down the fabric content.
SECOND: Before laundering any vintage linen or handkerchief which has been stored in drawers, chests, etc., ALWAYS, ALWAYS rinse in cold water. This removes the outer layer of dust and yes, linen bugs. Also, this is quite important because anything which has red dye in it has a tendency to bleed when placed in hot water. Those tiny little pinhole rust spots you see on linens which have been stored are actual linen bug marks. If you try and scrub, you will wear a hole through the fabric.
THIRD: If you find no stains on a vintage handkerchief and just need to freshen it up, I suggest simply handwashing in Arm & Hammer laundry detergent. I prefer this detergent because it is not loaded with chemicals and perfumes which can be detrimental to vintage linens.
FOURTH: Because vintage handkerchiefs were used, often times you will find blood stains, food stains, makeup stains, etc. To remove these stains, put a large pot of boiling water on the stove. Add a cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of cream of tartar and boil the handkerchiefs for about 1/2 hour, remove, rinse in cold water, handwash in laundry detergent and then hang in the sunshine to dry. Most of the stains will disappear. Lipstick stains are almost impossible to remove because of the dye content.
You can also use oxyclean in the same way, one cup of oxyclean and a teaspoon of cream of tartar and boil away. However, I only use this mixture on white or colored linen (not cotton) hankies which have crocheted trim. Old crocheted linens were boiled by our ancestors to get them clean. In fact, if you have an old scathe of crochet yarn around you will see on the instructions that it says "boil to clean." This is how my great-grandmother cleaned her handmade hankies and the beautiful embroidered pillowcases. They always looked nice and bright.
FIFTH: Be very, very careful if you decide to boil a vintage cotton floral handkerchief, particularly if the material is thin and worn. Chances are if you boil it will put holes in the cloth. Again, be very careful of reds. The hotter the water, the more chance they will bleed.
LASTLY: Vintage handkerchiefs are a pleasure to own and should be treated as though you need to keep them for a lifetime. In fact, when ladies left their homes during the covered wagon days, they were unable to take many of their possessions but Mom always gave them one of her special hankies for the travel. Every handkerchief has a piece of history attached to it. You can starch the hankies if you prefer once they have been laundered. I only suggest starching if you are going to use the hankie for a project or frame it. If you intend to blow your nose with the hankie, starching would not be appropriate.