The following is a practical guide to cleaning and caring for the vintage cotton linens that you buy and use frequently. These are not the processes used to preserve museum quality pieces, nor will they insure that you will be able to pass on a piece of exquisite hand-embroidery to your great-grandaughter's niece's son's second wife. While these are honorable pursuits, taking the steps necessary to so carefully preserve vintage textiles are not always practical for the pillowcase your daughter likes to snuggle when she's not feeling well or the tablecloth you like to use every Sunday because you think it matches your pot roast. Instead, these steps will help you take reasonable care of the items you use the most so that they might at least look bright and beautiful for the rest of YOUR life . . . well, provided you don't live past, say, 108!
If you have recently purchased a piece and have not washed it before, the following step can be invaluable. Take a clean white cotton rag, for example an old washcloth or a piece of one of your husbands old white t-shirts, and dampen it with warm water. Gently rub the different dye colors to check for colorfastness. If any color comes off on the rag, stop cleaning! I have had some success soaking items that are not colorfast in a solution of cold water saturated with salt, but this doesn't always work and some items may run too quickly to prevent damage before the salt solution can work.
Assuming the piece is colorfast cotton (silks or lace pieces should be handled much more carefully!), proceed with the following:
- Pre-treat stains using Dawn dishwashing detergent (original formula) to remove oil or grease stains, Whink rust remover to remove rust stains (Whink makes one product for colors and one for whites so make sure you are using the appropriate formula) or Zout stain remover to remove other general stains or stains of unknown origin--in all cases, just follow the package directions.
- Next, fill a tub with enough warm water to cover the items. Dissolve two scoops of Oxiclean and a capful of Tide in 2 cups of hot water and add this mixture to the tub. Add your items to the tub and gently agitate by hand to make sure they are thoroughly submerged.
- Allow the items to soak in this mixture for up to three days, but check them 2-3 times daily to see their progress and to make sure there is no fading. Remove the items as soon as they are free of stains and yellowing.
- Finally, gently wash the items by hand or on the gentle cycle in your washing machine using Tide detergent and cold water.
After their initial cleaning, subsequent cleanings are much easier. Just pretreat the item as necessary and wash by hand or machine in cold water using the Tide.
- Finally, you may tumble dry the items in your dryer on the low heat setting until they are almost dry.
- Iron them while still slightly damp and you won't need to use starch, but if you wait too long, a little spray starch will work well as long as the items won't be stored for an extended period of time.
- I've had good luck hanging items in a closet when they are not in use--it seems like the folded ones in the linen closet always get messed up when someone is looking for a towel!
- If you plan to store an item for an extended period of time, try rolling it instead of folding it as the fold lines stress the fabric over time.
- Use a soft toothbrush to work stain removers into stains--you'll be surprised how much easier it is to remove stains using a brush!
- It's fine to use starch (or in my case, the much more convenient spray starch) to give a vintage textile extra body--just make sure you leave it out when storing the item for a long time as the starch can weaken fibers and attract bugs!
- Milk (yes, I said milk!) can be used to remove small ink marks from most natural fabrics--just work the milk into the stain, adding more as needed, until the ink disappears and then launder as usual.
- If nothing else works, a weak solution of clorox bleach mixed with baking soda, can sometimes be used to remove stains. The baking soda neutralizes some of the damage that the bleach might cause, but this is still a dangerous proposition--use it only as a last ditch effort to save a piece that you might otherwise be forced to throw out!
- When ironing a vintage piece, keep a small spray bottle of water nearby--use it to dampen places that don't iron well and you can even add a couple of drops of fabric softener to the bottle to lightly scent the fabric.
As I have said so many times before, collecting vintage linens should make you happy. Use them! Over time, they will get stains and small holes--use them anyway! Chances are your great-grandaughter's niece's son's second wife won't like them anyway, but you love them now, so use them!