Caring For Old Linens: Brightening Instructions & Advice

I have a fondness for old vintage linens and textiles and just can’t help myself when I spot them at garage sales…even those tired old pieces that are yellowed with age. Most will likely need more than a quick spot cleaning so I’ve compiled some great recipes that are suitable for soaking the entire piece.


  • Check a spot first to make sure the recipe won’t damage the fabric or affect colors before soaking the entire item.
  • When drying linens in the sun, lay them directly on the grass instead of hanging them–the weight of hanging wet items can warp or damage the fibers.

Recipe #1

1/4 cup Kosher or Sea salt
Gallon hot water

  • Cover piece entirely and soak for at least 48 hours. Rinse well and lay out in the sun to dry. See notes below for rinse method.


  • In a large roaster or pot, fill with hot water and several slices of lemon. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat and add your linens. Use a wooden spoon to push them down until they become completely submerged and saturated with the water. Cover the pot and leave overnight.
  • Rinse well, wash with mild detergent and water as usual and then lay the items out in the sun to dry.

Buttermilk Recipe – #3

1 Quart Buttermilk
1 Gallon Water
1 TBS Fresh Lemon Juice

  • Soak items in the mixture for up to 24 hours, rinse twice, then launder as usual.

Biz & Oxyclean – #4

1 Scoop* Biz
1 Scoop* Oxyclean
1 Gallon Hot Water

  • Soak in the hot water for up to 48 hours, then rinse and launder as usual.
  • *Use the oxyclean scoop

Rinse Method:

  • After washing linens, give them a good vinegar rinse to remove as much of the soap as possible. Use one cup of white vinegar per gallon of water. After the vinegar rinse, rinse again with plain water a time or two.

And here’s another spot treater:

3/4 cup rubbing alcohol
1/4 cup water
10 drops mild dish detergent

How Long To Let Pieces Soak?

A few days if they are heavily yellowed and the cleaning solutions aren’t giving you the results you want. Just replace with fresh hot water + recipe every day or two.

Bleaching Stains:

Here’s a cleaning solution for removing stains out of old linens, spot test first before using:

2 quarts distilled water
1/4 cup bleach
1/4 cup shaved Ivory Soap bar

  • Mix ingredients and soak item for approximately one hour.
  • Dry in sun.
  • Repeat again if necessary (you can still use the original bleach mixture you used the first time–just store til needed).

Old vintage textiles are lovely, but they can yellow in spots as well as hold stains. Here’s a recipe to help brighten things up:

1 Gallon warm water
2 TBS Ivory Soap (grated)
1 TBS Bleach

  • Mix and let sit to cool until liquid has gelled a bit. Apply to stain.
  • You can soak linens in this solution for several days (even colored embroidered pieces).
  • As with all old pieces, rinse very well, over and over, to remove every trace of soap.

*Important: Make sure to test a small area first before using

Caring For Old Quilts

Here’s an article I found in a very old household notebook that I was lucky enough to come in possession of, it gives helpful information for cleaning and caring for old quilts.

Note: Don’t dry clean a cotton quilt since the weight of the fluid may place more stress than water on old fabric.

  • Washing in mild soap and warm water will brighten the colors, or you might use dishwashing (not dishwasher) detergent. Most quilts can take a short, gentle washer agitation. Rinse thoroughly.
  • If the item is age-marked, soak in a solution of one quart buttermilk and one tablespoon white vinegar to each gallon of water before washing. This shouldn’t damage a cotton quilt.
  • Hang a wet quilt over two lines to distribute weight while drying. You can finish drying by a short fluffing on warm temperature in the dryer.
  • If fortunate enough to have an all-white quilt, try sunbleaching. Our grandmothers placed white garments on clean grass and the sun–not the bleach bottle–did the job.
  • Don’t store quilts in plastic; it may cause yellowing. Instead, wrap in clean paper and then wrap with several sheets of newspaper to prevent mildew.
  • Store singly in boxes as stacking quilts will weaken the fabric at the folds.

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What Readers Are Saying: 14 Comments
  1. B Grimes says:

    Thank you, thank you!! I received a PILE of old linens when my parents moved to a retirement center this year – a combination of my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and my great-grandmother’s. Most had not been touched in years and were yellowed with age. I found your site and used recipe #4. It’s amazing!! Every single item cleaned beautifully. I’m using 20 of the luncheon napkins tomorrow for a bridal shower – probably the first time some of them have been used in 80 years. After the shower, I’ll soak them again. We use heavy white cotten napkins regularly rather than paper, and this recipe has kept them pristine for company use also. Many thanks!

  2. John says:

    I tried #4 as well with astounding results. I had found an old cloth in a rag bag and realized it was linen. A friend said it had been an altar cloth and since it had no holes I decided to try to clean it up using the recipe I found your site. The cloth looked like it had been used to mop floors, it looked so bad, but I thought at least some of it might be salvaged. After a 36 hour soak I was amazed to see a cloth that looked like a new piece of fabric emerge. Thank you so much!

  3. Long Time Archival Linen Collector. says:

    I am a studied archival linen purchaser/collector and do not recommend any hydrogen peroxide or related peroxide products, bleach, or any man-made definably chemical-based formulations to wash or treat linen and/or relatedly fine cottons.

    Use of these products creates irreprable hardship on the fibers and you will notice shortly thereafter that the texture of the article(s) will have changed (first detected to the touch, or ‘feel’ as it is deemed) then over time the fabric in question will begin to break and separate in the form of small holes, frayed/worn edges which often appear at the edge-seams or openings of your fabrics, garments or bedding material.

    Vinegar, blueing liquid, buttermilk, lemon juice, salt soaks and mild ph detergent soaks (no extreme hot water temperatures must ever be employed) is best recommended. Wash fabrics on the gentle cycle of your washing machine using only a ph balanced soap like “Zero” or equivalent ph balanced soap.

    Sun bleaching and/or hang drying is always best for for archival fabrics, including natural linen or cotton. Caution: Never use Sun Bleaching if the fabric has been dyed–vegetable dyes will readily fade with sun exposure. Often
    antiquated quilts have depreciated in value considerably for oversights such as sun exposured and related sun bleaching.

    Best regards.

    • Sara Edward says:


      What would you recommend to whiten an aged white silk wedding saree and the wedding lace. It is in very good condition except that it is aged and has a yellow colour.



    • Newbie says:

      Dear Long Time Archival Linen Collector,
      Thank you for your thoughtful information. In my online research I have not found many explanations as to the “whys” of safe treatments or not safe treatments. I do appreciate your explanations. One explanation seemed to be missing; is blueing liquid a man made formulation? If so, why is it safe?
      Also, I have not been able to find “Zero” at any retailers. Could you, please, suggest other ph balanced soaps?

  4. Allene says:

    I had made a cross-stitch pillow for my Mom of MI when she moved to Florida.
    Florida rots fabric as well as yellows items. This pillow was the color of
    dirty water. I used #4 and WOW I wish I had a before photo. I put a new back
    on which I also soaked as it was yellowed. White as snow!! I have been going
    thru linens of Mom and my Grandmother to clean them up. This receipe is
    the BEST!! I can’t tell you how much it means to be able to do something that works, use it or pass it on to other family members for them to enjoy. Thank you so much!!

  5. betty says:

    I used the oxiclean_Biz method on my granddaughters used cloths and it worked really well. The colors Blue and red did run but washed out easily. This method is great. Also used on old spotted birth announcements. Worded great!

  6. Lori says:

    I really never comment on things that I try but I have to say that recipe 4 works great. Soaked several old dresser scarves for about 4 hours and stains were gone. AWESOME find!!!

  7. Sherri says:

    I used the buttermilk recipe on an old crocheted bed spread, but instead of purchasing the buttermilk, I used 1% milk and squeezed real lemons in the mix. I had to use 10 gallons of water and mixed accordingly with squeezed lemons (one bag) and 1% milk (5 quarts). I let the crocheted bed spread sit in the bathtub for 48 hours. I then did a vinegar rinse and used hand wash on the wash machine with Woolite. This was all cold water. I let it dry on three clothes lines outside in the sun. I was very impressed with how the yellowing came out. It was not exactly white, but very close to the pillow that matched it.

  8. Jeanie Driver says:

    Hello. I have a large antique embroidered tablecloth (96″ x 64″). It was handmade in Asia in 1935. I had it professionally cleaned and now the embroidery has shrunk and the cloth doesn’t lay flat. Is there anything I can to to make it smooth again? It is so puckered that is it unable to be used. Thank you for any help you can give me.
    Regards, Jeanie Driver

  9. Bonnie Ecker says:

    Not only do I have the yellowing of vintage fabrics from the late 1880’s to about 1930’s, but these fabrics have been stored in wooden trucks in the attic. Most have brownish stains in the folds (likely from the wood trunk sides), and darker stains on the fabric (maybe food from not being cleaned well initially? I don’t know). They were SO dusty and musty that you didn’t dare handle without gloves and a facemask. I did 8 loads in the dryer on air fluff, each with a sheet of fabric softener, to get rid of the dust and lessen the musty smell. This worked very well. Each dryer load produced so must dust/lint that it rolled off the filter screen, then I banged the screen outside to get rid of the remaining traces of dust. My question is, how do I get rid of the brownish stains? I tried bleach every-so-lightly with a Q-tip; that didn’t work. I sprayed Resolve/Spray-n-Wash on them and washed with cold, and tried warm, water. No luck. Other then trying the local Leather-to-Lace Dry Cleaners, is there hope for being able to reuse these linens and cottons without the stains?

  10. Lynn Miller says:

    I have the same problem as Bonnie. With yellowing and stains I hesitate to do much before I get some more information. How about our archival collector? Some help please! Thanks much

  11. Anne dols says:

    I have brown spots on my antique linens, not all over yellowing. How do I get out the brown spots. Help

  12. Linda Horton says:

    My mother in law left a drawer full of stamped (blue) embroidery pieces that were never embroidered. Is there a method of cleaning all the brown stains, that will not also take out the stamped pattern?

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