Caring For Old Linens: Brightening Instructions & Advice

I have a fondness for vintage linens and textiles and just can’t help myself when I discover them at garage sales…even those tired fabrics that are yellowed with age or frayed around the edges.

These are lovely when used for their intended purpose but they also make great cutters for assorted crafts (cutting around any permanent marks and tears).

I’ve seen gorgeous handbags made from bedspread chenille, dainty cushions made from doilies, aprons sewn from embroidered tablecloths, kitschy potholders quilted out of tea towels…so many creative ways to repurpose these textiles!

Most will likely need more than a quick spot cleaning to brighten them up and bring them back to life, so I’ve compiled some great recipes that are suitable for treating the entire piece.

Notes:

Check a small section first to make sure the recipe won’t damage the fabric or affect colors before submerging the entire article.

When finishing off in the sun, lay them directly on the grass instead of hanging them–the weight of hanging wet items can warp or weaken the fibers.

Laundering Recipes

After soaking in one of the treatments below, rinse well before regular laundering and drying to remove all traces of solution.

Method:

  • After washing, give them a good vinegar rinse to remove as much of the residue as possible. Ratio is one cup of white vinegar per gallon of water. Then do it again with plain water a time or two.

#1

1/4 cup Kosher or Sea salt
Gallon hot water

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

#2

  • 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. Take a wooden spoon and push them down until they become completely submerged and saturated. Cover the pot and leave overnight.
  • Wash with mild detergent as usual and then lay the items out in the sun.

Buttermilk #3

1 Quart Buttermilk
1 Gallon Water
1 TBS Fresh Lemon Juice

  • Immerse articles in the mixture for up to 24 hours then launder as usual.

Biz & Oxyclean – #4

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

  • Submerse for up to 48 hours, launder as usual.
  • *Use the oxyclean scoop

And here’s another spot treater:

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

How Long To Let Soak?

A few days if they are heavily yellowed and the 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 formula for removing stains out of old linens, spot test first:

2 quarts distilled water
1/4 C. bleach
1/4 C. 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 formula 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 leave 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

Caring For Vintage 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 caring for aged quilts.

Note: Don’t dry clean since the weight of the fluid may place more stress on delicate fabric.

  • Washing in mild soap and warm water will brighten the colors, or you might use dish (not dishwasher) detergent. Most blankets can take a short, gentle machine agitation. Rinse thoroughly.
  • If the item is age-marked, immerse in a solution of one quart buttermilk and one tablespoon white vinegar to each gallon of water before washing. This shouldn’t damage cotton.
  • Hang it wet over two lines to distribute weight while drying. You can finish by a short fluffing on warm temperature in the dryer.
  • If fortunate enough to have an all-white beauty, try sunbleaching. Our grandmothers placed white garments on grass and the sun–not a detergent product–did the job.
  • Don’t store in plastic; it may cause discoloration. 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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Comments

    • B Grimes
    Reply

    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!

    • John
    Reply

    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!

    • Long Time Archival Linen Collector.
    Reply

    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
      Reply

      Hi

      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.

      Thanks

      Sara

      • Newbie
      Reply

      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?

      • Laurie
      Reply

      A thousand thank yous for your expertise and ph experience.
      You are a serious and highly knowledgeable person.
      A very Rare person in this space.
      I love Vintage Victorian embroidery, lace, soutache etc.
      I will use your wisdom from now on to protect and enjoy my goodies.
      Thx for taking the time to share your valuable information.

    • Allene
    Reply

    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!!

    • betty
    Reply

    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!

    • Lori
    Reply

    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!!!

    • Sherri
    Reply

    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.

    • Jeanie Driver
    Reply

    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

    • Bonnie Ecker
    Reply

    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?

      • Janice ter Kuile
      Reply

      Hi Bonnie, I just finished cleaning a dozen napkins which had the same issue you describe. Two days ago I soaked them n the washing machine in hot water setting with Woollite liquid and Nellie’s Laundry Soda. I used 8 scoops of the Soda and agitated enough to get a good bunch of bubbles. I left the linen in the machine for 6 hours. Then ran the rest of the cycle on hand wash and moved the dial to high spin. Yesterday I cut the linen napkins to size, hemmed the cut sides and let them air dry.
      Today, day 3, I still had the brown stains on the folds and the original sizing in them from both Ireland and England. I used “The Laundress” Stain solution straight out of the bottle with a toothbrush and oxyclean powder. I put this combination on all the stains, following the original fold lines. Then I filled my largest pots with water and submerged 6 napkins in each pot and let them boil for about an hour. I have a large kitchen sink and just dumped them in there to rinse. Then I put them all in the washing machine on rinse and high spin. Now they are out laying on the grass in the sun even though it’s 44 degrees. The sun naturally bleaches the remaining yellow out. If the sun sets and they aren’t dry, use an iron without steam to dry them flat. Do not iron creases into your napkins or table cloths!! The linens I am working with are from the 1880’s and were my great great grandmother’s and had the original manufactures size stickers and pattern numbers on them.

    • Lynn Miller
    Reply

    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

    • Anne dols
    Reply

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

    • Linda Horton
    Reply

    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?
    Thanks

    • June Smith
    Reply

    I am going to use your #4 for my white linens. But I have a LOT of beige/pale yellow/ecru/off-white, etc. linens. What will any of your formulas do to these light colors? I have MANY antique linens from several generations that I love and want to use. I want to care for them properly so my granddaughters can inherit them. They really want to! Thanks for your advice.

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