So many of us have inherited cedar chests full of vintage linens our grandmothers embroidered or grabbed a not-quite-clean but still fabulous tablecloth at a garage sale for a quarter. Often, those treasures wind up laying in the garage or basement or piled in an unused corner, because we aren’t quite sure where to start to clean them, and are afraid to ruin them in the attempt. But follow these tips, and you will soon have all of your pretty linens out on display where they belong!
One caveat – if an item has a lot of historical, financial, or sentimental value, please consider consulting a professional conservator. No matter how well-intentioned and well-read you are, it is possible to ruin a piece in the cleaning process. If you can’t bear that thought, that is not a project for you to start out with!
It is not a good idea to pile the whole mess into the back of your van and dump it at the nearest dry cleaner. Dry cleaning isn’t really dry, harsh chemicals are used. Dry cleaning is not effective on odors, and if a stain doesn’t come out completely (as is often the case), the rest of the process will set the stain and make it even harder to get out later. Some textiles, like drapes, rayon or silk bedspreads, or other bulky or lined pieces have to go to the dry cleaner, wet cleaning would ruin them. But for cotton and linen items such as christening gowns, pillowcases, and tablecloths, you will be much better off carefully cleaning them yourself.
The first thing to do is to make an assessment of the piece you want to work on. The quickest way to do that is to hold the item up to a strong light source, and look through it instead of at it. Any holes, stains, or other damage will stand right out, and you will know what you have to work on. If there are any holes or hems that need to be mended, do the sewing before you do the cleaning. If you wash an item with a small hole, you are liable to wind up with an item with a big hole, mending first makes the item more stable, and therefore less likely to be damaged in the wash.
Next, choose the container you want to wash in. A washing machine makes perfect sense for a sturdy piece, like a tablecloth from the 1950s, or a set of well-preserved sheets. But smaller, older, or more fragile items should be washed by hand. Choose a plastic container rather than a metal one, some soaps react with metal and can leave rust spots behind.
Use the mildest soap that will get the job done. For an item that just needs to be freshened up, use Orvus. Marketed in some stores as a quilt soap, and in veterinary supply stores as horse shampoo, this is an extremely mild solution. Low sudsing, biodegradable, and phosphate-free, it is good for your textiles, and the environment. For items that have some more serious staining or yellowing, try sodium perborate. This is the cleaning product that most museums and professional conservators used. Available at some pharmacies, and most archival supply stores, SP is a white powder that is essentially a very slow-acting bleach. No suds, no scents.
Dissolve a few ounces of the powder by mixing it up with hot water, then add it to your dishpan full of lukewarm water, stir it up, and add your piece. Items can be safely soaked in SP for several days â€“ but keep checking on their progress. Remember, your goal is to do as little as possible to make the items usable, it doesn’t necessarily have to look brand new when you are finished.
A few faint marks just add character! For very sturdy fabrics with serious staining, you can try one of the many oxygen cleaners on the market. Test the item for colorfastness before you start, and if the stain is confined to one area, spot clean the stain with the strong cleaner, then wash the whole thing in something milder. Chlorine bleach is never recommended, you may get the spot out, but you will be shortening the life span of your piece over the long term.
No matter what kind of cleaner you use, make sure you rinse your item thoroughly. Soap residue can cause long term yellowing. When you are taking your vintage textile out of the final rinse, be careful not to wring it, wringing weakens fibers. A great way to get excess water out of a wet textile is to lay it flat in a white terry cloth towel. Roll up the towel with the linen inside like a jelly roll, then press hard on the roll with your hands.
The water will transfer from the linen to the towel, when you unroll it you can throw your towel in the dryer, and hang the textile to dry without worrying that the weight of the water will pull it out of shape. Try to avoid using a dryer, but if you must (sheets, etc) use the lowest possible setting, and remove the item while it is still slightly damp. Otherwise, lay your damp piece flat to dry if it is small enough, on a fresh towel or a sweater dryer, Larger pieces can be hung over a shower rod, or even on a line outside.
If you do choose to dry things on the line, make sure they are not out there too long on a very sunny day the sun will fade a colored piece and have a too-drying effect on anything else. Fibers need moisture to stay supple, too little moisture can lead to an irreversible condition called dry rot. A dry rotted textile has fibers that will shatter and crumble into dust. Antique silk, especially the dark colors, is very prone to dry rot. NEVER try to wet clean a dry-rotted textile, you will wind up with soggy lint!
While all of this seems like a lot of work, it really isn’t once you get the hang of things. Try out your new technique on a flea market find, and you will discover the thrill when your twenty five cent find winds up looking like a million bucks!