I have antique linen napkins and place mats that are a natural linen color. They were stained many years ago. I would like to clean them and am concerned about damaging them. Any suggestions?
By FMJ from Takoma Park, MD
Soak them in cool water with enough water softener (White King is one brand) to make the water feel slick. Usually a tablespoon in a 5 gallon bucket works. Swirl the water until the water softener dissolves. It dissolves faster in hot water, but if you use hot water, let it cool down completely. Hot water alone can fix some stains. Just drop the items in, and make sure they go under the surface of the water. Do not agitate them. Some articles take just a few minutes, others may take an hour or overnight. I have got 95% of the stains out of vintage fabric with this simple method.
It's also great for fragile fabric. Do NOT use it on wool or fur, it will take the natural oils out of them and ruin them. Also, do not use it on leather for the same reason. When you remove the articles, either dip them and gently plunge them in a bucket of clear water, or simply run cool clear water through them. Squeeze them gently and check for stains. If they're clean, air tumble them in the drier, then dry them on heat for a short time. If they are still stained after rinsing, and it looks like nothing's come out at all, rub them a little between your hands, very gently but enough to scrub the item. If there's still no change, try using Woolite or hand wash only clothes washing soap, always being gentle with the item. Once it's set, it's tough to get out, but hopefully this will work.
With linens that are ecru/off-white, you may lose that color if you decide the only way to get the stains out is to bleach it. That can be hard on linen.
Lots of professionals use Orvus. It's a non soap that does wonders for dedicates. Google measurements. Has saved several treasured articles for me.
I buy and sell vintage linens. The best way to remove even 70+ year old stains is to use Biz powder. This is an enzyme cleaner that removes the coffee, gravy, etc, stains and does not damage the linen.
Trick is to soak overnight or longer, Biz will not hurt the linen. Fill a bucket with hot water, put in a generous scoop of Biz, and if very dirty and stained, add a scoop of Tide with bleach alternative. Let is soak as long as it takes, a day, a week if necessary.
If water looks tea colored, it is working, pour off water and add more hot water. If you do this a few times, add more Biz/Tide. Keep soaking until stains come out. If it is warm outside, put the bucket out in the sun. That helps the enzymes to work.
When the linens look clean, rinse rinse rinse to remove all the dirt and soap out. Then dry in the sun. Put outdoors on a sunny day, even in winter, and if brightly colored (like a printed tablecloth) just make sure to put it good side down. Don't leave out forever, just enough to dry them. I put on a garden bench or a folding chair.
I got these instructions from two collectors who own vintage linen stores and they work beautifully. Vintage linens can take a lot, but never rub, scrub, and never put in the dryer. Don't bother with spray on cleaners, chemicals etc. Enzyme cleaners work the best.
If there is a particularly tuff stain and the linen is white, you can soak spot in lemon juice, and put into the sun. The old fashioned way is to lay it on the grass to make the lemon work better. When stain lightens, wash, and dry again outside.
Old fashioned way is also to boil the dirty linens just like they did in the old days. I never have to, Biz cleans them sparkling again.
PS never use bleach, it ruins the fabric and the linens will split into nothing. Eats away at them. Never put bleach anywhere near your vintage linens.
These enzyme cleaners are the best thing ever. They beat even the spray ons for recent stains. Trick is the long soak.
See my other posts. Soak in Biz, hot water until the stain lifts, rinse well and dry in the sun.
If the stain is particularily smelly and odd (sort of smells like old gravy), it may be sick linen that is rotten. Soak it and see if the stain removes. Usually sick linen will just fall apart. I have only run into this stuff once in like 10 years. Think it is when linen is stored in damp basement and it rots.
Never use bleach, never bother with spray on cleaners. Never use your wash machine or dryer either. Soak in bucket, when stain comes out, dry naturally.
Don't iron to a fair-thee-well either. Don't ever iron folds into linen, it cracks the natural fiber and you will get splits in the fabric. Iron flat, then roll or hand in closet on padded hanger.
I like to use Mama's Miracle Linen Soak because it is the only product made especially for antique linens. I have seen so many items that someone tried to bleach but ruined instead! Yes, the stains did come out, but the fabric was damaged, or the embroidery was ruined, or it made a hole.
I dissolve Mama's Miracle in a pot of boiling water but then turn off the heat and soak my items until the stains are gone. There's no way of telling how long it will take, because I never know what the stain is, but most things take a few hours or even up to a full day. It is more than worth taking the time. They come out looking pristine white, with NO stains and NO damage!
Here are questions related to Stains on an Old Linen Napkin.
I have bought a natural colored linen upholstered headboard and it has 3 small dirt spots on it. Is there a way to spot clean the dirt marks? I must return headboard to store by tomorrow if I can't get the dirt out. Dirt probably result of poor covering in moving van. Thanks for your help. Maria C
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I just won some really old, linen napkins in an auction this morning. One of the napkins has some brown staining, probably from being folded and put up for so long. Any ideas how to clean this beautiful fabric?
77's Mom from Ontario