How to Clean Antique Linens and Clothing

Learn when and how to hand-wash antique linens and clothing. With the right care, vintage fabrics retain their beauty and usefulness.


Caring for vintage linens and fabrics can be a delicate task. Linens found at antiques fairs generally are already cleaned and pressed. But if you find vintage fabrics at a garage sale, hidden away in an antiques shop, or boxed up in an attic, you'll want to clean them. Use these tips to safely launder these beautiful antique and vintage fabrics.

Tips & Tricks

1. Check the Fabric

Hold fabrics to the light to check for worn spots, tears, broken threads, and holes. Very old lace or fabric may tear when washed. Even washing gently by hand may cause fabrics to deteriorate. It may be better to leave these items as they are, or have them professionally dry-cleaned. If the pieces are family heirlooms, consider consulting an expert on antique fabrics for advice on conservation or restoration.

2. Remove Old Stains

Old stains may be impossible to remove. After decades, stains may have been set through repeated washing and drying. Before laundering, try soaking the fabric in an enzyme textile cleaner diluted with water, or add a non-chlorine bleach to the wash water.

Sometimes an old-fashioned method for bleaching white fabrics can be a gentle yet effective technique: Rub lemon juice and salt over the stain. Hang the fabric on a clothesline or spread it out to dry in the sun. Rinse and let dry again.

3. Wash Embroidered Fabrics

Test a piece of embroidered fabric for colorfastness by gently dabbing the thread on the back of the piece with a damp white cloth. If no color comes off on the cloth, you can wash the piece safely. If color does come off, have the piece dry-cleaned.

If the fabric isn't too worn or fragile, it's usually safe to machine-wash 1930s or later embroidered dresser scarves, pillowcases, hand towels, and table runners. Press pieces while they're still a bit damp for the smoothest look. To preserve the texture of the embroidery, lay the embroidered side down on a well-padded ironing board before pressing.

4. Hand-Wash Fine Linen or Pieces with Handmade Details

For fine linen or pieces with handmade lace, fringe, or crocheted edging, presoak them about 15 minutes in clear water, which will loosen dirt. For severely discolored fabrics, you may need to soak them for days to remove decades of dirt. Then gently swish the linens in warm water with mild, nonabrasive, phosphate-free soap. Avoid using bleach, because it can damage the fibers. Rinse the textiles at least twice in clear water to remove all soap residue.

Place a rinsed item on a clean, dry white towel and press to remove some of the water. If at all possible, dry antique items by laying them flat on a white towel or sheet outside in the sun. Air-drying is always preferable to using a clothes dryer, but if you must dry the item inside, use the lowest possible setting.

5. Clean Chenille, Draperies, Bedding, or Bark Cloth

Wash chenille in the machine and dry it in the dryer. If you need to iron a chenille piece, lay the fabric tufted side down on a well-padded ironing board and press using the cotton setting.

Take vintage draperies, bedding, or other items made from bark cloth (a textured cotton) to be professionally dry-cleaned.

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