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 usually are already cleaned and pressed. If you find vintage fabrics at a garage sale, hidden away at an antiques shop, or boxed up in an attic, you'll want to clean them before using or displaying the pieces. Launder your antique linens and clothing safely using these tips.

Tips & Tricks

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 if washed. Even washing gently by hand may cause the fabric's condition to deteriorate. It may be better to leave these items as is or have them professionally dry-cleaned. If the pieces are family heirlooms, consider consulting an antique-fabrics expert for advice about conservation or restoration.

Remove Old Stains

Old stains may be impossible to remove. After decades, old stains may be set by repeated washing and drying. Try soaking the fabric in an enzyme textile cleaner diluted with water before laundering. Or add a nonchlorine 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 on a clothesline or spread the fabric out to dry in the sun. Rinse and let dry again.

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.

It's usually safe to machine-wash embroidered dresser scarves, pillowcases, hand towels, and table runners from the 1930s and later if the fabric is not worn or fragile. Press pieces while they're still damp for the smoothest look. Lay the piece embroidered side down on a well-padded ironing board before pressing to preserve the texture of the embroidery.

Hand-Wash Fine Linen or Pieces with Handmade Details

For fine linen or pieces with handmade lace, fringe, or crocheted edging, presoak about 15 minutes in clear water to loosen dirt. For severely discolored fabrics, you may need to soak 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 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.

Clean Chenille, Draperies, Bedding, or Bark Cloth

Wash chenille in the washing 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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