Cleaning Antique Linen

How to look after antique linens and clothing, which are popular collectibles.

Many people collect antique linen these days. Some people collect clothes, some collect table linens. If it dates from the turn of the last century or before, it is likely to be fragile and in need of special care. It would not be advisable to throw it in the washing machine with your everyday clothes. However it is not necessary to pay professionals to clean antique linen, in most cases, as with care and attention it can be cleaned at home.

This washing method can also be used for fragile lace curtains. (Which often deteriorate when exposed to bright sunshine over the years). Fold the material into a square or rectangle, small enough for you to be able to support the weight of when it is wet. Baste the layers together carefully, using a thread that matches reasonably well. It is important not to use a thread that might bleed color onto the pale fabric. Even colorfast threads in colors like red and orange often leave fibers behind. So play it safe and use white, cream or beige thread on antique fabrics while doing this.

If the material seems strong enough to withstand soaking, soak it overnight in a solution of pure soap flakes and warm water. Ensure that the soap flakes are totally dissolved in the water before putting the material into it. The next day, drain the soapy water away and press the parcel carefully against the bottom of the basin (or bath, for larger items). Refill with fresh water, cold or lukewarm, and continue to rinse and press flat, until all the soap is rinsed away. This may take numerous rinses, but you must get all the soap out. Always support the weight of the fabric in your hands while doing this. If it is old and fragile there is a real danger it may tear because it is heavy with the water. DO NOT WRING. If you are washing lace, a couple of tablespoons of ordinary table salt in the final rinse will help to give it a little crispness as it dries. When the soap has been totally rinsed out, press out as much water as you possibly can with your hands, again keeping the fabric flat. Being very careful and continuing to support the weight with your hands, undo the tacking threads and place the object flat on towels to dry. Do not dry in direct sunshine, though it is nice to dry it outside in the shade.

If you wish to iron antique linen, this is best done while it is quite wet. Not absolutely dripping wet, but wetter than damp. Again be careful to support the weight of the fabric as much as possible.

Quite often the problem with antique fabrics is that they have been stained in previous years and the stain has not been properly washed out. It may have looked on the surface to be clean, but some of the stain has stayed in the fibers of the material. If you have ever washed and put away baby clothes, and then pulled them out three years later and been dismayed at how grey they looked, with mysterious yellow stains, you will have some idea of what can happen. If your antique linen is badly stained it needs to be cleaned by a specialist. Museums will often be able to recommend someone, as may shops that sell needlework supplies. Some antique shops may be able to help also, as after all they often need the services of specialists themselves.

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