Removing Stains from Vintage Linens

Do you have any old family linens packed away that you never use because they have stains or yellowing that you can’t get out? Or have you ever come across an inexpensive tablecloth at a yard sale or thrift shop and passed it up because you thought the stains were permanent? Since I learned the secret to removing set stains from vintage linens, I no longer let stains deter me from enjoying the linens I have, or from purchasing great pieces when I find them.

I had an antiques shop several years ago and learned the secret to stubborn stain removal from a fellow antiques dealer who sold the most pristine sparkling white linens I’d ever seen. I asked for her secret and she was kind enough to share it with me. Since then I’ve used the technique numerous times with excellent results, removing most stains from natural fabrics (cotton, linen, hemp).

This is the starting point. There are quite a few stains, mostly around the border of the tablecloth. They are not terrible, but they are noticeable and I would probably not use the tablecloth in its current condition.

I recently came across a damask tablecloth with eight napkins at a thrift store for the ridiculous price of $5.00. The napkins were in great shape but the tablecloth had quite a few well-set stains and yellowed areas from storage.  Given that there was no structural damage, I decided to purchase them knowing that it was likely I would be able to remove the stains–or at least improve the situation substantially.

I enhanced the contrast on the camera so that you could better see the stained areas. They are old stains and may not come out completely, but I think I can substantially improve upon their current state.

The secret is twofold. First, put two tablespoons of Oxiclean powder into a container. Add a cup of boiling water. The mixture will immediately bubble up and dissolve. Dampen the stained areas and apply the hot Oxi mixture directly to the stains.

Then fill your wash basin with very hot water and put the entire piece in.  Extremely hot water is key!  I usually add two kettles of boiling water to a tub of my hottest tap water. Wearing rubber gloves, give it a good swish and make sure the soapy water permeates all the fabric.

Your wash water will get lighter in color with each subsequent change of water.

And here is the second and most important part of the secret to stubborn stain removal: let it soak for as long as it takes for the stain to release.  Set stains often need a prolonged period of time in the washing solution to loosen up the fibers sufficiently to release the stain.  Sometimes an overnight soak will do the job but it often takes longer. Believe it or not, I have soaked linens up to three weeks before the stains lifted!

If you are doing a prolonged soak, repeat this process daily, changing your soaking water with fresh hot water and more Oxiclean.  It takes a bit of patience but it’s very little actual work. Once you have your solution mixed up and your fabric soaking, you can walk away and forget about it until the next day. Check on the status of the stains by holding the wet fabric up to a window during daylight hours.  You should be able to see any remaining discoloration when the fabric is wet.

This picture shows the stain after 2 days in the soaking solution (center). You can see it has lightened substantially. I’m feeling optimistic that in another day or so it will be completely gone.

Whatever you do, please don’t put stained linens in the dryer or iron them before working to remove the stain. The heat will set the stains making them much more difficult to remove.

I do not recommend using bleach on vintage linens–ever.  It is much too harsh and can weaken and erode the fibers.  If after an extended soak you are still unable to completely remove a stain, try using a little hydrogen peroxide. Dampen the fabric first and apply to the stained area.  This mild bleach will often take out any remaining shading.

I ended up soaking the tablecloth for four days. It is shown here lightly starched and pressed. Upon close inspection, I saw only one area where a very light amount of yellowing remained.  I doubt anyone will notice when this tablecloth is put into use.

Always be sure to rinse your linens well.  Yellowing occurs when soap residue is left behind. Rinse until you see no further suds. As long as the fabric is not too delicate, I put my linens through the regular wash cycle in the washing machine without detergent to remove any remaining soap residue. If you plan to store your linens for an extended period of time, adding a half cup of white vinegar to the final rinse can help prevent future yellowing.

Finally, to get your white linens to truly sparkle, lay down an old sheet on the lawn and spread them out in the bright sunshine for several hours. This trick will also help with any remaining discoloration.

I encourage you to pull your family linens out of storage and put them to use! And if you find a gorgeous bargain piece with a few stains–go for it!  Knowing how to remove stubborn stains should make you fearless about using and enjoying these beautiful items.

Pressed, lightly starched, and tied up with a pretty ribbon, my $5 tablecloth and napkins are ready for my next dinner party.



4 thoughts on “Removing Stains from Vintage Linens

  1. Your latest blog sent me scurrying to drawers in my bedroom closet where I have stored “the family linen. ” There are white and beige pieces that have probably been stained for ages. Among them is a set (11 now) of white embroidered linen napkins of a rather modern design. Not many people take the trouble of using linen table cloths or napkins anymore .

    My favorite pieces are a square Italian teal green tablecloth and matching napkins, with white and red stitching. (But my table is oval!) I love to use cotton napkins and have accumulated many of them,some as gifts, like the sets Shauna bought me in Japan when she was producing shows for the singer “Beck.” (Hanson)

    Some of these cloth napkins “wash like a hanky” as my mother used to say. A happy group of mismatched napkins designed by Vera were, as I recall, part of a palette of “stuff” my husband found irresistible years ago when a family-owned local hardware store went out of business.

    Thanks for another interesting blog.

  2. Let me know how it goes if you decide to try this technique on your stored family linens. I always think it is a shame to have such beautiful things and never use them.

  3. I look forward to seeing if you are able to get the stains out of the tablecloth used at your wedding!

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