Dear Home Ec 101,
I have some vintage linens that are a bit stained from time. . . I’m talking things like hankies, towels, fabrics, etc that are yellowed with age. I inherited them from my grandmother (and various other relatives). I’d like to clean them up, but not knowing what kind of fabric they are (although I suspect most are cotton, linen, or a cotton blend) or what has caused the yellow/brownish tint to them, I don’t know what to use. I don’t want to ruin them (obviously). I’d really appreciate some help.
Maybe we could start the help with my excessive use of parenthesis. 🙂
Yellow in Yuma
Dear Yellow in Yuma:
Your plan of attack with stain removal on vintage linens will depend highly on just how attached to the items you feel and whether or not these items will be relegated to everyday use or simply kept on display or for sentimental reasons. I also invite Home Eccers with more experience in handling delicate textiles to chime in.
Your stain removal methods will also depend highly on the actual age of the garment. I don’t know your age, so the age of your grandmother’s linens could vary quite widely. The suggestions below assume that the linens are cotton or linen, not silk or wool.
Cleaning Vintage Linens
If you plan on bringing the towels into general use, an overnight soak in a sodium percarbonate solution may help get rid of the yellowing. Typically Oxiclean is the most familiar brand of sodium percarbonate. Your bathtub or a storage tote (without holes in the bottom, check first, ask me why I suggest that step) can work for soaking if you struggle with soaking in a front load washer.
You can also try Oxiclean on the hankies and items like pillowcases, but I would recommend a more gentle approach, first.
Many people who work with fabrics from the 50s recommend Biz, an enzymatic laundry booster.
And finally, there is a detergent specifically sold for this purpose called Restoration – I have NO experience with this product, so I cannot vouch for its effectiveness, but I have seen it recommended here and there over the years.
Do NOT hang vintage fabrics in sunlight to remove yellowing. This is apparently a major no-no in the fabric restoration field as it can make yellowing worse in older fabrics and can significantly damage the fibers.
Whatever tactic you try, remember that rinsing is probably the most important stage of dealing with vintage fabrics. You want to be sure not to leave any residue behind which could further damage the fabric.
For your most delicate items, hand washing is the rule, do not spin the items. Place the item flat on an absorbent towel and gently roll up the towel to absorb as much water as possible and then hang dry. Press the items before they are fully dry. If there is any lace and the item is extremely sentimental, I suggest consulting a professional.
If you want more information on handling vintage fabrics the Smithsonian Institute has some great tips for handling antique textiles. (Although I suspect your items are more likely from the mid-20th century, right?) The article is very interesting and you can learn some great techniques.
(And don’t ask about how to quit parenthetical abuse, I’m just as guilty.)
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