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Caring for Vintage Linens

Updated on February 13, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.


Vintage and antique linens are a popular collectible today. These beautiful items can often be found at a garage sale or thrift shop for pennies. Even antique shops and sites like eBay have them for a very affordable price.

The term vintage can be applied to linens that are at least twenty-five years old, while antique linens would apply to those that are at least fifty years old. Each decade of the twentieth century seemed to have its particular style of tablecloths and kitchen accessories. Well, at least up until about 1970. After that tablecloths and other linens seemed to lose popularity is more women went to work and left the gracious accruements of home behind.

How to Care for Vintage Linens

Antique and vintage linens can be used. The exceptions would be those that are very fragile or have a lot of wear or holes.

Using these beautiful textiles means that they will need to be washed, right? Sure, but you will want to keep them out of the washing machine. Careful hand washing with a delicate laundry soap is the way to go.

First, test the fabric to see if it is colorfast. Some old textiles, especially those with red dyes, are not. To do this wet a white cloth and blot the suspected colored areas. If no pink or red bleeds onto your white cloth you are good to go. If it does, then you will need to take your cloth to a specialist.

Now that you know the colors aren't going to run fill a tub with cold water and some gentle detergent. Being very gentle, swish the fabric through the water. Allow to soak for about thirty minutes.

Support the weight of the fabric and pull it out of the soapy water. Set it aside in a rubbermade tube while you fill the tube with clean water. Submerge the linen into the water and rinse. You will need to repeat this until there is no soap residue left. If it is a small item rinse with distilled water. This has no minerals or anything in it and is best for antique linens. Distilled water is not very practical for tablecloths, though.

If you have stains on the fabric you can try to treat them with lemon juice. Sponge on the lemon juice and let the fabric lie in the sun for a couple of hours. Rinse thoroughly. Some people recommend lemon juice and salt. I find this to be too harsh for vintage fabrics. Because of the grittiness of the salt you run the risk of weakening the fabric.

Dry the linens on a clean spot on the lawn. Dry them flat so the sun can bleach out any spots. This will also keep down the possibility of mold and mildew. If you need to hang them do so very carefully on a still day.

You can iron them with good results.

Make a linen spray out of 4 oz of distilled water and 20 drops of lavender essential oil. Spray as you iron. This will give the linens a beautiful scent, help keep bugs away, and protect against mold and mildew.

Very Fragile Linens

To clean very fragile linens you must be careful.

  • Fold the fabric into fourths and baste along the edges to hold them together. Use a white thread in a single strand.
  • Soak it overnight in a solution of grated soap flakes, like Fels Naptha, and water.
  • The next morning drain the water away and cover with clean, cool, rinse water.

  • Continue rinsing until all soap residue is gone.
  • Never wring your fabric.
  • When it is rinse cut the basting threads and dry flat as above, only in the shade rather than direct sunlight.

Using and Decorating with Vintage Linens

There is not much that is more beautiful than a tea table with a vintage table cloth beneath the vintage china and tea things. Using vintage tablecloths in the way that they were meant to be used can add decorating flair to any party. Add a retro apron to complete the look!

There is such a variety of affordable vintage linens that you can almost have one for every occasion! When using vintage tablecloths it is best to use placemats to protect the cloth from spills and splatters.

You can also use vintage linens is many ways besides what they were created for, especially if the cloth is damaged and unsightly. With a little sewing experience and a sewing machine you can create:

  • Pillows
  • Curtains
  • Stufed animals
  • Dolls
  • Tote bags
  • Clothing
  • Accessories
  • and many other things.

Vintage tablecloths are, after all, just fabric.

Making Curtains

Making curtains with vintage tea towels is easy.

  • Fold down about 1 ½ inch from the top of the towel.

  • Press

  • Make a straight stitch across. You now have a tunnel at the top.

  • Feed a curtain rod through that tunnel and you have curtains.

  • You can add vintage style embellishments to the bottom for a fun retro look

Other sites with great ideas for crafting with vintage linens are:

Collecting and caring for vintage linens is a great way to preserve a little history and add graciousness to your home.

All About Victorian Linens


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    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 9 years ago from The Land of Tractors

      Hi Marye,

      We bought a beautiful vintage table cloth that was horribly stained by something yellow. I tried to remove the stains unsuccessfully, so we used the salvageable parts to make a beautiful throw pillow for my daughter's bed. Best of all, My daughter did most of the work, and she was thrilled with how nicely it turned out. What a fun hub!

    • trish1048 profile image

      trish1048 9 years ago


      I remember as a child my grandmother washing her whites and laying them flat on the grass to dry in the hot summer sun. I also remember she had the curtain stretchers that she would stand in the yard for her lacy curtains. Nice memories,,,

      Currently, I have not tried it, but have heard Oxyclean does a nice job on old linens.

      Thanks for sharing,


    • C.S.Alexis profile image

      C.S.Alexis 9 years ago from NW Indiana

      Marye, This is nice and the vintage stuff is so well made. Good that you added suggestions on care, enjoyable reading. C.S.