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Old linens: Treasures or Trash?

Nowadays the value of handwork has gone down. People are so used to buying cheap mass produced items that they simply don´t realise how much creative and artistic skills went into making those long forgotten doilies or embroidery, crocheted lace etc. You can buy them at a flea market, thrift store, online, or even sometimes find in the trash as they are not in fashion anymore. Sometimes these pieces do look unappealing and have a musty smell as they have been through many years of use, stored in a linen closet if they were lucky, or forgotten in a box with other unnecessary things in the attic etc. They have yellowed over the years, stained, some might have tears and holes. Do you think they are treasures from the old times or trash? If you do and value hand work you must belong to the first category. So do I. In this blog post for the Week 1 of the Sew Easy SAL. "Ideas and inspirations for working with Recycled materials" for Sip Tea and EPP with Larisa @stitchingnotes and Irina @nordiccrafter, I would like to share some tips on how you can clean and brighten up old pieces. Larisa has written an excellent blog post on how she sorts, prepares and stores old textiles for recycling.



Cleaning and restoring

First, go through the linens and sort them. I usually sort for delicate and regular. The delicate ones will be hand washed, the regular can be machine washed. Remember that old linens were not as bright as modern white textiles, and off white may well be its original colour. If your pieces have embroidery, check the embroidery thread to make sure it does not bleed by touching the back of the embroidery with a damp white cloth. If no color transfers onto the cloth, then it is fine to wash. If it bleeds, it's best to have the item dry cleaned.


We are going to soak the linens. You will be amazed what results you can achieve using simple products that you can find in every house. A mixture of mild detergent and baking soda works wonders. I usually put same amounts of both (2 table spoons) and pour warm water from the tap over the powders in a basin until they dissolve. Place you linens in the water and soak them for few hours. The water becomes yellowish.

This is how it looked after 30 min. Depending on the condition of the linens the water might even become brownish.


Change the water several times. If the stains did not come off you can also try to put the linens in a pot in the same solution and boil them for a 30 min - 1 hr.


For sturdy fabrics, after soaking you can wash them in a washing machine with a mild detergent on hot.


Do not use chlorine based bleach. The antique and vintage fibers are fragile and aren’t able to withstand it, you will do more harm than help. Often bleach makes holes where stains used to be.


Rinse the linens well in cold water. Wrap delicate pieces in a towel and squeeze the towel several times so excess water is absorbed.


Take the linens outside to dry. Lay them on an old bed sheet in a direct sunlight to "bleach" in the sun.

In the photo below you can see what result I have achieved on the doilies after soaking in the mixture of baking soda and mild detergent.



For some stubborn stains some experts suggest trying a mixture of lemon juice and salt. Apply freshly squeezed juice on the stain, put some salt on top and place in direct sunlight on the grass for a while. Rinse well after it dries.


There are some special products for fabric restoration and stains removal on the market. You can try different brands and see what works the best for you. But test on a small area, first, rather than applying right away on a heirloom piece.


I successfully use special biodegradable oxygen based bleach for soaking heavily stained fabrics or pieces with odors. Make sure that you use it for sturdier linens only, not laces or the finer fabrics.


Also be aware that some stains will remain there forever. But it does not mean that you need to throw that piece away. The parts without stains can be up-cycled in small makes. I will show you what to do with those piece on Friday.


Storing linens

Before storing the linens I recommend ironing them.

Iron WITHOUT steam from the WRONG side on the hottest temperature you can with your iron set to either to Cotton or Linen depending on the fiber. When ironing embroidery, place a thick towel on the ironing board. It will help to fluff up the embroidery, not to flatten it down. The linens are ironed the best when they are slightly damp. Iron until they are completely dry. After you have ironed, let them "rest" (simply place on a chair or bed) so any residual moisture evaporates completely. Otherwise, if you leave them even slightly damp, linens tend to get wrinkled again as they dry up.


Then I usually sort the linens - for damaged and undamaged, according to size or fiber content (linen or cotton) etc. I store my sorted linens in piles (bed linen pieces, embroidery, doilies, lace, damaged pieces) on a shelf in a closet with fresh lavender sachets. They add a wonderful scent and also keep moths away.


I hope these tips will help you to take good care of your vintage linens, refresh and brighten them as well as keep them going for many years to come either in current or new recycled form!






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