How Do You Remove Yellowing Stains from Old Linens?

Q.I have inherited some very old cottons/linens that have been folded in a cupboard for decades and have yellowed severely where the exposed edge of fabric was. What is the safest way to tackle the stains? I’d hate to do anything that is likely to make any of it worse. Some of the items haven’t seen the light of day for probably 30 or more years and though none are valuable or delicate, I wouldn’t want to ruin them all.

(Mrs Caroline Parkinson, 10 September 2008)


A.Cotton and linens that have been stored for a long time often develop mysterious yellow stains or “age stains”, especially along the fold lines. This is usually due to an old stain that was invisible to the naked eye at the time of storage (e.g.. an old grease or oil stain which showed up “clear” at the time) or just due to the accumulation of grease, dust and other airborne pollutants, such as nicotine, on the exposed folds of the fabric. In addition, the fold lines will also put stress on the fibres and leave the more open to staining and damage. Furthermore, if the linens have been laundered and dried prior to storage, this may have “set” any stains making them even more difficult to remove now.

Since cotton and linen are natural fibres, it is best to rehydrate them before working on the stains. The safest way to do this is to soak the fabric in water that is at room temperature for at least half an hour, with perhaps a mild soap or detergent. Then gently rinse and pat and knead the fabric to remove all excess water – do not wring or twist it. Do not dry the fabric before working on the stain.

For yellow age stain, the most effective stain remover is a hydrogen peroxide solution, which is available in commercial form as stain removers under brand names such as OxiClean. The main ingredient in most of these stain removers is a solidified form of hydrogen peroxide, combined with surfactants and detergents. This formula produces a chemical reaction when mixed with water, to release oxygen and remove stain particles in the process.

Alternatively, you can also tackle the stains using a home-made solution of 3% hydrogen peroxide, gently dabbed onto the stain using a cotton bud. The solution may need to be left on the stain for over an hour to produce an effective result.

Stain removers containing hydrogen peroxide are a good choice for several reason. Unlike bleach, they are not chlorine-based and therefore, they are less harsh on sensitive skin as well as less damaging to the delicate fibres of old, vintage fabrics. These solutions are also more environmentally-friendly, as they break down into oxygen and water and is therefore biodegradable.

Make sure to always follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the label of the stain remover and if in any doubt, it may be best to consult the advice of a professional dry cleaner.

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