Removing Stains from Vintage Linens

For many of us, there is nothing as beautiful as the delicate quality and appearance of vintage linens, whether it is a simple handkerchief or an intricately sewn dress. However, many a beautiful vintage linen garment or item has been marred by ugly stains. Is there anyway to get rid of these stains and can it be done without damaging these delicate materials?

Understanding Vintage linens

To understand how to deal with stains on vintage linens, it is important first to understand the linens themselves and their properties. Linen is a fabric made from flax, a natural fibre which has been worn for hundreds of thousands of years, ever since the ancient civilizations. It was and still is popular because its hollow fibres have a tendency to wick moisture towards them, thus leaving you feeling cool on a hot day. However, linen is also vulnerable to many of the things that threaten organic materials, such as damage from exposure to strong sunlight, incorrect cleaning or heat. In particular, linen which has not been thoroughly cleaned before it was put away for storage can develop very stubborn stains which may be difficult to remove, especially without damaging the fabric.

Common Stains on Vintage Linens

The most common stain seen on vintage linens are “age stains” – mysterious yellow stains which seem to appear out of nowhere and for no reason. They are particularly prevalent along fold lines. In actual fact, these stains are derived from old stains that were already in the fabric but were ‘invisible’ to the naked eye at the time of storage. A lot of grease or oil stains will show up “clear” initially but then over time, with the accumulation of dust, nicotine, grease and other airborne pollutants, particularly along the folds which are most exposed, the strains become more visible. The folds themselves also put greater stress on the fibres of the fabric at those points and so leave them more open to damage and staining. Finally, if the linens were actually laundered and dried before storage – but the stains not tackled properly – then the drying process may also have helped to “set” the stains,.

Preparing Vintage Linens for Stain Removal

Since vintage linens have usually been stored for a long time, its fibres will be very dry and therefore even more prone to damage during cleaning. Therefore, it is important to hydrate them before attempting to remove any stains. The best and safest way to do this is to simply soak them in water that is at room temperature. Do this for at least half an hour before tackling any stains. You can even add a bit of mild soap or detergent to the soaking solution if you like. Once they have been soaked, rinse them and then gently pat and knead the fabric to remove the excess water – never wring or squeeze the fabric. Now start work on the stain while the fabric is still wet.

Working on the Stains

Before tackling any stains, check the colour-fastness of your piece of vintage linen first. You can often do this on the seam allowance or look for some other inconspicuous corner. To do this, dab a cotton bud in water until it is thoroughly wet and then press it firmly into your linen. Check for any colour seepage or bleeding on the cotton bud – or on the towel held beneath. If there is any significant transfer of colour, you will have no option but to take your vintage linen to a professional dry cleaner.

If, however, the fabric seems colour-fast, then you can start working on the stains yourself. If the stains are light, you may be able to remove them simply by soaking your linen for several days in distilled water. It is important to use distilled water as it has no minerals, trace substances or rust to react with the stain or further damage the fabric. Make sure your linen is fully immersed in the distilled water (ideally 4 times the volume) and soak it for up to 6 days, replacing with fresh distilled water every 2 days.

For heavier, more stubborn stains, you may need to employ a mild bleaching agent – such as a commercial solution which contains or releases hydrogen peroxide. This is particularly good for organic stains as it reverses the effects of oxidation which lead to the yellowing effect. Make sure you read and follow the instructions on the manufacturer’s label. For really heavy stains, it is sometimes suggested to immerse the linen in boiling water – however, this has a high likelihood of damaging the vintage linen fibres and cause tears or holes, particularly if the fabric is then rubbed. In this situation, it may be best to consult the advice of a professional dry cleaner.

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