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Getting stains out of old tablecloths..

jatman | Posted in General Discussion on

I just purchased a ‘lot’ of tablecloths and napkins at an auction.  They all seem to be either linen or cotton or a blend of those two fibers.  As expected some of them have old stains on them – has to be food and wine stains.  Does anyone have any advice of how to try to remove the stains – either what to try or what not to try?  Everything is white and I suppose I can try to bleach them but I generally don’t use bleach because I think it destroys fabric and since these are old I’m really reluctant to use bleach.

Any advice would be appreciated.




  1. tudy | | #1

    Depending on how old the stains are this might help. Make a paste of Baking Soda and rub in lightly and let set, rinse with cold water. Hope this helps. I also like Borax.


    1. jatman | | #7

      Hi Tudy,

      Thank you for the info.  I didn't realize that Borax was still around!  I haven't seen that in forever!


  2. damascusannie | | #2

    I'm a firm believer in Oxyclean. Make a paste an put it directly on the stains. It's the only thing we found that would make a dent in red wine stains on a white vintage quilt.

    1. jatman | | #8

      Hi Damasusannie,

      Thank you for the info.  I have Oxyclean but didn't think it would work on an old stain.  I'll give it a try.


  3. soannit | | #3

    I have found that with iron mould marks on tablecloths etc it works to put lemon juice on the stains and then leave them in the sun for quite a while - this seems to fade them or clears them completely once they are washed again.  I don't know if this would work with other marks but it could be worth a try on white material.

    1. jatman | | #9

      Hi Soannit,

      Thank you for the info.  I'll give it a try.


  4. meg | | #4

    If none of those previously offered ideas work, go to a quilt shop and ask for some antique or old quilt soak. Follow the directions and your linens will look like new again.

    1. jatman | | #10

      Hi Meg,

      The quilt soak sounds like a good option.  Thank you!


  5. katina | | #5

    Hi JT

    If you go back to post 4669.1 under "Old Table Linens Questions" you'll find quite a bit of info, whixch may help.

    Good luck - Katina


    1. jatman | | #11

      Hi Katina,

      Wow - there is a lot of info in that thread.  Thank you for pointing me in the right direction!


      1. katina | | #13

        You're very welcome. From my experience, I'd say proceed cautiously! Why do I know? I found an exquisite, highly intricate old table runner at a thrift store. Very fine work, knitted in linen. Just one small stain on it. I washed it very carefully, but the stain remained. I put a little fresh lemon juice on it, and watched in horror as it literally ate into the piece. I dunked it immediately into water, but in seconds the hole was the size of a quarter. My guess it some sort of reaction occurred.


        1. jatman | | #14

          Yikes!  I would have thought that lemon would have been the safest option.  Thank you for the warning! 


  6. Razrsmom | | #6

    Hi Jatman:  I just signed up to the Threads discussion forum and your question poped out at me.  I have collected old/antique linens for some time and have put most of them on eBay.  They sell very well.  I found a product in a magazine called "Keepsake Quilting" that is amazing.  It's called "Restoration" and it is a powder that you disolve in warm water.  Soak anything with a stain in it.  I had purchased a very old quilt that was a mess.  I put the stuff in my bathtub along with the quilt and let it soak.  It was so dirty that I did it again.  It was amazing how well it worked.  If you are interested you can get on to http://www.keepsakequilting.com and can read what they say and try it.  Also..........a good strong solution of OxyClean is great too.  I use that for lessor stains and leave the item in the solution until it comes clean.  OxyClean won't hurt fragile fabrics.  Hope this helps!!

    1. jatman | | #12

      Hi Razrsmom,

      Thank you for the info.  I'll have to look for the quiltwash - sounds like it's just a good thing to have on hand.


  7. BernaWeaves | | #15

    I've had a lot of success with Biz.  Use it as a soak and a wash, but don't put the fabric in the dryer until you're sure the stains are out, or you'll cook them into the fabric and they'll never come out.

    Never use lemon juice.  It's a strong acid and a bleach.  It's not for removing stains.  It's for removing the fabric.  Just because it's fruit doesn't make it "gentle."

    If you use chlorine bleach, follow it with vinegar or "AntiChlor" (from www.prochemical.com) to neutralize the chlorine. 


    Edited 6/16/2008 11:09 am ET by BernaWeaves

    Edited 6/16/2008 11:10 am ET by BernaWeaves

    Edited 6/16/2008 11:11 am ET by BernaWeaves

    1. jatman | | #16

      Thank you Berna!  I'll look for Biz, too.  And the next time I need to burn a hole in something I'll grab a lemon!  Who knew?


      1. BernaWeaves | | #17

        Didn't you ever do secret coded messages when you were little?

        You'd write a letter in lemon juice, and it would dry clear.

        Then whoever you sent it to would hold it infront of a candle and the lemon juice would burn and the message would show up?


        1. jatman | | #18

          Oh wow!  Nope, never did that with my sisters.  We must have been too busy getting on one another's nerves to mess with the secret messages.  Most of our messages were delivered in person and at high decibels!


  8. Josefly | | #19

    Congratulations on your table linens find! I hope you're able to get the stains out. I just want to reiterate the advice to proceed carefully. I attempted to remove old stains on some table linens I got from my mother-in-law, and thought I was being careful - used a soak of Biz solution, followed by another soak in Oxyclean, then machine-washed with Oxyclean. The result was a quarter-sized hole which I still haven't repaired, but wow, was that hole clean! The cloth is a favorite - too pretty to just throw away - and I intend to cover the hole with an appliqued patch with my mil's initials embroidered on it, using one of the matching napkins, following some suggestions I received on this forum, btw. But old stains are tricky - and of course it's impossible to know how they had been treated before I had them in my possession - maybe someone already tried to remove them with chlorine bleach, which weakened the fibers.I still have other tablecloths, part of the same treasure trove, which need stain removal, but I'm more wary now of Biz and Oxyclean.

    1. jatman | | #20

      Hi Josef,

      I remember your discussion about the table cloth on this forum.  I will be very careful when I clean the table clothes and the napkins.  Thank you for the reminder to not trust Oxy or Biz 100%.  I will proceed with absolute caution!


      1. MirB | | #26

        Hi Jatman, I've been using a solution of dish washing liquid and hyrogen peroxide (equal parts) and dabbing , than rubbing it into the stain.  So far it has worked on a linen table cloth with wine and food stains, and  I just tried it on my grandson's linen blend shirt that had tomato sauce.  It has worked like a charm.

        Hope this helps.


        1. jatman | | #28

          Hi Miriam,

          Wow - it got out tomato sauce?  That's really good.  Thank you for sharing!


    2. User avater
      ThreadKoe | | #21

      Sometimes I think we tend to over treat some stains. Like trying to remove a nail by hammering it through the wood. ;) When I was in college I got a poster from the Canadian Home Economics Association on Stain Removal that I have lived by for the last 25 years with a few additions over the years. The main thing that all protein based, ie., food stains, including wine, recommended that you soak in lukewarm water with an enzyme based detergent. I place the item in the washer in warm, tepid water, with the detergent in already, allow the water to cover, then shut off over night. In the morning, I let the machine continue to fill on warm water, and wash normally, or according to the delicacy of the article. If the stain has not been removed satisfactorily, I repeat again. If it is not reduced or removed by this, the stain is considered to be permanent and has to be dealt with by another means. We have well water that is very hard and no chlorine in it, so it is very hard to keep things white, and this has always been very successful for me at removing stains gently, even really stubborn tough ones that have been there a long time. My DD's Rugby uniform is white. Cathy

      1. jatman | | #22

        Hi ThreadKoe,

        That's a good idea to soak in the washer overnight.  Right now I have a front loading washer and can't do it but I will have a regular machine in a few months so I will keep that in mind.  Thank you!


    3. BernaWeaves | | #37

      I've never had a problem with Biz, but then I've never mixed it or followed it with Oxyclean.  I try not to mix chemicals, because you never know if they are going to interact badly with each other.


      1. Josefly | | #38

        Yes, you're right - mixing cleaners is a bad idea.I wouldn't have thought either Biz or Oxy would've caused the hole, and I still can't prove they or their combination did it. The cloth may've previously been treated with Clorox or something which weakened the fibers. I've heard that chlorine bleach can do damage that doesn't show up until quite later. But I regret not being more careful, anyway.

  9. marymary | | #23

    Jatman, you have received some good suggestions for cleaning your linens.  I have collected linens for many years and have had them in all stages from pristine to overall stained.  One thing I learned, many years ago, was to first soak the linen in plain water.  This relaxes the fibers and removes a lot of surface dirt.   It gives you a better idea of what you actually have to contend with to get it clean.

    The lemon and salt treatment will give you, as others have stated, really clean holes.   I don't use chlorine bleach on any of my old linens. Whatever you do, start with the mildest form of cleaning.  Sometimes, it takes a lot of effort to get things clean.  Experiment on the lesser valued piece, or go to a thrift store and buy something that already has holes.

    1. jatman | | #24

      Hi MaryMary,

      Thank you for the good advice.  I would never have thought to soak in plain water first although the clothes and napkins have been starched and it would make sense to get the starch out first.  I would have thought that the natural lemon juice route would have been the most mild but apparently not.  I will proceed with caution!

      Thank you!


      1. marymary | | #25

        I think I got the information about using the plain water from an article about how preservationists clean textiles.  It was a long time ago, so not sure where the information came from.  I have done it ever since and it has always worked well for me.

  10. Teaf5 | | #27

    Your question generated a lot of very valuable advice! 

    It also reminded me of some advice from a very gracious hostess who said that most table settings and centerpieces cover a multitude of stains if you just slide the cloth down a little bit and that the stains could be considered the "story" of all the meals eaten around the table, so it's not always necessary to remove them completely.

    However, when one bothers me, I sometimes stitch over it in thread that matches the background perfectly.  It's a bit like a patch, but it's better than a hole!


    1. jatman | | #29

      Hi Teaf5,

      I won't go nuts trying to get rid of any stains because you are right - it's part of the character of older table clothes and napkins.  So, hopefully I won't create any holes!  What a great idea to just stitch over the stain - or better yet - just rearrange the centerpiece!

      Thank you!


  11. Mary301 | | #30

    I too collect old linens and have been faced with many cleaning challenges.

    A book I found very helpful is, Collecting Antigue Linens, Lace & Needlework by Frances Johnson, published in 1991. She has a chapter on caring and cleaning of linens and laces.  Her approach is to urge personal choice with cleaning products but careful handling of all linens. One method I've used is to gently handwash them in a very mild soap followed by multiple rinses. If discoloring still remains, you can soak them in Woolite overnight.

    If the water you're using is very hard or has mineral discoloration, bottled water works well. If nothing seems to do the job and your piece of linen was a bargain, you can try soaking the washed piece in Clorax 2. I've done this many times -- sometimes up to a week It's pretty amazing how well it works. It's sounds harsh but the results are much more gentle than lying in the sun.


    1. jatman | | #31

      Hi Mary301,

      I'm going to look for that book right now.  I love the internet!  Thank you for the advice.  I would have thought that drying in the sun would have been really gentle.  But then again, I also thought usuing lemon would have been gentle, too.  Thank you for the info!


      1. damascusannie | | #32

        I just remembered another trick. You stretch the linen over a bowl and then pour boiling water through the stain. I've tried it and it does work surprisingly well.

        1. jatman | | #33

          Does that shrink the area or is it fixed by ironing?  Have you tried it on old stains?

          Just curious!



          1. damascusannie | | #34

            I used it on old linens with stains that were who knows how old. It didn't seem to cause any localized shrinkage--but then I figure that the tablecloth I did it on had been washed so many times that it wasn't going to shrink any more anyway. It was a LINEN tablecloth, I don't know how cotton would react. I found the tip in an article on cleaning vintage textiles that was written by a museum conservator, so I felt fairly confident trying it for myself.

          2. jatman | | #35

            Thank you.  The table clothes and napkins are all either 100% linen or a blend of linen and cotton.  Good point on the fact that they have been washed 100's of times in their lifetime already!  Thank you for the info.


          3. damascusannie | | #36

            No problem--hope one of the tips works for you!

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