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Old table linens question.

mztorestitches | Posted in General Sewing Info on

My youngest son just sent me a stack of OLD linens….tablecloths.  They have been in the family for years, and are all discolored from being stored improperly, but I’m glad to have them.

How does one treat old table linens?  I took the worst one and have got it soaking in OxyClean, but there are some with terrible spots, and I don’t know if the spots will come out.

Can they be dyed easily?  What, besides pillows, could a person use them for if the spots won’t come out?  Any ideas to share with me?  Most of them (there are 7 of them) are Damask, and 1 is beautiful cutwork and some type of sewn on thread, sort of like couching.  I am not familiar with linens, but I do remember some of these from Grandmothers house when we had big family dinners on the holidays. (so I know they are old)



  1. mygaley | | #1

    What a treasure trove!  Here are some ideas:   heirloom doll dresses; pillow cases (ironed damask is heavenly to sleep on), napkins.  Use any embroidered parts to accent garments, recut for smaller runners, etc, I covered the rose linen bench at the end of my bed with an old embroidered dresser runner, just wrapped it around and pinned it with safety pins, a lot of the rose shows on both ends, but I enjoy looking at it. It depends on where the spots are, but one can use an heirloom cloth covered with smaller cloth.  I know a lady that lives in a historic register home with antique furniture and she put a lacelike vinyl cloth under a smaller antique embroidered teacloth and it is the top cloth that catches your eye; I did not know the other was vinyl until I touched it!

    I have read that museums use hydrogen peroxide on their antique linens.  Also the old remedy of laying linens on the grass in the sun does accomplish something and it is free and harmless. From my own bad experience:  Stay Away from chlorine bleach--it will eat your fabrics up and sometimes it takes years before the damage shows.  Also, my experience with dyes are that they exaggerate any stain or other imperfection that may be present.

     Since you have a cutwork cloth, I would research to see how to clean it, also get an idea book from the library if you must cut it.  My friend has hers folded in a triangle over a curtain rod as a valance.  I know this is long, but I am very excited for you.  Galey 

    1. solosmocker | | #6

      I would soak them in Biz. This product is an enzyme and does not work like Oxy clean so you should get different results. You may have to soak up to a week. Soak overnite, and start allover with new Biz and water the next day. You may have to do this for up to a week, but it works. Good luck, what a treasure!

    2. mztorestitches | | #8

      Thanks for the ideas.  I'm hoping they won't need altering, but will keep all your suggestions in mind in case  the don't clean up well.

      I guess thr first thing I need to do is get some acid free paper to wrap them in. 

      So many good ideas and suggestions.  Boy am I d I found this place.  I'm not a regular (yet) as I have so many things that I want to do I'm not on the computer very much, but I do try and check my email daily, and have started adding this site to my routine.

      Bless you all.


      1. offerocker | | #26

        How are you coming with your wonderful finds?  What a thoughtful person to give you those!

        The recommendations given were all excellent:  I use BIZ, & have good results.  For some stains, I've read to pour bottled soda water over the stain.  My FAVORITE cleaner is a bar of FELS NAPTHA soap!  I even clean my rags with it!  I wash everything from windows to white-walled tires to fine linens.  It is terrific, and has been around forever.  If you find a source, get a few bars of it, as not every store carries it.  I have a bar at every sink in the house!  Don't forget to press the linens on the wrong side, so that any embroidery doesn't get squashed.  And USE those linens - enjoy them.  I'd rather launder and iron a nice tablecloth than use placemats - ugh.  They're never the right size anyway.  If you have "too many" tablecloths, towels, napkins, try arranging them to the size of a window curtain, and tack the corners together, or add a button at the corners.  they will be a beautiful display, for something that would otherwise be kept in a drawer.  Cafe' clips can be used to hold them on a rod, so you're not really compromising the material by making rod pockets.  Kathleen   ...hankies are wonderful too.  Have fun! 

        1. mztorestitches | | #27

          Sorry it has taken me so long to get back, and now I'm playing catch up on all the different subjects as well. 

          My table linens have turned out just beautiful.  Even the worst one that I didn't think would ever look nice turned out to have not a spot left on it.

          I got some books from the library, and in my reading, it says that stored linens like mine will bleed back rust and leave spots, depending on what they were washed in, how stored etc.

          I used OxyClean to soak them in.  Took a week, and changed the water daily.  Then washed them in hot water, no soap, no bleach, no softener.  just ran them thru the cycle.  I only took the time to iron one of them, and didn't use starch, but it turned out looking real nice.

          I want to thank you all for your help and taking the time to do it.


          1. Josefly | | #28

            Thanks for letting us know what worked. I have been soaking a tablecloth of my mom-in law's in Biz, haven't changed the water. I'm going to get some OxyClean and do as you did. Great info. I'm worried, because this beautifully embroidered tablecloth was apparently put away dirty, with food/grease/whoknowswhat on it, and the spots look awful. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

          2. mztore | | #29

            Just getting back to read and catch up.  Saw your last post and was wondering how it all turned out?  One of the books I finaly got from the Library said that even the boxes that the linens are stored in will make ugly brown stains that look like food stains, so I'm curious.

            I've started packing for a big move, and had to repack the table cloths again.  Using acid free materials to pack them in now. 

            Another box arrived from the youngest, and he sent another smaller damask cloth and several hand made linen cloths...like used for table tops and dressers.  I'm loving it.


          3. Josefly | | #30

            I'm still working on the first tablecloth. Thanks for asking, though.Congratulations on your "new" treasures. And good luck with your move.Joan

    3. lizabeth | | #21

      Good luck with your cloths. The suggestions so far are great. I have successfully rescued a bit of old embroidery. I use a gentle oxygen bleach/nappy soaker and keep the cloth in the solution for days and days. A really long gentle soak works wonders. One type of stain that will not come out with soaking but is still safely removable is rust. A chemical called oxalic acid will safely remove rust marks without damaging the fabric. Over here it can be bought in paint shops and hardware stores. It changes the red iron into a green form of iron which is soluble and just washes off. It has saved quite a bit of old embroidery that had been put away with threaded needles or pins still in it.

  2. katina | | #2

    How super for you!  Taunton has a book "Sew Vintage" which you may find useful.

    Enjoy your treasures.


    1. baglady | | #4

      Martha Stewart has had experts on her show talking about caring for old linens so there may be something on her website.

      1. SewTruTerry | | #5

        I found the information that I spoke of earlier. From Simply Quilts---" Age Spots on Quilts: To brighten colors and remove age spots and yellow discoloration from quilts, combine 1 gallon of water and 1 quart of buttermilk with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice(it does not say that it has to be fresh squeezed.) Soak the quilt in this liquid and hand-wash with a mild soap for a reconditioned bright bright quilt. The natural ingredients are safe with no danger of damaging the quilt." I would have to say that if this is safe for quilts your linens should do fine.  Also a linen expert that I know and trust says never use any chlorine/ bleach on true linen fibers as this will break them down very quickly even before your eyes. This also goes for the detergents that have "fabric whiteners" in them.  Good luck and let us know what you do.

        1. mztorestitches | | #7

          Thanks for the suggestions.  I think I'll try the buttermilk and lemon juice first and see how that goes.  If it doesn't work on the spots, I'll try the biz route.

          As for using them on the table, I don't have a table big enough.  I'm alone, so the big tables of the past are gone.  There is one that is smaller, and I will use that, but it wasn't damaged at all anyhow.  The others are for long-long tables, but they need to be cleaned and kept in the family.  I do have a couple of DIL that would probably love to have them.

          I'll let you know how it goes.


    2. mztorestitches | | #9

      Since I'm on a limited income, I find very little $$ for books I'd like to have, but will try Amazon and see if I can pick up a used one.

      Our library here is small and has little on any of the 'crafty' things that I'm interested in so no help there.


      1. sueb | | #10

        check with your library to see if you can borrow it from another one.  We have a super tiny library here in my town too but thanks to the internet I can log on to the massachusetts library catalog and get books from any library in the state delivered to my local library so I can borrow them.  That's how I got a look at the Sew Vintage book which is a terrific book by the way and well worth tracking down.

      2. katina | | #11

        I echo Sue B's comments; this book is worth a read.


        Good luck!

      3. Beth | | #12

        Does your library have an interlibrary loan service? Ours has a small sewing selection. For 50 cents they will borrow a book from another library. I just give them a name, etc.

        American Sewing Guild includes a lending library. Are you a member? Cost to join is $40, so may be out of your budget.

        I caution care with what you use on these old linens. It is possible to ruin them.


        1. mztorestitches | | #13

          Yes, our library does have an interl -library service, but I haven't been to their site yet.  I'll have to see if they have any of the books.  Thanks for the reminder.


          1. User avater
            paddyscar | | #15

            If the book is owned by another library, it might not be in your local library's listing, so it's best to check with the librarian, if it's not there.

            I've had good luck with good old fashioned washing soda and then drying in the sun.  It may take a few times, but it is worth the effort and relatively harmless to natural fibres such as linen and cotton.


          2. mztorestitches | | #16

            Thanks for the reply.  Had to laugh about drying in the sun as that is not possible right now.  Where I live, there is very little sun at this time of year, mostly rain. 

            I did  talk to the librarian today and she is going to try to get me a copy of the book.  Sounds like a good reference.


        2. mztorestitches | | #14

          thanks again. :o)

      4. user-99588 | | #17

        You might just try washing your linen in very hot water and plain detergent as an antique linen dealer friend of mine does. If the cloths are not obviously frail the machine won't hurt them a bit. Linen is, after all, the strongest natural fiber around!I would simply fold the cloths for your table. You could also make them into simple bed covers by sewing them edge-to-edge and tucking the excess under your pillows. The fact that it's totally reversable is a definite bonus! If they really are horribly stained cut them into big kitchen towels. They will wear like iron and since they're already "ruined" you can save spending on paper towels and use them for cleaning up messes. Non-bleach spray cleaners have yet to hurt mine.As for books, if you can't afford them then don't buy them! You have a library nearby so use their Iner-Library Loan service. It will take a few weeks but it's usually free and you can get virtually any book you want. If you & your friends request lots of the better sewing books your library is likely to start buying them as it becomes cheaper than the shipping charges. If you find the book truly indespensible you can then buy a used copy.enjoy your linens

        1. mztorestitches | | #18

          I can't begin to thank you enough for your response...as well as everyone else. 

          I have taken all of the suggestions to heart and have started implimenting some of them.

          I've put in my request at the library.  Said it would take a few days.

          I've used biz on one and have just put it in for the 2'nd day.  Same with Oxy clean. 

          Haven't tried the buttermilk and lemon yet....don't have any buttermilk, and ran out of vinegar to make some.

          The one napkin that I did first turned out very lovely...bright white.  Now I have another 5 to do so they will match.  There is just one that may not be savable.  The rest of them are looking good.  When they are all done soaking and other treatments, I will wash them and inspect again before I dry them.

          From the looks of them, they have been sent to the dry cleaners in the past.  Is it ok to iron them before putting them away, or should they be left "natural" until time to use them.  There isn't a cleaners here anyhow.  I did manage to buy a couple of acid free boxes and some tissue paper, so I now have the proper storage medium.  Just wonder about ironing them before putting them away.

          Thanks again.


          1. Josefly | | #19

            If you're packing them away for storage instead of to use in the near future, I would not use starch on them. Ironing shouldn't hurt, by itself, but most of my linen needs starch to really look nice, so you might just postpone ironing until ready to use. For cloths in use, even just annually, you can starch and iron them and fold them lengthwise to fit on a pants hangar (or other hangar with a paper towel roller over the cross-bar), eliminating crosswise folds and extra wrinkles.I brought home several old tablecloths from my mother-in-law when she closed her home and moved to Florida, so I've been very interested in your cleaning question and the answers you get. These cloths have too much history and are too beautiful to give up on, even though there are some pretty bad stains on them, so I'll be using the advice you get also. I've fallen in love with tablecloths, oddly, since when I was younger I thought they were waaaaaay too much trouble. Considering your question about how to use tablecloths which you can't restore enough to use on the table, I started to remember things I've seen done. Every now and then I see a garment made from or embellished with beautifully embroidered, or tatted lace-trimmed, or cut-work handkerchiefs, and I think that the corners from napkins and tablecloths could be used the same ways -- to trim collars, pocket flaps, sleeve edges, etc. And so many skirts lately are made with assymetrical hemlines and/or inserted godets, couldn't a linen tablecloth be used somehow? I've also seen beautiful window valences and shower curtains made from tablecloths. Those small square tablecloths that were made for bridge tables back in the thirties, forties and fifties, are a good size when turned diagonally over the curtain rod, as mentioned in a previous note. I once split a tablecloth trimmed around the edges with beautiful embroidery, and used the two lengthwise halves as window curtain panels, hanging them with the trim down the center and bottom edges. Christmas tablecloths could be made into tree-skirts, or incorporated into Christmas stockings. Maybe a quilt could be pieced from squares cut from one tablecloth or more, also using the napkins, and other fabrics that coordinate? This seems like a great topic for a Threads article.

          2. mztorestitches | | #20

            Thanks for your suggestions, and hope you get as much from all the comments as I have.

            Everyone has greatly impressed me with their input.  It has been a big help.  Tomorrow is the day I'll actually wash the tablecloths.  So far, they all look pretty good except for one.  It may be beyond help, but it wil not go to waste.  I love the idea for swags for the windows and pillow covers. 


          3. mztorestitches | | #22

            Just an update....all the tablecloths turned out just great, not a spot on any of them.  I am so excited.  I spent several hours ironing two of them, without startch.  They look lovely.

            I used "SHOUT OXY POWER".  put each one in a bucket of hot water and changed it over several days.  Then I washed them in the machine and looked them over very carefully before drying them.  The ones I ironed didn't get all the way dry, so they were pretty easy to iron.  I can remember my Mother dampening the tablecloths before ironing them.  She was a perfectionist about her laundry.  They always looked so lovely.

            Thank you all for the help.  I have more hints stored away for the DIL's when I give them theirs.


          4. mygaley | | #23

            Rejoicing with you!  Galey

          5. starzoe | | #25

            If all else fails, and you have some linens that cannot be refurbished, cut them into generous-size tea towels for drying dishes.  There is nothing like linen for this task.

  3. SewTruTerry | | #3

    I may be the only one with this opinion but I say clean as best you can and then use on the table. If there are no worn spots or tears it is the best tribute that you can give these linens. Also there was a segment on Simply Quilts awhile back that they recommended a solution that include as strange as it sounds I think it was buttermilk to soak quilts and other fine linens in to remove discolorations. I will try to look it up and post as soon as possible.

  4. rosepetals | | #24

    Make sachets with them and put some needleworks design too by hand or by machine. Also take the cut out parts of the tablecloths and make a machine emb. design on it and place in a quilted piece whether it's a table runner or a placemat or wall hanging. If its a good size cut piece make a nice side table piece for your screen porch and have something stitched on it too. There are many options you can do with old table napkins and tablecloths. Hope this helps give you some ideas.

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