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Get Brighter Whites

Martha Stewart Living, June 2010

Vintage white pieces made of cotton, linen, or a blend of the two, have a warmth and durability that's hard to come by with new linens. Better still, antique towels, sheets, tablecloths, and napkins are easy to find at flea markets and antiques shops. Maybe you already have a set that's been banished to a closet because of yellowing and stains. With summer entertaining upon us, now is the time to bring old linens back to life, and you can do it at home. Our in-house experts on all things antique -- collecting editor Fritz Karch and prop-library manager Jutta Amse -- show us how, in six simple steps.

Step 1: Hydrate
To refresh vintage linens that have been stored awhile, a long soak is necessary before laundering. Leave pieces in cold or tepid water (hot water will cause stains to set) for at least a day in a nonreactive container, such as a five-gallon plastic bucket or storage tub, both available at home-improvement or hardware stores. The water will help loosen any dirt, old detergent, or starch residue.

Bright ideas: Fill a container with enough water to cover the linens so that they float freely. Agitate the linens gently with your hands once or twice a day. Heavily soiled pieces may need to soak for a week or longer. The same holds true for pieces with deep fold lines -- the dirt that accumulates along exposed creases on pieces that have been stored for a long time. Be sure to soak heavy linens separately from more delicate ones, but different shades of white can be combined in a single container. Change the water when it starts looking dirty. You'll know you are done with this step when the water remains clear after the linens have been added to it.

Step 2: Pretreat
After linens have been hydrated sufficiently and are still wet, look for stains and pretreat them before laundering. Stain sticks work well for pretreating most spots. Jutta likes to use Spray 'n Wash Max Stain Stick, which has a handy deodorant-style applicator.

Bright ideas: One of the toughest stains to deal with is rust, often caused by staples or pins left in linens purchased at tag sales. To battle these stains, Jutta recommends Whink Rust Stain Remover. She uses an embroidery hoop, which keeps the fabric taut, to isolate the stain, and then spot-cleans following the product instructions. Be careful with sheer fabrics, which may be extrasensitive to this product.

Step 3: Launder
Delicate and vintage pieces should be laundered by hand in a large container; bedding and sturdier items can be machine-washed. In both cases, use warm water, a mild detergent, and a powdered oxygen bleach, which is gentler than chlorine versions. If washing by hand, be sure to wear rubber gloves and avoid breathing in the product. Let linens soak, changing the water every other day until stains disappear.

Bright ideas: Jutta uses Oxi-Clean; Fritz prefers Clorox 2. Biz is another good option. Whichever oxygen bleach you choose, it's important to let it dissolve in the water before adding your linens. For extra whitening, you can double the recommended amount of bleach and detergent.

Step 4: Rinse
After cleaning, rinse linens thoroughly, until the water is clear. Remove excess water by gently rolling them in a clean, white towel.

Step 5: Dry
Always air-dry vintage linens. If possible, dry items flat on a clean towel or on a large horizontal drying rack. If you have a wooden drying rack, place a towel under your linens to protect them from oils in the wood.

Bright ideas: Handle wet items carefully. To make sure they dry evenly, with no distortions to their shape, you can fold the fabric and line up the edges.

Step 6: Iron
Press linens with a dry iron on the cotton/linen setting. For delicate items, first place a pressing cloth or a towel on top to protect the fabric from direct heat. Dampen linens with a water-filled spray bottle, and use a light spray of sizing to maintain the fabrics shape.

Bright ideas: Jutta swears by distilled water when ironing to eliminate stains caused by substances in tap water.

When to Call a Pro
Our care instructions apply to white linen, cotton, or linen-cotton items. "Pure linen is usually oyster-colored, while basic cotton is always white," Fritz says. "If it's a heavy piece, chances are it's linen. Cotton fabrics will always be lighter." If you're not sure about the fabric, it's best to entrust your linens to a textile restorer or cleaner. More valuable pieces, and those that have intricate embroidery or are colored, should also be handled by a professional.

How to Store
Proper storage will keep your whites in good shape for generations. Put them in a dry, dark cupboard on shelves that are painted, or lined with acid-free paper, to help keep the fabric from turning yellow. Before stashing them away, either fold or roll them. 

Folding: Tuck sheets of acid-free paper between linens to minimize creasing. 

Rolling: For extended storage, Martha wraps tablecloths and napkin sets around recycled mailing tubes to avoid creases. Cover the tube with acid-free paper. Wrap the linens, one by one, around the tube, with more paper between each. To finish, wrap a sheet of acid-free cellophane/polypropylene around the whole roll, and secure with acid-free tape.

Comments (1)

  • Laura Thake 16 Jul, 2013

    My mother always dried her linens by laying them on the grass, she said the chlorophyll in the grass helped bleach the stains. I have followed the instructions above and added that step. Things that were faded yellow, and even stains have been significantly lightened or completely removed. Leave them in the sun for a couple of hours, they'll dry and be ready for ironing. We used to do this to our Keds in the 70's and it worked on them too!