Despite fears to the contrary, fine linens actually benefit from frequent use. So, don't hesitate to pull out your favorite linen napkins for holiday meals -- they will be better off after being used, washed, ironed, and refolded. To keep stains from setting on table linens, attend to them as soon as possible. Martha demonstrates how she takes care of the toughest spills on her linens.
Red wine is one of the most stubborn stains, but doesn't have to be permanent if treated immediately. Ideally, if you can get to a spill as soon as it happens, soak it with ice-cold water. In many cases, however, wine is spilled during a meal, and you don't want to further embarrass your guest by whisking the cloth away to the laundry room. In this situation, your best bet is to quickly slide a small towel beneath the spill, dab the spot with a cold, wet cloth, and then sprinkle table salt over the stain. Rub it in a bit with your fingers, then cover the spot with another napkin and go on with your meal.
If wax is spilled while you're eating, just ignore it until later; you shouldn't try to remove wax from fabric until it is completely hardened. You can hasten the process by placing the fabric in the freezer, but it isn't necessary. Once the wax is hard, simply peel it away with your fingers. Martha avoids using colored candles because the drippings of hot, colored wax can leave indelible stains.
After the meal is over, immediately place napkins and other linens in an ice-water bath. Martha always lines her sink with a sturdy bath towel before filling it with water -- this helps later when lifting delicate linens from the sink. If you're too worn out from a day of cooking and entertaining to do the laundry right away, you can leave the linens in the water bath overnight.
When you're ready, lift the towel from the water with the linens inside, and drain the sink. Then, fill the sink with very hot water and laundry detergent. Martha also likes to add some nonchlorine bleach to the water for gentle brightening. Spray any stains that remain on the linens with a stain treatment, such as Spray 'n Wash, and allow it to sit for a few minutes. Add linens to the wash water, and gently squeeze suds through -- do not rub or wring. Let them soak for a few minutes, then drain the sink, and carefully squeeze out excess water. Rinse away the soap by refilling the sink with water and squeezing it through the linens until the water runs clear.
To dry, roll the linens in a large towel, gently patting to remove excess water. Then, lay the linens on a rack -- ideally in the sunlight -- until they are dry. Martha likes to iron her napkins before putting them away. She puts a terry-cloth towel over her ironing board and places a dampened napkin, wrong side up, on top. If your napkins are monogrammed, always iron on the wrong side -- never directly over the monogram. As you work, fold the napkin in half, then in quarters, gently ironing over the creases for a neat, crisp finish.