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How to Get Stains Out of Vintage Linens

Beth Asher
Table of Contents

Vintage linens range from intricate garments to simple handkerchiefs. Woven from flax, linen is a natural fiber material that has been worn since the time of the pyramids. Its fibers are hollow at the core which allows them to wick moisture and keep you feeling cool on a hot day.

Like any organic material, vintage linens are prone to damage from heat, incorrect cleaning and exposure to strong sunlight. Removing discoloration caused by linen being put away without being thoroughly cleaned can be difficult to do without damaging dry fibers. Eliminating tough stains from vintage linen is a time-consuming process. Cleaning carefully will restore the beauty and quality of your vintage linens.

Check for Colorfastness

  1. Pick a spot to apply the colorfastness test. Use the seam allowance on a vintage garment; use a small inconspicuous spot large items.

  2. Wet a cotton swab thoroughly and press against fabric or embroidery in your chosen spot. Watch for bleeding color that is lifted by the swab or seeping onto the towel below.

  3. Take vintage linens that are not colorfast to professional dry cleaner.

Removing Light Stains

  1. Fill a non-reactive container with cool distilled water that equals at least four times the volume of your vintage linen. Do not use copper or galvanized containers or pack linen tightly into a small container. Use only distilled water as it does not have minerals, rust, metal traces, or other substances that will inhibit oxygen cleaners, react with stains, or further damage vintage fabric.

  2. Soak linens for up to six days; replace distilled water every two days. Pour off used water on the sixth day and fill your container with clean distilled water to at least four times the volume of the wet linen. Rinse with circular swishing motions; do not wring.

  3. Lay soaked vintage linens flat or hang to dry after soaking; never twist, wring out or wad up. Do not lay over rope, string or wooden racks that can mold or leach onto linens.

Remove Moderate Stains or Yellowing

  1. Remove organic stains and reverse the effects of oxidation that cause yellowing by soaking in an OxiClean solution. Make a solution of 2 tbsp of OxiClean to 2 cups of distilled water for small pieces of vintage linen; 16 tbsp to 1 gallon distilled water for large pieces.

  2. Heat distilled water to dissolve OxiClean, mix completely and let cool before immersing vintage linens. Use OxiClean only in an open container, solutions can build up pressure and rupture closed containers.

  3. Fill container with enough solution to equal four times the volume of your linen. Soak vintage linens for up to six days if desired, rinsing linens in distilled water and replacing the solution every two days.

  4. Remove remaining stubborn stains using a solution of 1 gallon warm distilled water and no more than 1 tbsp of Linen Wash overnight. Rinse, check stains, repeat if necessary or dry by hanging or laying flat.

Remove Heavy Stains

  1. Pretreat by soaking. Check problem areas after soaking and blot stains with clean distilled water on cotton swabs, white toweling, or white makeup sponge. Do not rub vigorously; rubbing breaks down vintage linen’s fibers and causes tears or holes.

  2. Mix 1 capful of Linen Wash to 1 gallon of lukewarm distilled water to create enough solution to equal four times the volume of your vintage linen. Immerse linen and wash by gently squeezing fabric or gently agitating back and forth; do not wring, twist or scrub. Rinse, check problem spots and repeat as needed.

  3. Boil colorfast linens only; use as last resort if all other steps have not worked. Make a solution of 2 tbsp of 20 Mule Team Borax to 1 gallon of distilled water. Boil water in a large stainless steel tea kettle, pour into a basin or pail, add borax and mix thoroughly. Repeat mixing proportions as needed to make enough to cover your vintage linen completely.

  4. Immerse vintage linen in boiling water solution for no more than 15 minutes, some shrinkage will occur. Remove very carefully; it will be hot, rinse thoroughly and lay flat or hang to dry.

Removing Fresh Stains

  1. Remove fresh stains from linens as soon as possible. Refer to a good stain type chart to find the best remover for your stain and apply by blotting. Rinse the area with distilled water.

  2. Wash by hand in gentle solution of 5 tsp Linen Wash to 1 gallon of distilled water, making enough solution to equal four times the volume of your vintage linen.

  3. Rinse thoroughly in distilled water; hang or lay flat to dry.

  4. Tip

    Wear disposable gloves whenever soaking and rinsing vintage linens and making cleaning solutions to prevent irritation caused by immersion and washing chemicals. Rinsing well because cleaning solutions left in fabrics will eventually cause stains. Rinse vintage linen several times after each stain treatment. Remove extra water before drying by blotting vintage linen between clean white towels. Storing cleaned vintage linens flat with no folds or ironed creases prevents yellowing; or roll around mailing tubes or paper towel rolls covered with acid-free tissue paper. Fold loosely around acid-free tissue paper if they must be stored folded after cleaning.


    Follow manufacturer’s recommendations when using commercial cleaning products like OxiClean or Linen Wash. Read all warnings on package and follow. Keep away from pets and children.

    Avoid chlorine bleach, which can eat through fibers leaving holes in vintage linen.

    Do not use home remedies like vinegar and salt unless you know exactly what has stained vintage linens. Salt sets tannin stains like tea, coffee, wine and some juices, is abrasive to fine fibers and is a desiccant. Rinsing improperly after using lemon juice will eventually cause brown stains.

    Avoid drying in a conventional dryer, it removes moisture from the fibers and causes brittleness.

    Do not store cleaned vintage linens in plastic as this prevents natural breathing of the fabric.