vintage tablecloth

How to Care for and Wash Vintage Linens

Antique Linens and Lace

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas. After I polished the silver and sorted through my favourite china (link here), I sorted through my collection of vintage tablecloths, table runners and napkins. I tend to keep things that are sentimental to me. I may be a bit of a hoarder, but I’m working on it (really!) I am working on following the principle of only keeping things that I would actually use, or that I find beautiful.

Table setting with tablecloth and napkins
Photo by Valeriya Kobzar on

I recently sorted my late mother’s linen closet out. There were her 1950’s wedding gifts, linens from her Irish ancestors, and handmade lace from my father’s Ontario pioneer ancestors.

Linen tablecloth with flowers
Photo by Natalie on

All of these things, I kept and brought home – No healthy purging for me with these things!

I decided though that it’s OK to use them, and enjoy them. My ancestors were practical and thrifty people, and I think they would approve.

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Cloth Tablecloths and Napkins are Fashionable Again

Formal table cloths and napkins were not very fashionable for a while. I know that my mother sent her white tablecloths to the drycleaners after every family dinner, (I know I spilled a lot – and still do) – so no wonder she put them away. Too much trouble for a busy working mother of the 1970s.

These days, cloth napkins are increasingly popular. It might be tempting to go out and buy new linens for every occasion, but that’s not very green, eco-friendly and carbon neutral is it?

It's tempting to see all these new linens at the department store
It’s tempting to see all these new linens at the department store

When I brought my mother’s linens home, many were yellowed or had yellow and orange spots. There was no point in keeping something I wouldn’t put on my table – so I set about cleaning each item.

Vintage tablecloth and napkins with blue embroidery being ironed
Vintage tablecloth and napkins with blue embroidery being ironed

Washing Vintage Linens and Tablecloths

At first, I was super careful with each item – I was convinced they would dissolve or tear if I washed them. Guess what? They didn’t tear at all!

Pre-soak linens in tepid water

I soaked each item in lukewarm water for a day to re-hydrate them. I used a large Tupperware plastic bin. (After a few days my husband asked if we had to keep the box in the kitchen!)

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Then I gently rinsed each item.

Soak again in Non Chlorine Bleach and Ivory Snow

I sprinkled some OXYClean non oxygen bleach and some Ivory Snow detergent into the bin – and added hot water. I smooshed the powder, detergent and water around and then added a few linens to the water – smooshing again, for a second soak. I put like colours together and let each group of linens soak over night.

Vintage tablecloth and runner under recently polished silver - waiting to be ironed!
Vintage tablecloth and runner under recently polished silver – waiting to be ironed!

Rinse and Hang Dry – Iron if Necessary

The next morning, I rinsed each item in cold water and hung each piece to dry. I repeated this process with different groups of linens over several days. I found that the rinse released some unpleasant smells, so I ended up moving this project to the basement. None of my linens needed specific stain treatment. ALL of the old spots came out with one water and one OXYclean soak!

All of my vintage linens came out freshly scented and clean. Many of the items required a warm ironing (which was no fun – but doable).

Use Vintage Linens

I have already used my vintage linens at Thanksgiving and a few other occasions. I am looking forward to using my 1950s style Christmas tablecloth with my 1980s red dinner napkins in a few weeks time. I also plan to take my 1950s funky party tablecloths to our new cottage in the spring. I have placed one of my newfound runners over the scratch in the centre of my dining room table that happened way back when I repaired the lawnmower on it. (Doesn’t everybody do that? – maybe not!)

Vintage runner on dining room table
I have a vintage runner down the centre of my dining room table for “everyday” – to hide the scratches I left there when I repaired the lawnmower on the table.

Washing and sorting all of these vintage linens was well worthwhile, time consuming (from an overnight soaking and hang drying point of view), but easy and inexpensive.

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If you can’t bear to part with or risk your vintage linens, take them to a cleaner to be professionally cleaned and repaired. My own philosophy is to enjoy what I have, so I am prepared to wash my linens myself, and if I spoil them, that’s OK! (I didn’t though – at least not so far!)

2 thoughts on “How to Care for and Wash Vintage Linens

  1. Thanks for the tips about washing vintage linens. I have a few myself. As for ironing, I’ve found that linen irons best when it is damp. Not even the best modern iron can do a good job on dry linen. And I agree — there’s nothing like vintage “everything” on the table to make you realize you are sitting down to a very special meal.

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