Here’s How to Care for Grandma’s Vintage Linens

Grandma didn't bestow her vintage linens upon you to have them tucked in a drawer, so we'll teach you how to use, clean and store them.

embroidered tableclothsPhoto: Shutterstock / CoolR
Photo: Shutterstock / CoolR

Grandma’s the best, isn’t she? She knows how to whip up a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies and gives you great things like jewelry from the 1940s and vintage linens.

Oh, those linens. So dainty and beautiful, you’re terrified to actually use them. But Grandma didn’t bestow her heirloom table linens upon you just to have them tucked in a drawer. So we’ll break down how to use, clean and store them.

How to Use Them

Use your linens sparingly

Sure, your linens are meant to be used, but that doesn’t mean you should use them every single day. We recommend using your linens only for small, light dinners. You might be able to clean a fresh smear of chocolate fudge cake out of your tablecloth–we’ll get to cleaning linens in a moment–but wine, coffee and tomato sauce stains are more likely to set in and ruin your linens for good.

Hosting a party? Here’s how to set your table.

Iron only before you use your linens

Grandma’s linens may be old, but if they’ve been well-preserved, you can still iron them with the best iron. Simply lay your linens on an ironing board, spritz them with water, and smooth the iron over your tablecloth or napkin. When should you iron your linens? The jury’s split. Some experts believe ironing your linens immediately after you wash them will keep them looking crisp, but the starch you use during ironing breaks down and can turn your linens yellow. Um, no thank you. Not only will ironing them right before a big dinner party keep them stain-free, you also won’t have to worry about those unsightly folds.

Ironing embroidered linens? To make your embroidery pop, lay a terrycloth towel on the board and iron the reverse side.

How to Clean Them

Soak embroidered linens

Cleaning vintage linens poses a problem. You want to keep them as white as possible, but using harsh bleach and soap can damage the fibers. For a gentle yet effective cleaning, soak your tablecloths, napkins and runners in warm water for 15 minutes. Next, add some mild, phosphate-free soap to your water and swish your linens around. Thoroughly rinse, lay them out to air dry, and Grandma’s table linens will look better than they have in years.

Bleach your linens naturally

Nobody wants to put splotchy, stained napkins on their dining room table, but submerging Grandma’s napkins in bleach will do more harm than good. Believe it or not, your kitchen has everything you need to brighten them. Start by rubbing lemon juice and salt on your linens and hang them outside to air dry. Once dry, rinse them with warm, clean water and air dry one more time. Your linens won’t look new new, but they’ll be whiter than before.

If all else fails, try something store-bought

Grandma’s tablecloths are no match for your washing machine’s rinse cycle. If soap, water and lemon juice don’t do the trick, do not—we repeat, do not—throw your linens in the laundry. Instead, pick up Engleside’s Restoration fabric cleaner, which is known to gently remove old and new stains. For best results, Engleside recommends mixing three scoops of Restoration per gallon of water and submerging your linens for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove, wring out any leftover water and place it in a new mix of Restoration and water for six to eight hours. After you rinse out the solution and air dry, you’ll be left with fresh linens. It’s that easy.

Know when to enlist in the professionals

We hate spending an ungodly amount of money on dry-cleaning, but when it comes to those precious heirlooms, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Before you submerge Granny’s table runner in warm, soapy water, check the quality of the fabric. Some pieces might be so fragile that hand-washing will only damage them. If you spot holes or super weak areas, we recommend sending them to your dry cleaner or consulting a fabric specialist.

How to Store Them

Wrap and store your linens with care

Want to pass down Grandma’s linens to your kids? Your kids’ kids? You need to know how to properly store them first. For best results, find a cool, dry, well-ventilated space. To keep them from getting sun-damaged, we recommend you pick a dark place. Your mud room closet is a great example. Place heavier linen table cloths and curtains on the bottom and lighter cocktail napkins and handkerchiefs on top. It’s best to keep your linens flat, but if they have to be folded, pad your box with acid-free tissue paper or muslin. Areas with crisp corners are prone to wear and tear, so padding them will make those edges less severe.

Don’t store your linens in wood…

Grandma’s equally old wooden dresser seems like an appropriate place to store her old table cloth, right? Not so fast. The acid in the wood fibers can actually seep out and stain your precious linens. Polypropylene plastic is also a no-go because it emits gas and makes your linens sticky over time. Your best bet? Store your linens in an acid-free box or lining a cardboard box with muslin.

…But if you have no other option

Wooden cabinets, drawers and shelves are by no means the best place to store your linens, but if you have no other option, you can make your oak or walnut work. As a last resort, lining your drawers with acid-free tissue paper will protect your linens from wood’s staining acids. For extra measure, wrap your linens in muslin or cotton before storing.

You used, cleaned and stored your heirloom linens. Now what? Check in on them every few months. Refolding and airing out your linens every season will help relieve stress on folded corners and keep them looking their best.

Kelsey Mulvey
Kelsey Mulvey is a freelance writer and editor based in New York. Her hobbies include wine, nachos and the occasional hibachi dinner.