I call my laundry process the "Me & G" laundry system: first part I do, last part Mother Nature takes over on a warm sunny day! For any linens (linen and cotton) and lace follow these steps and your lovely antique linens will come to life again in shining beauty!
Many items are best treated in a small bucket or tub first. I do use my front loader washer often (gentle and hand wash cycles) depending on the item, but if they are at all delicate you'll want a lingerie bag to protect your piece from pulling.
1. Soak your item in cool, plain water for at least an hour - or two. Change the water often as you see it get greyish and yucky. After last dump, rinse out and squeeze out water.
2. In warm water bucket add a gentle detergent, soak - squeeze - soak your piece for a couple hours more. I often use a small scoop of OxiClean and my favorite laundry detergent. Whatever works best for your normal laundry will be fine. Don't over-use the quantity of cleaner. It's better to use a small amount (pending the size of your bucket/tub) and then repeat as necessary.
3. Time is your friend in this process of cleaning. Old yellowing and old starches need time to loosen and lift. Gentle squeezing by hand is enough to push the soaps/cleaners in and out of the weave & threads.
4. After you've reached a preferred point of whiteness with spots gone, start a rinse process. See notes below about bleaching.
5. Rinse till the cows come home! Just dump soapy waters - squeeze - rinse in clean water. I do this MANY TIMES until I no longer see soap residue in the water. Sometimes I'll do 5-6 rinses. For small pieces, hold in your hands directly under the faucet and squeeze/rinse. The water needs to be clear. Old soap residue in a fabric does more harm than dirt!
6. Here is where the “G” part comes in: Sun it! If you are fortunate to still have a backyard clothes line, let your linens dry in the sun. No line? Just put a large white cloth on the ground (or patio) and lay your item flat. (I actually prefer to lay mine directly on the grass when I am doing a longer sunning.) Be sure to do both sides.
Here's a great secret for fine weight laces and small pieces: dry on a pane of glass. "Finger iron" as you lay it out. You will be amazed when it is dry and you "peel it" off. (I used to do this in my shop on the jewelry cases! When I came in the next day I had a stock pile ready to go :)
7. When ironing, make sure the fabric has been dampened with a water spray. Iron fully and only use a light spray starch at the very end - as a finishing touch. The spray starch adds a wonderful finish which is also protective. Scorched starch will yellow - watch your iron heat.
Notes about Machine Washing
I do use my washing machine often when doing antique linens. If you are lucky enough to have one of the newer style front loader spin washers, you can do the soaking part by bucket but then finish in your machine on a gentle or even a hand wash cycle. Make sure the load is balanced (add other whites like pillowcases if necessary.) If you have lace on your item, still bag it to prevent pull. If it is just straight fabric with cotton eyelet trims, you don't need to bag it.
Even when doing a full hand washing process, I use the spin cycle of my own machine to really spin out the final soaps and water. Just "lay" your pieces around the tub (top loaders). Just spin - no back and forth agitation.
Notes about Bleaching
Most old whites are cotton and respond quickly to a bleach bath. If you decide you need an extra umph of whitening use a very small amount (less than 1/4 C in your hand washing tub) in hot water and just swish items for a few minutes. You should use a spoon or laundry stick - not your hands. Chlorine works fast. Then dump the water and start rinsing. Again: rinse till the cows come home and no odor is left in your fabrics.
Severe Dark Spots
Sometimes small dark brown (almost black) spots occur on antique linens as a result of oxidation over the years. These will NOT come out - be prepared to live with it. If you have rust, spot treat with a rust remover before washing. It is a chemical reaction and works immediately. If not - it's not rust. Another great product to spot treat is hydrogen peroxide. Spot treat and rinse well before full washing.
If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to email me. If you have antique items you are in question about, send me a picture.
I've handled pieces of all shapes and sizes over the years - it's really not a "mystery" and I just urge folks to use good common sense. Remember, our grandmothers had much less fancy equipment to use! Cotton and linen are sturdy fabrics and clean well with appropriate care. Be aware of the weave and needlework and just be gentle where needed.
And last but not least: rinse till the cows come home.
Me & G Laundress,