Using and displaying vintage and antique linens in your home isn't off limits with proper cleaning and care. When you buy them from a vendor at an antiques show or mall, they will likely be cleaned, pressed and ready to go whether you're going to use them or display them.
If you find a stash of old textiles at a garage sale or a flea market, however, they'll probably need some TLC when you get them home. All it takes is learning the right way to care for these fabrics since some of them can be rather delicate. This includes the steps to take before you get started with cleaning.
What to Do Before You Clean
The older the linens are, the more delicate they will likely be. Fibers deteriorate with age, so a good first step is to hold the item to the light. This will help you see any problem spots that are extremely worn or holes that may open further if you wet the fabric. Finding worn areas doesn't mean that you can't wet a textile made of cotton or linen (not silk or wool), but be aware that you may damage an item further by doing so. You'll also be aware of potential problem areas to approach with caution if ironing (see below) is needed.
Many items like pillowcases and dresser scarves you'll run across at estate sales will have embroidery on them. Most of these will do fine being machine washed if they are in good condition. Just be sure to check the embroidery thread to make sure it is colorfast before washing the textile. You can do this by carefully touching the back of the thread (the messy side) with a damp white cloth. If no color transfers onto the cloth, you should be good to go. If you do see color on the cloth, it's best to have the item dry cleaned.
Heavily soiled linens may require soaking in plain water to loosen dirt before soaping them up. Check the item after 15 to 20 minutes, and soak it longer if needed.
After the pre-soak, transfer the item to a sink filled with soapy water and delicately manipulate by hand to get it clean. Use phosphate-free soaps made for delicate fabrics if possible, and rinse thoroughly with cool, clear water.
If the garment has yellowed, you may want to try soaking it in cool water using a product like OxiClean.
After using your old linens, like napkins and tablecloths, always clean them right away so stains will be less likely to set in. When you find an old item that is already stained, keep in mind that it may never come clean as hard as you may try to get that spot out.
If you want to give bleaching a go, stick to non-chlorine options on the market and hand wash. Never use bleach on linen with colored embellishments such as embroidery or crocheted lace. And remember that bleach further weakens fibers, so only use it when absolutely necessary. You can also try soaking the piece in a textile enzyme cleaner.
Some antique linen fans swear by the old-fashioned method of using fresh lemon juice and salt directly on a stain and then letting the linens dry directly on the grass out in the sunshine. If you give this a shot, rinse the textile out with cool water after it dries, and let dry again before pressing it.
Old linens look their best when they are neatly ironed. Keep in mind that these old textiles will iron out more smoothly if they are pressed when slightly damp. Make sure to use just enough heat to make them look crisp without scorching the fabric. Don't tug excessively on the linen you're ironing. Gentle pressure and short strokes with the iron will yield nice results without damaging old fabrics.
When ironing embroidered pieces, do so face down and make sure your ironing board has ample cushion. This helps to avoid crushing the texture of the thread on the front of the piece.
What to Dry Clean
As mentioned above, embroidered pieces that are not colorfast are better left to dry cleaning. Items like curtains and pillow covers made of textured cotton called bark cloth should be dry cleaned as well to maintain their color and crispness. Consider dry cleaning anything else you don't want to risk damaging by wetting it, such as family heirloom linens.
It's also important to learn and research how to preserve and store antique quilts so they remain in top quality.