How to Clean Yellowed, Vintage Linens

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Dear Home Ec 101,
I have some vintage linens that are a bit stained from time. . . I’m talking things like hankies, towels, fabrics, etc that are yellowed with age. I inherited them from my grandmother (and various other relatives). I’d like to clean them up, but not knowing what kind of fabric they are (although I suspect most are cotton, linen, or a cotton blend) or what has caused the yellow/brownish tint to them, I don’t know what to use. I don’t want to ruin them (obviously). I’d really appreciate some help.

Maybe we could start the help with my excessive use of parenthesis. 🙂
Yellow in Yuma

Your plan of attack with stain removal on vintage linens will depend highly on just how attached to the items you feel.

Heather says:

Your plan of attack with stain removal on vintage linens will depend highly on just how attached to the items you feel and whether or not these items will be relegated to everyday use or simply kept on display or for sentimental reasons. I also invite Home Eccers with more experience in handling delicate textiles to chime in.

Your stain removal methods will also depend highly on the actual age of the garment. I don’t know your age, so the age of your grandmother’s linens could vary quite widely. The suggestions below assume that the linens are cotton or linen, not silk or wool.

If you plan on bringing the towels into general use, an overnight soak in a sodium percarbonate solution may help get rid of the yellowing. Typically Oxiclean is the most familiar brand of sodium percarbonate. Your bathtub or a storage tote (without holes in the bottom, check first, ask me why I suggest that step) can work for soaking, if you struggle with soaking in a front load washer.

You can also try Oxiclean on the hankies and items like pillowcases, but I would recommend a more gentle approach, first.

Many people who work with fabrics from the 50s recommend Biz, an enzymatic laundry booster.

Still others recommend soaking in a Borax with Woolite or a very gentle detergent like Dreft.

And finally there is a detergent specifically sold for this purpose called Restoration – I have NO experience with this product, so I cannot vouch for its effectiveness, but I have seen it recommended here and there over the years.

Do NOT hang vintage fabrics in sunlight to remove yellowing. This is apparently a major no-no in the fabric restoration field as it can make yellowing worse in older fabrics and can significantly damage the fibers.

Whatever tactic you try, remember that rinsing is probably the most important stage of dealing with vintage fabrics. You want to be sure not to leave any residue behind which could further damage the fabric.

For your most delicate items, hand washing is the rule, do not spin the items. Place the item flat on an absorbent towel and gently roll up the towel to absorb as much water as possible and then hang dry. Press the items before they are fully dry. If there is any lace and the item is extremely sentimental, I suggest consulting a professional.

how to launder unusual items
Click the picture for more tips!

If you want more information on handling vintage fabrics the Smithsonian Institute has some great tips for handling antique textiles. (Although I suspect your items are more likely from mid-20th century, right?) The article is very interesting and you can learn some great techniques.

(And don’t ask about how to quit parenthetical abuse, I’m just as guilty.)

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8 thoughts on “How to Clean Yellowed, Vintage Linens”

  1. I use generic non chlorine powdered bleach in a bucket of water. Let them soak for at least 2 days then wash them on a gentle cycle with cold water. If there are any stains left i soak them again. The only stains I can’t get out are rust, blood and marker or anything heavily stained. Most things I have had success with but then again I only buy things I think I can clean. Then lay them flat to dry. If you put them in a dryer you won’t be able to get the stains out. It sets the stains in permanently.

  2. I had some linen napkins that had been stored well over 70 years and were yellowed to various degrees. After some research and talking to a stain expert I went with a white vinegar solution (1 cup per gallon of water) for a 48 hour soak. I covered the container with plastic wrap to keep the smell inside. The stain expert told me that the soak is the most important part, at least 48 hours. Most of the yellow was gone after a machine wash with Dreft soap. A few of the items still looked a little yellow. I soaked them another 48 hours. Now I have have 12 linen napkins that can be used. They look “old” but clean and ready for use today.

  3. Your information is just what I needed! I am trying to whiten and clean some hats from 1860’s. The white one has been stored in very acid surroundings. Your readers should know that plastic is best for storing fabrics. Use only acid free tissue paper and no cardboard or wooden boxes. The acid from tree products will stain any cottons, etc.

  4. I have a vintage framed needlepoint picture with some age spots or water spots on it. Can it be spot-cleaned without taking it out of the frame? And, if so, what would you recommend I use?

    Appreciate any help/suggestions you can lend.

  5. So, Heather, inquiring minds would like to know: how exactly DO you know to personally recommend that we look for holes in a storage tote? 😀

    Seriously, though, thanks for these tips. I have quite a few vintage linens that I haven’t displayed, mostly for this reason. It’s worth a try, right? They aren’t doing a whole lot of good just sitting in my china buffet!

  6. Thank you for this very informative post. I have a small chest of drawers filled with vintage linens – most with stains, spots and/or yellowed. I will definately try your recommendations. Also thank you for the link to the Smithsonian Institute – awesome 🙂


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