Dealing with Old Stains on Linen

Hand Printed Tablecloth Pink and Blue

Hand Printed Tablecloth Pink and Blue

If a post-laundering inspection reveals stains that haven’t come out completely, you will have to pretreat and launder again or use some of the older removal techniques.  A comprehensive outline of specific stains and removal methods can be found in How to Clean Everything by Alma Chestnut Moore and in Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson, chapter 28.  Martha Stewart also has a stain removal chart for specific types of soiling on her website.  Here is a brief overview of treatments for some common stains on tablecloths, placemats and napkins.

  • Grease or Lipstick
    For stubborn oil based stains, you should use solvent-based spot removers, like Carbona and Goof Off.  Follow the instructions on the label.
  • Chocolate, Red Wine or FruitFor stains that have faded but aren’t completely out, you can repeat treatment with Spray ‘n Wash, Zout, liquid enzyme detergent like Era, and liquid Clorox 2.  Let the products sit on the fabric for a few hours before rinsing out or re-washing.  It may take repeated treatments to fade the stain completely.  Carbona Stain Devils are a line of seven or more formulas targeting specific types of stains and are useful when dealing with chocolate and fruit-based stains that remain after laundering.  Or you may have to move on to treatment with alternative bleaches.
  • Stubborn and Mysterious Old Yellow Stains
    You can turn to the arsenal of non-chlorine bleaches.  There are actually several types of non-chlorine bleaches.  People are generally familiar with these as “all-fabric” or “color-safe” bleaches, like liquid Clorox 2 (hydrogen peroxide), Snowy bleach and Oxiclean (sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate).  More powerful non-chlorine bleaches are found in Tintex or Rit Color Remover, Rit Fabric Whitener & Brightener, and Rit White-Wash.  These latter products contain sodium hydrosulfite and sodium carbonate anhydrous and are not color safe.  The hydrogen peroxide you get at the drugstore can be used to remove stains on white linen, and is the first thing you should use on a blood stain on white fabric.  Additionally, Stain Devils by Carbona spot remover formulas for fruit and red wine and for coffee, tea and cola are essentially the same sorts of non-chlorine bleaches or color removers.  Use them as directed on the label.  This usually requires dissolving the powders in hot water and soaking the stained area or the whole article, or making a paste that is applied to the stain and left in place for several hours.   Note that these bleaches will remove yellow chlorine bleach stains on linen.  These additional stain removal treatments should remove or lighten the stain.  If the stain is only lightened, you will have to repeat the treatment one or more times or use a stronger treatment to get the stain out completely.  Be patient and methodical.  Don’t ruin the fabric to get out a small residual stain.
  • If All Else Fails
    Follow directions on the package of Tintex or Rit Color Remover for boiling and simmering the linen article in a pot on the stove using the product.  This method is used successfully to get rid of mysterious old yellow stains on vintage linen napkins and stubborn perspiration stains on cotton pillowcases.  Be warned that it will lighten the color of the item.
  • Warning
    Many of these non-chlorine bleach treatments can remove color from a colored linen articles–particularly if they’re labeled “Color Remover” of “Whitener” as the sodium hydrosulfite-containing products are.  But then, most colored linen won’t show pale stain residues.  For colored linen with stubborn stains you will have to test the product on a hidden place before using these bleaching stain treatments, resort to the older non-bleach stain removal methods, or consult a really good professional cleaner or the Fabricare Institute for help.  If you find your natural-colored linen has been lightened to a degree that is not to your taste, consider using Dylon Tea Dye or traditional tea dyeing to return the darker shade to the fabric.  Familiarize yourself with the technique and follow instructions closely to get even color, consistent color among pieces and the shade you want.


How to Clean Everything by Alma Chestnut Moore (various editions, out of print, available used on eBay) is a cleaning bible in two alphabetical sections.  The first section lists how to clean everything and explains various cleaning substances and the methods of use.  The second section lists specific stains and how to remove them.  However, the author is mistaken about using chlorine bleach on linen.

Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House  by Cheryl Mendelson (Scribner 1999) is a comprehensive guide on housekeeping, from dust mites to tax withholding for hired house cleaners.  Her emphasis is on both the how and the why.  There are several chapters each on fabrics and on how to do laundry.  Chapter 28 is a compendium of stain removal methods.

Saving Stuff  by Don Williams, Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian Institution, and Louisa Jaggar (Fireside/Simon & Schuster 2005) is subtitled “How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized  Possessions,” which pretty much explains the book.  The master conservator outlines the storage of linen textiles on pages 256-57.


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