The Final Word on Linen Care and Storage

Linen Towel by Lois Long

Linen Towel by Lois Long


Will the cleaning methods work on other linen fabric items, like clothing?

The cleaning methods described in the previous three posts will work on all linen articles that can be laundered, especially linen bed sheets and towels.  For linen clothing, particularly blouses made of handkerchief linen, much gentler Ivory detergent or Woolite is the first choice and unless there is heavy staining, long pre-soaking isn’t required.  The laundry pretreatments and spot treatments work well on perspiration and skin oils that soil clothes.  Be very careful that an article is pre-shrunk before washing it.  Linen fabrics used for drapes and upholstery often aren’t pre-shrunk, so they can’t be laundered and must be dry cleaned.  The same is true of linen jackets and other tailored clothing.  Linen has the virtue of standing up to very hot water as a general rule, but table linens may have some minimal shrinking after the first hot water laundering.  Linen also needs a hot iron and should be ironed damp.

What treatments should I avoid?

  • The Fabricare Institute says that club soda is not a good stain remover and warns that it contains sugars and salts that can set stains or cause additional stains.
  • Absorbing a wine spill by covering it with table salt is another stain myth and seems to set the stain.   Absorb wine and other spills with paper towels and go back to your dinner.  You should always have a waterproof liner under your tablecloth so spills don’t ever reach the wood of the table.
  • Don’t let people mop up spills with your linen napkins.  The unthinking will try this and just give you more work.

How should I store linen?

  • If you plan to store linen for a long time, give it an extra rinse, or even an extra full wash using white vinegar or water softener in the wash cycle instead of detergent to remove mineral, detergent and iron residues that can cause yellowing over the long term.  Never use fabric softeners.
  • Experts recommend no starch on linen being stored for long periods.
  •  Hang or roll tablecloths to store.  Folding and stacking tends to crush the fibers along the fold lines and requires extra ironing to make the cloth look flat and nice.  The rule is that you’re allowed one crease down the middle of the cloth when it’s on the table.  If you store linen napkins folded in quarters and stacked, never iron in the creases.
  • Use acid-free tissue paper for storing linen, and line the storage drawers or shelves with plain white fabric, acid-free tissue paper, or acid-free mat board.  Archival boxes are useful for closet shelf storage and acid-free rolls are available.  Wood shelves or drawers can be sealed and made safe for contact with textiles following the instructions provided by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar on page 257 of  Saving Stuff.  There is no point in laundering linen to a pristine state if you’re going to put it in contact with acid surfaces in storage.  The acid in unsealed wood, and in acidic paper and cardboard products can cause yellowing in the short term and deep brown staining and damage to the fabric over the long term.


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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