Most people who hold on to linens as family keepsakes or collect them while shopping in antique stores end up with many more lovely examples than they can display at one time.
With careful cleaning and storage, these lucky linens will serve their owners far longer than their neglected siblings.
Believe it or not, vacuuming textiles can be a very beneficial and safe way to remove dirt that can damage and cut fibers, according to the Nebraska Cooperative Extension on their website, NebFacts (see "Conservation of Textile Items" link at right for more information).
Apply this cleaning method on low suction, with vents open. For items too fragile to take direct suction, placing a clean piece of tulle or fiberglass screen over the cloth will help to protect it during vacuuming.
If linens are soiled, it's important to clean them before storing them away for future use.
Proper cleaning will keep insects from being attracted to food and grease as well as improving the appearance of the item in most cases. Keep in mind that cleaning should only be done if it will not affect the color, shape and strength of the fabric.
Using water on cotton and linen removes acid build-ups and actually makes them more flexible. Wool and silk are harder to clean with water, since they weaken when wet.
NebFacts also recommends checking fabrics for colorfastness using a few drops of water in an out-of-the-way place. After the liquid soaks in, blot with white cloth or tissue to see if any color is present. Try it with detergent solutions too before immersing linens and don't forget to check each different color in a multi-colored item.
Home advice columnists Anne and Nan also recommend using distilled water in the final rinse when cleaning heirloom linens to prevent impurities such as lime and iron from being deposited in the cloth. These deposits reportedly cause deterioration and discoloration over time.
Lace and Linens, a reference guide by Maryanne Dolan, suggests using a mild soap like Fels-Naptha to clean linens. A lemon juice and salt mixture is mentioned for removing stains. Drying the items in the sun will help to bleach them out as well.
Dolan recommends spreading out absorbent towels outdoors in the sun to dry linens, but laying them directly on the grass works wonders to remove stains too. Trying different methods, most people come up with an application that works well while causing very little damage to their linens.
In most cases, dry cleaning is not recommended for fragile textiles because of friction and abrasion agitation causes as well as the damaging effect of excessive heat. If you do chose to dry clean, request fresh or filitered solvent and ask them not to steam or press the linens.
Linens should be pressed carefully and quickly with a hot iron and starched sparingly, according to Dolan's book.