Cleaning vintage linens, or, How to whiten whites without bleach

Welcome to our post on cleaning vintage linens, or How to whiten whites without bleach. In previous posts on caring for vintage clothing, we tackled some basics on cleaning vintage clothing. So let’s move on to linens and whites.

Vintage linens can be tricky as they can be made of very lightweight cotton or linen. Think handkerchiefs, fingertip towels, doilies, bed linens, and kitchen linens. Just like with vintage clothing, you want to test for colorfastness. With embroidered linens, check to see that the embroidery thread is colorfast. Here’s how: Test for Colorfast

Find an inconspicuous place to test, an inside seam, hem, or similar spot on the garment. Using a powder soap, liquid detergent, or liquid bleach mix up a solution similar in strength to what you would use to wash with (approximately 4 to 6 parts water to 1 part soap or bleach), take a cotton swab and dab just a bit on the fabric. Let it set for a minute, then blot dry with a white cloth or paper towel.

Once you have determined that your fabric and thread are colorfast or if you are working with white fabric, start by looking for stains. Begin with a quick dab of mild soap and lukewarm water to try and remove minor stains. For tougher stains, or yellowed whites, here are a few more ideas for you to try.


If your item is just a bit dingy but not stained, soak it with lukewarm water and add a lemon or two. Cut your lemons in half and squeeze the juice right into the bucket or sink. Then drop in the lemons, being sure to remove the seeds. Stir it up, and let it soak for a couple hours. Rinse thoroughly and squeeze or pat dry, they lay flat to dry completely. If you can, dry your whites outside in sunlight to help brighten them up and give them a fresh smell.

A second option is to soak your colorfast linens in a solution of one cup of enzyme based pre-soak such as Biz to two gallons of water. Let the items soak for at least a half hour, up to overnight depending upon the severity of the stain.  The enzyme solution can also be added to your regular wash as a laundry booster to revive dull fabrics. This works well if you are not sure of the source of the stain or if it has been set for some time.

Another option to brighten dull or faded white linens is to use a bluing solution like Mrs. Stewart’s. Blueing goes a very long way so be sure to use just a few drops.  Mix one or two drops of bluing into a gallon of water so the solution is a light blue.Then add the mixture to your soaking bucket or tub. Never add bluing directly without first diluting it.  Add your linens and soak for half hour. Rinse thoroughly. You can also add bluing to you wash using the diluted mixture and adding it to the wash cycle.

As a last resort, try a diluted solution of regular chlorine bleach like Clorox, and either spot clean or soak the item for a half hour, then rinse thoroughly adding a bit of white vinegar to the rinse to counteract the chlorine and stop the bleaching effect. This rebalances the pH level so that the fabric does not disintegrate from over bleaching. Only use chlorine bleach as a last resort as it can turn white fabric yellow over time and destroy delicate fabrics.

The best is yet to come! Pam, Vintage Renude

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  1. Very timely post. I just unpacked an old trunk & found a stash of vintage tablecloths that I’d forgotten about. Unfortunately, a few have minor stains on them so I’m glad to read that there may be hope for rescuing them.

  2. I love Biz! Use it all the time to soak my vintage things in. Another thing I use to lighten stains is hydrogen peroxide. It will often brighten up yellowed spots and is milder than chlorine bleach, which I tend to have more accidents with. I’ve also been known to toss something in my pool! There is just enough chlorine in the pool to brighten things and remove yellowed stains. The trick is to pull it out before the water starts lightening any print on the fabric.

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