Archive for the ‘caring for antique linens’ Category

Laundry and Inventory Marks on Linens

May 25, 2012

The dilemma of keeping track of ones linens has posed a problem throughout the centuries. In days when people owned very few possessions and linens were necessary and precious goods, household inventories listed them. They also needed to be tracked and identified when they were sent away to be laundered. From the times when they were sent to Holland to be washed and bleached upon the grasslands and in later times (after the New World was discovered) when they were sent to soak up the Caribbean sun, people still needed and wanted to have their own things returned to them. Even if they were being given to a local laundress who collected them from the doorstep and then returned them, each household needed to differentiate their things so that the correct items would be returned to them.

Markings needed to be immediately understood, (relatively) easily made and as permanent as possible. Many systems have been in use. Monograms (woven and embroidered) were used to mark the linens and signify ownership. Names, initials, ciphers and numbers were also embroidered onto linens, often at the top or bottom edges. Sometimes, initials were used in conjunction with the number of the piece. (tablecloth #1, sheet #65, etc.) Indelible inks were concocted and were written upon the items. Later cloth tags or labels were sewn onto items and were sometimes stapled with huge unsightly pieces of metal. It seems that these markers were so essential that, how they looked was not nearly as important as how they functioned. To our eyes, some methods seem time consuming or odd, others seem clunky or downright ugly.
Here are some examples.
Monogram and royal crest woven into damask fabric. The crest is of Vittorio Emanuele III, King of Italy. Of course, the pattern was also decorative.

Some of these napkins were also stamped in black to further differentiate them.

It may look like a mess to us but the black stamps were evidently necessary to differentiate these napkins from other sets. R. Casa signifies “Royal House.”

Monogram and royal crest embroidered into damask fabric. This monogram is from a tablecloth belonging to a member of the Germanic Princely House of Saxe-Meiningen. This is an example of beautifully embroidered laundry/inventory marks.

Other items were embroidered by less skilled hands.
blue thread

This was someone's method for identifying their item.
white thread

Crude white letters are embroidered on the edge of a towel.
red cross stitch

A tiny ME 4 is beautifully cross stitched in red near the top edge of a linen sheet.
embroidered H, Hersant, PG and my inventory number

I.D. marks in a time line. A tiny red H is embroidered at the foot of a sheet. The name Hersant is handwritten in old indelible ink. I added my own inventory mark: MSA (for Main Street Antiques) and the item number 13545.
red dot

A simple red dot is embroidered onto the corner of a fine Irish linen hemstitched handkerchief.

Handwritten in inks
19th c napkins/tc and napkins

a mid-19th century handwritten set of initials on an old damask tablecloth.

The same handwritten monogram, plus the number 6 beautifully identifies a 19th century napkin.

Another ink-inscribed damask linen from the 19th century.

redwork towel

A simple hand inked set of letters on the edge of a show towel.

sewn on tags/labels
blue label

This tiny label was sewn onto a pillow sham.
black label

A gorgeous old napkins sports a label that was first stamped in black ink "C 19" and then sewn onto the hem.
woven label

A modern machine woven label was custom designed for a hand weaver from California.

Another useful marking variation is to indicate the size of an item, usually for tablecloths, occasionally for bedding.

red size

All you have to do is look at the corner to know that this is your 4 yard long tablecloth!
white size

Even fancier, this tablecloth shows size in inches, the number of people and the board length.


One more laundry mystery

May 15, 2012

From a friend:

I received some lovely old whitework centerpieces…more than likely Madeira.  When I washed them the embroidery turned blue.  I know that many pieces have the blue embroidery, but this is the first time that I have washed whitework and the embroidery turned blue!

The blue is lovely, but I purchased them for the white on white which is my very favorite and stops my heart.  I am trying to figure out if I am mad at myself, sad at the loss of white, or should be indifferent?  Anyway, let me know what I did wrong.   This has not happened to me before so I was surprised to say the least and truly saddened for the loss of white on white.

My reply:

i have had this happen. i do believe it is temporary. two things may fix it.

1. iron them. sometimes as these things dry, they turn back white. (i have no explanation.)

2. relaunder them. sometimes that does it, too.
i wouldn’t give up.

I hope she updates us!

NEW ADDITION: (from a friend)
It has something to do with the bleach which often turns blue on white.  At times when the blue has remained, another rinse will usually release it.  Sometimes I spray Clorox Cleanup directly on my white bathmats if I get spots on them but they don’t really need laundering.  A few minutes later I’ll come back and they’ll have dark blue to purple spots where I sprayed.  The first time I freaked out but after they dry they turn back.  Also if I the the blue on laundering linens and it doesn’t fade when it dries (it almost always does), I just put the piece out in the sun and it will turn white:)

Do this today.

March 11, 2012

I’m not kidding. Go to wherever you are storing your linens… your closet, your drawers, your basement, your attic, under your bed… wherever! If your linens are wrapped in plastic, cellophane, newspaper, other paper or rolled onto cardboard tubes, please remove them. You know those heavy plastic zipper cases that bedding comes in? They are so sturdy and clear and convenient and it’s almost as though we can’t help but put our linens into them… well, take them out of those plastic things today and throw away the plastic things. Or put dishes in them. Or toys. Anything but fabric.

Washing Linens Embroidered with Colored Thread

January 17, 2012

A recent question:

We [have] a white tablecloth that … was done with blue cotton floss. Parts of the fabric are “yellowed” probably from storage? How do we clean this without having the blue thread bleed into the fabric?

ANSWER: This is tricky because thread is either colorfast… or it’s NOT! And, by the time you have immersed it in water and discovered that it is not, then it is too late.

Perhaps dry cleaning would be the best way to proceed in this case.

However, I am usually “up” for a challenge and I am not fond of the entire idea of dry cleaning chemicals… so I would probably decide to launder it myself.
My approach would be to dissolve salt in cold water, then add some plain white vinegar and soak the cloth in that. Both those substances are supposed to keep color from bleeding. I have used this technique with some success but if a thread is not colorfast, there isn’t much you can do. You would be surprised how much yellowing would come out in plain water alone.
BUT… the most important part is after it has been soaked and rinsed, and that is to get it as dry as possible as soon as possible. Many times I have pulled items out of a nice soak and there has been no bleeding, only to discover hours later that the thread has run during my dripping period. So, squash it by hand and perhaps roll it between towels before hanging.

more thoughts on starch!

May 16, 2011

Just received the following email

I hope you don’t mind my contacting you with a question.  I have discovered your site (obviously) and am looking forward to exploring it!
I have a lovely c. 1880 – 1890-ish (I think) christening dress.  The fabric is a very sheer white lawn.  It has many, many tiny pintucks.  I’ve ironed it before, but recently, had to soak it because I accidentally splashed coffee on it (which came out right away, thankfully), so now I have to iron it again.
Someone online who deals in vintage pieces told me that she starches her christening gowns, and that it would enhance the look of my dress if I sprayed starch on the underside before ironing.  (I have to iron this one on the “right” side because of the pintucks, rather than ironing inside-out.)
Previously, when I’ve ironed this dress, I’ve used a dry iron and lightly sprayed the dress with water as I ironed, but I have not used starch.
I was wondering if you might be willing to advise me on this.  In your opinion, is it a good idea to use starch on a fine lawn antique garment?  Would it enhance the garment, or would it not be a good idea?
I display this dress on a padded hanger.  It’s sooooo lightweight that I don’t think it causes any weight damage to hang it — and I do check it from time to time to see if there appears to be any pulling on the seams.
I’d greatly appreciate any advice you might have about starching vs. not starching.
My philosophy regarding old pieces is that they should be used in whatever way gives their current owner the most joy!

In some cases, this means storing them tucked away in acid free tissue only to be pulled out on occasion to be admired thoughtfully and purposefully; in other cases, it means cutting them up and turning them into paper, art pieces or quilts. I think that people who choose to display them have an especially wonderful approach because the items are seen and appreciated. (but it’s no more valid than the other approaches; everybody is different)

Therefore, it would be totally a matter of personal taste as to whether you starch your lovely treasure. (it sounds to me as though your other friend prefers things to be starched and is trying to persuade you to join her camp) it used to be that starches were cooked up using foodstuffs such as potatoes or sugar and therefore would attract insects that would chomp up the starched items making it unwise to store an item with starch in it. over time, the starch also yellows. today’s starches don’t attract insects; I don’t know if they turn yellow but if they do, one needs only to soak the cherished object again. A dress will get dusty and more limp after several years on display and will need relaundering anyway. You will be so accustomed to its gradual decline (dustiness) that you’ll be surprised how fresh it will be.

A 1950s Wedding Dress Story

April 5, 2011

When a friend asked me to look at a vintage wedding dress from the 1950s, I confess I was dubious. She’d agreed to alter it for another friend of ours but it was soiled from storage inside a plastic garment bag. (so, no plastic, please. it off-gasses and discolors the fabric it is supposed to protect.)

I imagined a heavy satin number or a crinkled polyester with a train. Was I ever wrong! It was a tea length embroidered eyelet cotton and it was really charming. It had discolored from storage and the shoulders were spotted with rust. After confirming that it would be okay if I accidentally ruined it, I offered to launder it for our friend. I was hoping to salvage it but could not predict the outcome. Sometimes items do not survive being soaked and sometimes they don’t survive being ironed!

I rue the fact that I didn’t snap a photo of it before I plopped it into the bathtub.

Just after I started soaking the dress.

At this point, I was convinced that the dress would turn out to be ivory instead of white. After 3 or 4 hours, the shoulders still had rust spots so I drained the tub and started over. The second soaking performed a miraculous feat: all stains disappeared. Even better, the dress emerged intact and strong. Drip drip dry from the showerhead; then it spent a few hours hanging from a hanger in the windy April sunshine. I ironed the cheesecloth underskirt, the acetate skirt and the outer cotton layer separately; it’s beautiful.

The outcome of the dress; fit for the sugarplum fairy or for my friend's wedding!!

more ironing advice

October 23, 2009

many “new” old linens have arrived and i have been ironing. a lot.

iron fabrics on the wrong side on a padded surface. ironing smooths the weave where the hot iron touches the fabric, sometimes smoothing it too much and making it shiny or slick. this is especially important with monograms and embroidery where a great deal of the appeal is the three dimensional character of the work.

napkins. it’s imperative to establish a folding pattern and stick with it. this helps with stacking, storing and counting. long ago, i started folding items so that the main design (a monogram on a napkin or also on a handkerchief) ends up in the exact same position on every item. a customer described how she folded her napkins in order that her dinner guests could pick them up with one hand so that the napkins practically unfolded themselves. that’s the idea!

it’s october in linen land!

October 1, 2009

if you are going to be burrowing through your closets looking for warmer winter items to wear and to place in your home, it’s also time to “look at” your linens. that’s what i say when i fling wide the cupboard door and realize that, despite having only the best intentions… i have neither rotated, refolded or rearranged my linen cupboard.

it’s never too late, of course. just take a deep breath and wade in. you have my permission to throw away (or tear up for dustcloths) the things that have holes or are worn out. you also have my permission to give away (to children, friends or goodwill) any items that you know you truly (truly in your heart truly) will not use for anything. if it is an item in a collection, it’s okay to keep it. i am talking about the other stuff!

make a pact with yourself to rotate your items so that they all get seen… and so they all wear out a tiny bit instead of all at once. i have the habit of pulling sheets off beds, washing them and just popping them right back where they were. my resolve: i’m gonna break this habit!

there is no time like the present to plan to carry a cup of tea or hot chocolate and go to commune with your linen shelves!

Thoughts on White Linen Damask

December 18, 2008

I have been reading White Figurated Linen Damask, from the 15th to the beginning of the 19th century, by Dr. G.T. van Ysselsteyn, published in Den Haag, 1962.

Dr. van Ysselsteyn commented that it was the expectation that, in 10 year’s time (then being the 1960s), figured damask will have disappeared even from the inherited trousseaus. This is due to: items being lost or destroyed during the wars, worn pieces being used as rags and polishing cloths and large houses haven given way to smaller ones, which have no room for the large formal dinner parties that require formal state linens. Cocktail parties do not require such large tables and quantities of enormous napkins. Styles also changed and the English and American use of placemats on bare tables became more popular everywhere.

The Author also stated that “damask requires special cleaning. It has to be cleaned with soft soap in a brass casserole, laid out on grass to be bleached and has to be pressed cold between rolls. This can still be done in the Netherlands but it is expensive and is therefore not suitable for everyday use.”

The introduction goes on to say that these linens “… are relatively cheap. Collections are rare. The material is not spectacular, photographs give a better impression than the object itself. Only those with a sound knowledge of the fabric and, with love for the hand-labor of their ancestors, want to collect the antique material.” Well said!

So, if you love and appreciate white linen damask, you are a member of a small club, indeed.

Gorgeous August Weather is Great for Laundering Linens

August 8, 2008

The hot, dry, breezy weather here in southern New England is perfect for air drying your antique linens as well as your family’s laundry.

And, it is win win win it’s free, it’s green and the laundry gets an outdoor smell of freshness and sunshine that can’t be duplicated!

Just bring it all inside before the thunderstorms arrive!