Article from the W a s h i n g t o n P o s t

Repairing and Storing Antique and Fine Linens

By L e e F l e m i n g

Published in the Home Section

In an age of wash-and-wear, fine bed and table linens are making a strong comeback at specialty stores and antiques markets. But along with their popularity come problems of proper care and storage. Things taken for granted 100 years ago hand-washing facilities, household help, a linen press and other special laundry aids-have largely vanished from the domestic scene.

The most common problems we see, says Sarah Hill of Alexandrias Curzon Hill Antiques, which specializes in caring for vintage linens and porcelains, are food stains left to set in the fabric, and improper handling and storage.

History, a history and German major in college, was lured into the field by the romantic idea that linens are very personal documents of domestic history. Think of the conversations that went on over that damask tablecloth, she muses. What its seen!

She recalls an exquisite tablecloth that the owner had scrubbed so vigorously it fell apart. Youve got to wash linens by hand, gently, Hill says. Youve got to take the time to clean them properly. This can mean seven or eight washings until a stain is gone. Use a gentle cleaner, never bleach-it will eat through the threads.

Spin-drying is not recommended. It can catch and pull threads and destroy embroidery, she says. If youre unsure about a particular stain-meat, juice, wine and rust are particularly tricky-take it to a professional who knows how to care for fine linens. Dry-cleaning, says Hill, is unwise: Harsh chemicals will build up, dulling the finish and yellowing the fabric.

If you have room, says Hill, spread out linens to dry naturally, blocking them with pins to maintain tension between the warp and the weft, restoring the shape and preserving delicate handwork. Pins inserted at critical points in figural or Battenberg lace will eliminate ironing, which can flatten three-dimensional padded or raised embroidery. After hand-washing, dont starch and then store. Starch is a favorite food source for mice; you could end up with a shredded sheet. Also, dont fold pieces for storage: Fabric edges are prone to discoloration or rubbing that can ruin the piece. Instead, roll the vintage tablecloth or other pieces up inside a length of cotton fabric such as an old sheet, then cover. The piece can be slipped loosely into a plastic bag.

You dont have to seal it; just protect it from direct contact with moisture and dirt. The air should be able to circulate.

Ideally, linens should be kept in a specially constructed storage cupboard, or press. If you use a chest of drawers or armoire for storage, make sure that linens dont directly touch the wood: Wood leaches a discoloring acid onto the fabric. Hill recommends using a tissue lining grown from plants thats specifically made of storing linens and cottons. You can also buy small, fabric-covered versions of presses for doilies and napkins. Looking a bit like large flower presses, they keep items flat and pristine.

Another taboo: Never iron in creases, Hill says. Theyll look wonderful one time, and never come out. But do press before using. Ironing damask, for example, enhances glossy patterns.

If your time is limited, Curzon Hill, like other shops dedicated to antique linens, can provide the labor-intensive cleaning, repair and storage preparation services. Expert embroiders repair and replace cutwork and lace on christening and wedding gowns, veils, blouses and bed, table and bath linens. She also offers hand-laundering and hand-starching (using old-fashioned boiled starch), and conservation and restoration for antique and vintage (1900s-1950s) linens. Conservation means cleaning and stabilizing; restoration returns a piece to its original state.

Hill estimates all linen and work individually and will suggest alternatives if they exist. Even if something isnt in perfect condition, with creative arrangement, it can still look wonderful; we can appreciate the part we see.

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