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How to Iron Antique Tablecloths & Napkins for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Dinner Parties

By Edited May 24, 2014 2 4

Ironing Antique Tablecloths

Getting ready for a special dinner by ironing your heirloom dining tablecloth can be a pleasant ritual if it is not rushed or hurried.  If you can wait, iron a few days before you want to use your antique linens.

Certainly you want a nice roomy setup for ironing and some great music playing, be it your favourite modern music or holiday tunes!  Christmas carols are always nice for Christmas preparations and can add a surprising amount of pleasure to the ironing process, by linking it with tradition and past holidays.

How to Iron Antique Tablecloths and Napkins

Swiss Appenzell Embroidery and Punchwork AntiqueTablecloth ironed on the back to raise the design.
Swiss Appenzell Embroidery Antique Tablecloth - Ironed on the back

Generally, if you plan to store your linens for a long time, after laundering, just loosely roll un-ironed line-dried linens or fold with acid free tissue to pad folds.  Storing the antique tablecloths unironed is less harsh and damaging on the old fabric fibres.

Most people don't realize antique linens can be frozen plastic to iron later. Freezing prevents mildew forming on the damp linen.  Allow lots of time for thawing when you want to iron.

Use your iron dry and very hot for Irish and other linens, and also percale and muslin cotton.  Antique laces like Alencon can be ironed at a lower temperature, but many of the Italian needlelace banquet cloths are made of linen anyway.  Only the highest quality steam irons will make steam without spitting, some will even release it under pressure for the ironing the quickest and best.  They are a necessity if you will be ironing heavily embroidered or thick linen lace tablecloths.

For the ultimate in ironing results, iron linens when they are very wet, like French laundresses used to.  It gives a flawless finish, but is very time-consuming to evaporate all the water out of the linen.  The lighter antique laces are much quicker.

For most people, ironing when linens are slightly damp gives a good result.  If you can take your tablecloth and napkins off the washing line when they are 3/4 dry, that works well.  If they are drier, spritzing with distilled water or lavender water from a spray bottle gives enough moisture to iron the threads.  If you iron a crease into the tablecloth or napkins, spritz over it and re-iron.

On damask linen and embroidered antique linens and napkins with fancy corner deisgns, iron the back only to raise the design, making it stand out.  The thicker the embroidery, the more padded the board you need.  You can use a towel to temporarily add extra padding to your ironing board.  The thicker the padding, the more the embroidery “sits on top of the cloth” which was an old standard for presentation. 

Make sure when ironing that you keep ironing until no more steam rises out of the cloth.  This means it is dry.  Any water left in the cloth may lead to spontaneous wrinkling later.   Linen holds a tremendous amount of water, so makes great tea towels.

Occasionally, when the cloth is nearly dry, irritating beige marks can appear.  This is from the item has not being rinsed adequately.  The solution is more rinsing, then re-iron.

Never iron folds to get sharp creases, in linen and rice linen especially, this make the folds permanent, cracking the fibers along the line.  Eventually this will make holes and ruin the antique tablecloth.

Try to hang ironed linens on a drying rack to ”air-out” after ironing.  This avoids any dampness remaining and reduces the chance of mildew on storage and spontaneous wrinkling.

Only starch if immediately using your linens. Follow manufacturers instructions. Starching is a personal preference and really not necessary if the linens were ironed well.  Too much starch will cause brown scorch marks on the linens and a stickiness and scorching on the underside of the iron.  Do not store linens starched as it can attract pests.

Antique Tablecloth and Napkins Freshly Ironed

Enjoy your quiet hour, creating a wonderful canvas for an enjoyable dinner party or happy Chrismas or Thanksgiving holiday dinner.



Oct 16, 2011 5:58pm
I LOVE this article. It's really helpful. I love my old table linens. Once, I went to tour an old Craftsman house and saw the neatest solution for storing ironed table linens. They had a giant rolling pin mounted like a curtainrod on a wall that was the width of the tablecloth. You could just roll up the tablecloth on the pole (it was about 6" in diameter). Admittedly, you need a very wide, empty wall, but I thought it was so cool and it looked beautiful on the wall -- and of course, the linens didn't need to be folded, so they stayed flawless.
Oct 16, 2011 10:37pm
That sounds amazing! Oh to have that room! Sometimes at auctions you can buy little linen rolls for rolling up doilies but they are only regular rolling pin sized, usually.

That big roll would actually be easier on the old fabric too as the folds cause stress on the old fibres. They recommend folding antique linens differently each time (if it has to be folded at all) so a cloth or napkin doesn't get stress lines in one area.

It is a shame they crease after all that work ironing, though the antique lace is way better than the antique linens for hiding creases ;-)
Oct 17, 2011 7:52pm
Glad to find this useful article. I have many hand-made items from my grandmother and want to make sure I take good care of them so they can become family heirlooms.
Oct 17, 2011 10:07pm
Thanks LLwoodard, I am glad the article is helpful. It sounds like your grandmother made some lovely pieces. It's a shame people don't hand-make things like they used to. It makes the linens that we do have, more precious.
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