Many people collect vintage linen tablecloths, hankies or napkins that have a dingy hue. Some linens aren’t vintage and still take on a dirty look after a few washings. This is especially true of linen bed sheets, napkins, doilies and tablecloths. Many times the culprit is excess laundry detergent in the wash water, but even an extra rinse or a good soak does little to whiten the linen fabric. Sometimes the problem is the fabric softener in the rinse water. The chemicals found in fabric softens remain in the linen fibers and turn the fabric a grayish or beige color rather than the pristine white it was when it was new. Oftentimes, age will discolor the material and tint the item to a dull off white. Washing and rewashing either by hand or in a washing machine doesn’t restore the original bright white, beautiful color.
A whole other generation of linen owners knew exactly what to do to revive those dull linens and bring them back to a crisp and beautiful original color. Many of our Grandmothers had a simple trick up their sleeve when it came to whitening linens. Grandma didn’t take her prized tablecloth to the dry cleaners, she never went to the store to buy the detergents that promised whiter fabrics. She used something, pretty much all of us have in the refrigerator. What magic ingredient was at Grandma’s fingertips and right under our noses, you may wonder? Well it was and still is – milk , soured milk more specifically. Yes we all know that sour milk isn’t the most pleasant smell and who would want to sleep on linen bed sheets that smell like soured milk? Soured milk will get the linen whiter and the foul odor won’t be left behind.
Soured Milk for Linen
You will need enough milk to soak the linen tablecloth, napkins, bed sheets or what have you.
Pour the milk into a bucket and add 1 cup white vinegar for each gallon of milk to make your own soured milk.
Stir the white vinegar into the milk with a wood spoon.
You can also leave the milk out in a warm spot or on your counter and wait for it to our in a couple of days. Leaving milk to sour, usually smells worse than adding white vinegar to milk. If you have milk that has gone bad – use it. If not add white vinegar to reduce the stink.
Whitening the Linens
Lay the linens on a work surface and examine them for stains. Spot clean the stains with a mild laundry detergent and water. Blot the stains with a white rag until they are gone. Do not use a rag that has been dyed because you can transfer the dye from the rag to the linen fabric.
Put the linen bed sheets, tablecloth, napkins or any other dull and dingy linen into a plastic basic, large bucket or bathtub. You may want to avoid using your bathtub if your milk already smells foul because the odor will waft through your house.
Pour the soured milk on top of your linens. Keep adding the milk until the linens are completely submerged in the milk.
If you are using a large bucket or basin, bring it outdoors. If you are using your bathtub, open the windows and set up a fan near the doorway pointed to the window to blow the smell out of the bathroom.
If you brought you linens outside, place them in a detached garage or shed. The bucket or basin full of soured milk will smell bad.
Leave the linen items soaking in the soured milk for 10 to 12 hours.
Drain the soured milk out of the basin or bucket into a drain. If you are using your bathtub, hold your breath and open the drain – don’t say I didn’t warn you – it stinks!
Put on a pair of rubber gloves.
Remove the linens from the tub, bucket or basin and place them in the washing machine.
Sprinkle 1 ½ cups baking soda over the items in the washer and add ¼ cup of a mild laundry detergent such as Ivory Snow or Dreft. Do not add fabric softener to the washing machine.
Allow the linens to run through a wash cycle and if you have a setting for an extra rinse, let the items run through an extra rinse. If you don’t have a setting on your washing machine for an extra rinse, wash the items a second time without laundry detergent.
Bring the linen bed sheets, tablecloths or napkins outside to hang them on a clothesline or if you don’t have access to an outdoor clothesline hang them inside.
While the linens are hanging and drying, examine the color to determine the level of whiteness, you will be pleasantly surprised.
Getting the Wrinkles Out
Before the linen has dried fully and you are sure they are free of stains, iron the tablecloth, bed sheets, napkins or other garments or items to remove wrinkles and finish drying them. The heat of the iron will speed up the drying process.
Make sure there are no stain on the linen fabric before ironing because the heat of the iron can set the stains into the fabric fibers permanently.
You can also set your washing machine for an extra spin cycle and iron the cloth directly from the washer, which will take a little longer than allowing them to dry slightly before ironing.
If you know you will not be able to iron the linens as soon as they have dried somewhat or directly out of the washing machine, lay the item flat over a clean work surface. Smooth the wrinkles out with your hands. Fold large items such as tablecloths or bed sheets in half lengthwise, smooth the wrinkles, fold in half again lengthwise then roll the material.
Place the rolled fabric into a plastic bag and place it in the refrigerator. You can leave the rolled linen in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Do not leave it longer than that because it may form mold.