Betsy, a dear friend, joins us today with her love of family heirlooms and restoring beauty to items that might often be overlooked. Clearly, Betsy and I have bonded over this love of making old things new (just check out these posts about wearing my Granny's dresses and jewelry) but we also have common ground from our adventures with [un]common Workbasket and our Jane Austen Book Club days. Even if you don't plan on finding/cleaning/using antique linens, I hope that you read and are struck by the truth that Betsy shares about how the beauty found in simple things points us to the glory of heaven.
Making Old Things New: Finding Beauty in Restoring Antique Linens
I have always loved history. From reading historical fiction, to dressing up as a pioneer girl when I was little, to relishing in the vivid imagery and descriptions of the beauty of turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island as related by L.M. Montgomery in the Anne of Green Gables books, the past has always called to me. Like Anne Shirley, my imagination has always been pretty active. I love imagining what life was like for my ancestors, and I’ve often wished I could travel back in time to experience pioneer life or the early 1920s when my grandparents were young children. Through the process of sorting through my late grandparents’ household belongings in recent years, I have acquired an appreciation for some specific parts of my family’s history.
I’m not sure when I first discovered that I have a thing for linens. I can’t really explain what it is that draws me to pretty old tablecloths, handkerchiefs, and doilies, but draw me, they do. My grandma Charlotte, who died in 2014, also had an affinity for linens (and lots of other nice things for that matter). Her collection of table linens, quilts, bedspreads, sheets, and aprons filled three rooms of her house when we spread them all out to look at them last year. As a saver of all things, Grandma kept (but never used!) all of the white linen tablecloths and napkins that her ancestors meticulously hemmed by hand so long ago. Do you know what happens to linens when they are kept in storage for years and years? They no longer remain white. I am not sure on the scientific reasons, but most linens yellow with age, particularly if they are not stored properly. From my grandma’s collection, I was able to keep several nice tablecloths and sets of napkins, even though we at first believed that some of them might be ruined due to severe staining that had occurred over time. Typically the exposed edges of the tablecloths would be badly yellowed or browned if the cloths had been folded and stacked in piles where they were stored.
Antique clothing soaking in OxiClean and hot water;
the water can become very brown, depending on how stained the fabric is.
In order to honor my grandma, and also because I like to tackle something that needs a good cleaning, I began my search for how to clean antique linens. I read a variety of tips, but what I found to work best at removing the yellowing (or dark browning) was OxiClean. Enter my new best friend. Oh, OxiClean and I had some grand adventures last summer! How exciting it was to fill my dishpan (or sometimes even my whole bathtub!) with hot water, stir in that white powder, and then drop in some horribly stained item, knowing that soon it would be gleaming white! Of course, I didn’t know that it would work the first time I tried it, but once I had successfully seen those awful brown stains disappear, I was hooked. I went through two tubs of OxiClean last summer! Isn’t it strange when such simple things can bring such delight?
Chenille bedspread from my grandma, lace pillow covers from a thrift shop,
and a throw pillow with vintage fabric from an antique store
There was something so satisfying about restoring those antique linens to their original states that just thrilled me! It became a challenge to see what I could transform next. Over the course of the summer, I OxiCleaned lace and linen tablecloths, chenille bedspreads, pillowcases, doilies, dresser scarves, handkerchiefs, and even some antique clothing. Of course, now that I have all of those linens in my closets, what do I do with them? Well, I try to use them. I have a chenille bedspread on my bed. Dresser scarves lay prettily on some of my bedroom furniture, and my great grandmother’s crocheted doilies have had a turn on my coffee table. Someday I hope to live in a home with a big enough dining room table to be able to use some of those tablecloths!
Beauty is present in so many facets of our lives. Even though we know we cannot “lay up for [ourselves] treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy…” (Matthew 6:19), we can still appreciate the beauty in making old things new. Revelation 21:5 says, “Behold, I am making all things new…” Someday, as Christians, we will experience a newness in Christ that is unfathomable in comparison to the “newness” that my OxiClean brought to my grandma’s old tablecloths. Just imagine what that will be like!
In late summer, a bee enjoys the nectar on an Ironweed plant in my prairie patch.
I have read the aforementioned “Anne” books so many times that certain portions of the books often come to my mind. One passage from the fifth book in the series refers to a “queer ache” that one feels when encountering something beautiful:
“It's so beautiful that it hurts me,' said Anne softly. “Perfect things like that always did hurt me — I remember I called it ‘the queer ache’ when I was a child. What is the reason that pain like this seems inseparable from perfection? Is it the pain of finality — when we realise that there can be nothing beyond but retrogression?” –Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery
I am not suggesting that OxiClean gives me that “queer ache.” But, I have experienced something similar when walking through a garden on a late summer evening, or when discovering my grandma’s name stitched into a beautiful quilt that I inherited. Beauty stirs something deep inside of us and makes us long for something greater than ourselves. C. S. Lewis wrote about that longing in Mere Christianity:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world…Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”
The beauty that I see in antique linens or in a garden merely suggests the real things, which are found only in Heaven. Appreciating beauty in created things can and should point us to our Creator. We must remember the One who made all things.
It was a sweet discovery to hang this quilt on my clothesline
and find my grandma's name embroidered on it.
I believe in the value of honoring our pasts and preserving our ancestors’ labors. Each handmade item that was part of my grandma’s collection represents hours and hours of handiwork. I wonder at the women who made those pretty things. Those ancestors, who I never knew, meticulously stitched every one of those linens with the intention that they would bring joy and beauty to someone’s home. Decades, and even a century later, I am thankful to have those pieces of my family’s history, and I am joyfully choosing to use some of them in my home. I know it would please my grandma Charlotte to know that a tablecloth hemmed by her sister Esther, who died of rheumatic fever at age 21, is clean, ironed, and hanging in my closet, ready to cover a fancy table when it is needed. Let’s look for beauty where it can be found, and take joy in preserving something beautiful from the past.
Hanging fresh linens on a clothesline is good for your soul,
and it’s good for the linens too!
Some practical tips for restoring antique linens:
- Determine the type of fabric. Cotton and linen fabrics can be cleaned with hot water and OxiClean. Test for color-fastness before submerging entire pieces. I have only used OxiClean on white linens, so I can’t advise you on what to do with colorful fabrics.
- Be patient. Sometimes stains are so severe that the linens must be allowed to soak for several hours (overnight or longer). Changing out the water and OxiClean, or increasing the temperature of the water as well as the concentration of the cleaner, is also helpful.
- Rinse, rinse, rinse. It is important to thoroughly rinse your clean linens. I also generally used a mild laundry detergent after the OxiClean.
- Squeeze, but don’t twist, rinsed antique linens to remove water. Remember that they may be fragile. You can roll smaller items inside bath towels to gently squeeze and remove water. If you are very brave, you can use the gentle cycle on your washing machine to do a wash cycle or even just a rinse after you have soaked the item and removed the stains. Lingerie bags work great for machine washing small items like handkerchiefs.
- Hang or lay flat to dry. Avoid putting antique linens in the dryer. If you have a clothes line, use it! There is nothing better than the smell of freshly laundered linens that have dried in the summer sunshine. If you don’t have a clothesline, or you have a heavy item like a quilt, you can lay it flat to dry in your yard. Lay old sheets on the ground first, and then spread your quilt or bedspread on top to dry.
- Ironing brings out more beauty! Your linens will be terribly wrinkled after washing. If you want to further experience their full beauty, carefully iron them. It will be easier to iron them if you don’t let them completely dry. You can go ahead and iron them when damp. They will be so pretty (and more ready to use) after ironing. I like to use spray starch too, but I read somewhere that it attracts moths to linens that are in storage, so avoid starching things that you are not planning to use any time soon.
- Store cleaned linens properly. Plastic and wood are not friendly to antique linens. It is helpful to slip linens inside old pillowcases before storing inside plastic tubs or on wooden shelves.
- Invest in some rubber gloves. You’ll need them for handling the hot water and for protecting your hands from the OxiClean.
- The off-brands work great. OxiClean is the brand name, but generic versions of the product are available in many different stores, and they work just as well.
- Carefully consider the benefits and risks. You may fear ruining antique linens, especially if they are fragile. Decide what value there is in keeping something if it cannot be cleaned. If you are determined to clean an item, you have to be willing to risk it being ruined. However, if the only way for it to be preserved and enjoyed is by cleaning it, then it’s probably worth the risk. Otherwise you would be throwing it out anyway. Why keep something that is dirty and unusable? I guess the answer would be if you think it will be worth millions on Antiques Roadshow, you probably shouldn’t launder it. I haven’t had to worry about that so far, though!
Some websites I found to be helpful when I was first learning how to clean antique linens:
You can follow along with Betsy on:
Betsy's sweet guest post is part of this year's Why Make Beautiful Things series.
Yesterday, Shirley shared about being a hostess & hospitality here: Open Heart, Open Home
If you are curious, you can go back and read the posts from last year here. And make sure you come back for two more unique posts this week and beautiful things giveaway on Friday!