Today’s holiday table is more likely to be set with bamboo placemats than the carefully hand-stitched and ironed linens used by our great-grandmothers. Pull out your heirloom linens and take another look at the social history of your family.
1. Start with what you know about the artifact’s history.
Textiles can show evidence of ethnic connections and the skill and craftsmanship of the embroiderer. Write down what you know about the artifact: who made it and when it was made, when it was used, and who were the previous owners. Your heirloom history may help solve a family history puzzle. Keep one copy with your genealogy research notes and another copy written on acid-free paper stored with the linen.
2. Heirloom linens beg for the same care you would give a special occasion suit or dress.
Handle carefully and always launder before storing. It’s a good idea to wear a pair of white cotton or nitrile gloves when handling textiles to protect the cloth from body oils and lotions. Inspect table linens for stains or tears, unfolding carefully over a table covered with a clean white sheet. If the cloth was ironed and folded, be especially cautious handling fabric at the fold lines where weakened threads often break or tear.
3. Enemy Number 1 for any kind of textile–tablecloth, quilt, wedding gown? Light.
Everyday sunlight, light from household fixtures, and indirect light all aim harmful ultraviolet rays on fragile thread and fiber. Maximize the life of your heirloom by minimizing exposure to UV light.
4. Avoid hanging large textiles for long-term display.
Avoid hanging large textiles for long-term display. Most heirloom textiles are far too fragile to support the weight of hanging from one edge. Instead, gently spread out the item on a clean, dry surface. Display textiles like a museum by carefully placing for viewing and enjoyment, and then returning to preservation storage away from light, dust, and handling.
5. Some relatively sturdy linens such as mid-century vintage tablecloths, napkins or towels, are fun to use and enjoy in your home.
Remember to launder or dry clean after use and store away from light and dust. Cotton and linen fabrics are actually quite strong and made to last many years. Take care to launder on a gentle cycle or hand wash using a mild detergent. Test a small part of any embroidery to see if the thread in color-fast. Wash only in cool water and air dry away from direct sunlight. Iron carefully, protecting embroidery by pressing on the reverse side of the fabric or by using a pressing sheet to protect the threads.
6. Old gravy stains, grease, and other damage can be difficult to repair.
Depending on the item’s age and condition, it’s often better to “embrace” the history of your heirloom than to attempt home cleaning solutions. Consult with a professional textile conservator for repairs or cleaning of valuable or rare items. Your local historical society or the American Institute for Conservation may be able to help you locate assistance in your area.
7. Be sure to store your linens right.
It’s best to store heirloom linens by rolling the cloth over an acid-free cardboard tube padded with a layer of acid free tissue paper or polyester batting. Another option is to fold the cloth and pad creases with acid-free tissue. Place the folded or rolled cloth inside a white cotton pillowcase to protect your treasure, and store special linens in a drawer or acid-free box away from harmful UV light, dust, and pests. Prevent yellowing from contact with wooden drawers by sealing the wood with a coat of polyurethane varnish or lining drawers with a clean white cotton sheet.