Anyone who has shopped for antiques in France is sure to have seen antique linens piled up on tables, in trunks and sometimes in the country fairs directly on the ground! The heavy linen sheets, the jumbled boxes of table linens, in more or less good condition are a great temptation. It’s difficult to walk past a beautiful monogrammed sheet or a set of embroidered napkins without at least asking the price and two minutes later popping the treasure into a bag to take home.
But why is there so much linen for for sale? Why don’t the French keep them and hand them down from one generation to the next? The truth is that many people prefer the convenience of sheets that don’t need ironing, or throw-away napkins, but they are side stepping some real everyday pleasures for the sake of a little daily care.
Linens that have already been used are very easy to care for. Sheets, table cloths, napkins and tea cloths can all be washed at a high temperature in regular machines. Their fabric is incredibly hard wearing, even the embroidered monograms resist washing and ironing.
It’s a shame to tumble dry antique fabric, because the heat will surely remove much of the lint from the thread and their lifespan will be shortened. The ideal way to dry antique sheets or other house linens is on a drying line in the sun or partial shade. The advantage of this is also that they dry very flat, and can be folded from the line, either to be ironed or for those who hate to iron, popped straight into the linen cupboard.
Sometimes it’s possible to buy century old sheets or tablecloths that have never been used. It’s easy to spot them. Their fabric is stiff and without the slightest crease. Their colour is creamier than the linens that have been washed again and again.
They can be popped straight into a machine, but for the best results, the fabric needs to be soaked for a while, to soften the thread and take away the starch that the fabric was originally soaked in.
To soften brand new antique cloth, leave them to soak in a bathtub for a day and a night. You can add a very gently natural soap, or just leave them in the cold water. It’s a good idea to change the water once or twice, before finally draining it away and popping the sheets or tea cloths into the washing machine to wash as normal. This soaking period will allow the fiber to soften and possibly lighten a little in colour.
Once it is done, you don’t need to do it again, just use your linens normally, and enjoy the way they become more and more soft with each use and wash.