Nov 22nd
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Eco News Natural Tips New Life for Old Linen
New Life for Old Linen PDF Print E-mail
Eco News

enbroiderary-283pxGenerations have passed, and a romantic young girl's work ends up in a modern household where the art of stiff-starching has been forgotten.

A limp table centre soon creases, its beauty becomes veiled, and lovely old embroidered linen can end up being tossed into a bag destined for a local fair or thrift shop or perhaps even the town rubbish dump (yikes!).

Somewhere along the way, with a bit of luck, that sad old rag will be recognised for what it is. Rescued, laundered, stiffly starched and ironed back to their former beauty.

Lovingly handcrafted old linen pieces can once more grace a table or sideboard of their own era, which now have become antiques and collectible relics of our historic past.

Linen is a fabric that has been produced since antiquity. For generations people have laundered their own linens. For centuries, wealthy Europeans have slept on linen sheets, the very ones, in some cases, that are so popular now, particularly the lace-decorated Victorian examples. Prior to that, sheets were usually plain. Linen is the oldest textile in the world, and remnants have been found in many different countries spanning centuries and cultures.

Egyptians deemed linen to be the cloth of the gods. They used it for example for mummies, and in their sacred rituals. In Europe, in the 9th century, Emperor Charlemagne concurred with the Egyptian view, and decreed that every Belgian household should grow flax (the plant used to make linen).  And so for centuries the people of Belgium, France, Germany and the Low Countries have spun straw into gold. In a time-proven technique, that has not changed much today, which accounts for the cost of producing linen.

Traditionally linen was more abundant in Europe than cotton, and hence used by the gentry as well as peasants and people of lesser means.  Bedding, night clothing and household textiles were made of linen, be it simple and homespun utilitarian pieces, or the fancy finer lawns, embroidered and adorned with exotic monograms and designs.  Every lady would bring into marriage her trousseau, consisting of dozens of sets of towels, bedding, shams, sheets, night clothing, underwear and even baby items, painstakingly monogrammed and embroidered.

We just love combing through thrift stores, yard sales and auctions, looking for vintage tablecloths, towels, doilies, pillowcases, and hankerchiefs. Unlike most hunters, we look for the ones with stains, tears, and missing parts. We give those forlorn pieces a new life or turn them into new items.

Occasionally, we run across a really good bargain on an old linen that is flawless. Many a time over the years I've paused by the jumble sale table of a school fair, in time to rescue a sad and even grubby swatch of old linen with embroidery on it in matching linen thread or in colored cottons, sometimes with a complete edging of crocheted lace. Somebody made that at least half a century ago or more, I'd muse, when she was a girl doing fancywork for her trousseau, her head full of dreams about Mr Right.

One time they would of graced the linen drawer, where they lay in layers like thin sheets of cardboard. Not all the contents of the drawer would of been family heirlooms.

Household textiles like doilies, table-cloths and even the humble tea towel were made to be used.

Here are some ideas for the lacy doiley:

Overlay them onto romantic floral fabrics in one of the many beautiful fabric bag patterns available today.
Stitch them onto contrasting plain fabric and use as a block for quilts or cushions
For a particularly delicate vintage piece- carefully fasten to a backing and frame in a square frame. Hang several together for a striking display.
Add beads to the edge to make a jug cover. A larger, rectangular piece could also be weighted at the edges and used as an al fresco food cover.
Even old, stained pieces can be utilised:
Cut away damaged parts and use the good parts as above, in bags or quilts, with the cut edge sewn into a seam.
Use an inexpensive or stained piece as a stencil; lay over calico or other plain surface and spray with vegetable dye or Eco-friendly paint medium. Spray a little at a time, checking for desired effect and not saturating the doiley (or the color will soak through where it shouldn't).Or, try vegetable / food dying the doiley itself. Be aware that some stains will darken as the fabric darkens so they may still be visible.

If your linen piece is very old, unique and handmade, it may still be valuable even if it has some damage so I'm not encouraging cutting up and dying of antique textiles here!  Vintage linen clothing can also take on a new life when adapted to current styles. No matter what you do with it, know that a vintage piece of linen will have a history and a past, that will add immensely to the charm and enjoyment of the pieces you find. But if we think outside the proverbial square, old can be combined with new and new life can be given to items that were made to be used.

Vintage Linen +  Lace

Stephen Lunn, a London antiques dealer, holds up a big linen sheet, old and worn. Not long ago it might have wound up in a trash heap. But for a small, ardent following, this old sheet is a treasure. Its appeal lies in the soft, smooth feel that crisp new linen lacks. Renewed interest in antique textiles has further burnished its popularity - and its price.Renewed interest in antique textiles has further burnished its popularity - and its price. In Britain, antique linens are being snapped up by a new generation of sybarites, among them the so-called New Georgians, history-minded collectors who outfit their vintage homes with vintage objects. And some Americans are starting to collect old linens as well.

Late 19th-century collars, flounces and frills are readily available, but a surprising number of early handmade pieces have also survived. And though prices have risen during the last decade, it is still fairly easy to find good buys, especially when you consider the age of the pieces and the skill that has gone into making them. ''It's the practical, everyday linens that people seem to want,'' said Mr. Lunn, who has specialized in vintage textiles for over a decade. ''With lace, the supply exceeds the demand.'' London is a wonderful place to look for old linens and lace, with a growing number of dealers specializing in them. Mr. Lunn's shop, in the middle of the antiques district on New King's Road, is one of the biggest and most inviting, with its high ceiling and big picture window. Lace-trimmed linen sheets, shirts and dresses hang from the rafters like stalactites. And visitors can lean against big linen pillows while Mr. Lunn ruffles through his inventory.

Antique linen's distinct texture is due to the finer thread produced in earlier times; these finer threads form a more densely woven cloth than contemporary thread. Repeated washings also alter the texture. A look through Mr. Lunn's magnifying glass shows a big difference between a 19th-century sheet, which looks thick and tightly woven, and a new one, which appears thinner and looser.

Like linens, the laces that are most in demand are those that can be used, whether for clothing or home decoration.

Caring for Linen

Caring for linen is one of the main reason a lot of European households have moved towards the fibers that require less work and less hands-on care. But nothing can duplicate or replace the feel of 100% pure fine linen, winter or summer.

Linen cared for properly will have a long and elegant life. It launders beautifully getting softer with each wash. It has strong fibers that can be woven into an extremely lightweight fabric yet it remains durable.

Linen does need to be ironed to be soft, and it also needs to be washed, especially the old coarse pieces which will only soften after years of laundering.  Europeans often boiled their linens, imagine big cauldrons over fire, and huge wood spoons to boil bedding (and kill fleas, dust mites, lice and other critters that abounded in those days where hygiene was not quite the same as it is now).

Washing also changes linen's texture by removing a macromolecular layer from each fiber. Over the years, the fibers grow thinner and softer. Between 15 and 20 washings should soften up new linens.

The Starch

Mix a heaped tablespoon of flour (cornflour, arrowroot or white wheaten flour) in half a cup of cold water.
Add one teaspoon methylated spirit.
Stir until it forms a smooth paste with no lumps.
Boil the kettle and pour six cups of boiling water into a bowl.
Give the starch paste in the cup another stir and add it at once to the hot water in the bowl, stirring the bowl contents quickly all the time to prevent lumping-up.
The starch turns into a transparent thin glue in appearance (and it can be used for glue too, if needed, like wallpaper paste!).
Pour the hot mixture through a strainer and it is ready for use.

At this strength it gives a good body to linen that is required to be really stiff, such as doilies and table centres.
Add a little water and stir, if less body is needed in the articles to be starched.
It isn't a bad idea to keep a few articles to be starched until a washday when you do them all as one lot.
Beginning with the articles that you want to be really crisp, a little water can be added to the starching mixture further on for the things that follow.

The Method

Wash all articles to be starched, rinse well, wring out and put aside in a bowl.
Beginning with the article meant to be the stiffest, shake loose and lower into the starch mixture.
Squeeze out gently and put aside in a bowl ready for pegging on the line.
Hang all starched things together and apart from the rest of the washing on the clothesline. (If the wind catches a starched wet cloth on the line, it can flop onto your unders and make them stiffly starched too!).
When dry, remove all articles from the line carefully because edges can stick together and need to be peeled part.
Damping-down and leaving wrapped in a towel overnight was the way things were done in my mother's day.  We never told her of our short cut of spraying the dry starched items with water as we ironed, when we were in a hurry. She would of been horrified.
Damping down means that the dry starched articles are sprinkled with water thoroughly, individually rolled up tightly, then packed together on a towel and rolled up into a bundle, to exclude drying air. Leave for a few hours or better still overnight, before ironing.


Remove and iron one article at a time, keeping the rest of the items covered and moist.
Set iron on linen, and use on the steam setting.
Run the iron over a waxed pad before beginning to iron quickly so that sticking is avoided.
Ironing on the wrong side of the fabric also helps bring up the embroidery in relief.
Once ironed, hang each article over a clotheshorse rung to air out and stiffen further as it dries right out.
When starched and ironed and aired, old linen looks as fresh and lovely as when Grandmother had it, and will retain its crispness for a long time.
Store flat in a drawer or a closet shelf without folding, if there is space for that.
A lavender bag left with the linen is a final touch of fragrance to the stored treasure.

To Make a Waxed Pad

Cut the foot section off an old woollen sock with plenty of leg to it.
Wrap the leg section of wool sock around a flat piece of wood about the size of a cake of soap.
Stitch the ends down, and this makes the wax pad.
Grate a teaspoon of beeswax onto the smooth side of the pad and melt it itnto the wool fabric by ironing over it.
Ironing becomes so much easier and sticking-free when a waxed pad is used, especially when starched fabrics are being ironed.
As time goes by, give the pad an occasional spoonful of grated wax melted in, to keep it in condition.



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