Saturday, August 26, 2006

Caring for Vintage Scottish and Irish Linens

There is something at once poignant and magical about buying - as I so frequently do - boxes of old linen at auction. They are my first and best love, and I've collected them along with other textiles for many years, as well as more recently setting up an online shop so that other fans of old linen and lace can browse, and perhaps add to their own collections. Because these domestic textiles tend to be under appreciated (and somewhat neglected) here in South West Scotland, I often find myself having to give them a great deal of TLC before they are fit to be seen. Some of them arrive clean and starched and sweet, but so many of them have been stuffed into trunks and boxes and horrible old suitcases for years on end: they can be crumpled, stained, dusty, dirty and extremely smelly, if the truth be told. I look upon the process of preparing them as a rescue mission, and it is extremely time consuming - but fascinating too. Even though you have a good rummage on viewing days, you are never quite sure what you might be going to find at the bottom of the box. Mostly it will be a miscellany of rather ordinary crochet doilies, but just occasionally something more interesting turns up.
They all have to be sorted, examined, assessed. Can they be soaked in a solution of stain remover or are they just too delicate? Chlorine bleaches are out of course but there are some wonderful new products on the market which are much gentler. Big damask tablecovers and linen bedding can withstand high temperature washes. Some of the more delicate, lacy or whitework pieces need gentle soaking, hand washing, and rinsing with the shower - rubbing and squeezing of old and delicate fibres can do real damage. I know somebody who simmers old muslin baby dresses in a saucepan with soap, and claims that it is very effective, but I haven't ever had the courage to try it for myself. Nevertheless, when occasionally presented with a baby gown or something similar which is so stained and discoloured as to be almost beyond rescue, I have experimented with successive soakings, and changes of water, over quite a long period - 24 or even 48 hours, before washing, with a fair amount of success.
Dirt, in the fibres of an old piece can do real damage, so your vintage and antique linens should be kept as clean as possible. Lavender in the shape of bags, or a few drops of oil in your ironing water, will deter moths, and keep your linens smelling fresh and sweet. Keep delicate pieces out of direct sunlight, and if you are storing them for any length of time, use acid free tissue to wrap them. But I am of the opinion that we should be using these lovely old linens, to dress a table, or a bed. They have been created with great skill, by women who are long gone; they are a lovely tactile link with the past, and by using and admiring them we are somehow acknowledging all the talent that went into making them so many years ago.

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