Before we start to think about caring for antique french linens, I’d just like to tell you about how they were laundered in the days when they were in regular use. Each village along our valley has a wash-house. A small building built on the edge of the river and one side open to the water. There are steps leading down to water level with large flat stones in a row.
In the 19th century these were in daily use as maids and housekeepers from the village would come here with their baskets of house linens and kneel down to the flat stones. They wet the fabric and rubbed it with soap before pounding the living daylights out of the sheets and the clothes, then let them unfold in the current of the river to rinse them.
Together they would haul the heavy, make that very heavy, sheets out of the water and twist them to squeeze out as much water as possible. Once home the sheets were either hung to dry or laid out in meadows where the chlorophyll from the fresh green grass would act as a whitening agent on the linen as it dried in the sun.
Sounds exhausting doesn’t it?! Today of course our lives are easier than that, but if I tell you that story it’s to remind you just how strong linen can be.
Here in Normandy I use linen sheets on all our beds, so they are all laundered very regularly, and I have my own techniques to care for them and enjoy their beauty every day.
Washing and drying
All my sheets are washed on a hot to very hot wash in the machine and always hung out to dry on a line behind the barn in our garden.
I NEVER dry old sheets in a tumble dryer. For one, it is impossible to un-crinkle them once they get too dry and I am also convinced that the dryer damages the fibre of the fabric.
Nothing beats the clean smell of sheets that have dried in the sun.
Personally I like to have my sheets ironed flat. They look better on the bed and are definitely easier to store neatly than if they are simple folded. I have friends with Aga stoves who dry their sheets folded on top of the warm stove and the result is pretty good, but I still prefer the crispness of a freshly pressed sheet.
So yes, all the sheets are ironed, and yes they are huge pieces of fabric to handle. I never iron my sheets as a single thickness, but rather pre-fold them into four thickness’s width-wise. Folding them across the width means that the top of the sheet with the embroidery or monogram remains visible when it is stored and it is easy to find again.
I use a steam iron, and in the past I used a roller press which I loved. If the sheet is a little damp after ironing, it is left to hang, still folded, for a couple of hours until totally dried out and then folded smaller to put away
I love the aesthetics of an armoire piled high with beautiful old sheets. I sort the piles into plain sheets and embroidered top sheets, whose long turn-backs are folded down over the duvet when the bed is made.
I have separate piles of pillow and bolster shams, preferably stored in pairs so I can find them easily.
At the back of the shelves are big bags of lavender that release their delicious perfume each time sheets are moved.
As I explained in my last post about buying linens, the worst stains to remove are the fold lines that you sometimes find on very old sheets that have been stored untouched for too long. I have not found a solution for that one.
Often on an old sheet there will be a couple of small spots of rust. If the marks are a long way down the sheet and are small, I personally just ignore them, knowing that they will never show when the sheet is used.
For more prominent rust marks there are products sold that can work. You have to experiment with whatever is available where you live. I have tested several, and some work better than others. A girlfriend swears by lemon juice and salt left on the stain in full sunlight ….
I rarely use bleach on old linens. It is only a last resort for a dye stain that won’t come out in the wash. Bleach is very aggressive with textiles and should never be used undiluted, and always rinsed very thoroughly.
A tear or a hole
A small tear or a hole can be mended or invisibly patched if you are willing to spend the time and make tiny stitches.
What cannot be fixed is a sheet that has been used so much that it is worn thin. If you have bought a sheet in this condition by mistake, then the best solution is probably to cut it up and use the good pieces for fabric to back cushions or other sewing projects.
Voila! At the end of the day the linen sheets are there to be used and enjoyed, so get them out of your cupboards and onto your beds!