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!
I enjoyed this post, Sharon, especially the history of old wash houses in Europe.
As a dealer of antique and vintage linens, my sisters and I work hard to clean up the worst of stains – tea, rust and even shelf stains – with various modern products, along with the old fashioned, tried-and-true lemon and salt. One thing’s for sure – you really cannot beat the fresh smell of linens hung to dry, and stored with lavender – both of which I do.
As for my everyday household sheets, I hang dry my top sheet but machine dry my bottom and, I can affirm, the machine dryer does break down the fabric over time. I also love pressed sheets and did that for a long time, but it became so tedious weekly, and made my neck hurt, even with folding (I tried to keep it at a minimum single fold, as I hoped to avoid pressing creases into the fabric for wear). I continue pressing all the vintage linens for sale. It is almost a project to do batches of old linens – soaking, washing, hanging, pressing, folding, and tagging for sale – most of which goes unnoticed by the customer, I suppose.
I love my European linens I have collected, and those made by nuns in convents are simply the best!
Have a great day.
I am interested in your cottage but am not able to contact you on your site. Can you please write to me so I can ask some questions of you? Thank you. I love your site!
how can I buy linen sheets here in the US? can they be bought new, or is all linen only available as antique because it is not longer manufactured? How much does is cost, generally?
These are not vintage bed linen products but there is a source of good linen bedding on a site called Rough Linen. Some lovely products here. Also you can find antique linen bedding on the
I forgot to add that there is a wonderful site in Australia that makes beautiful bed linen products, called CULTIVER. These are not antique but superb quality that just keeps getting better with every wash. The antiques of the future.
For whitening sheets or getting rid of stains and discolouring on any cotton or linen
products my mother’s trick used to be to spread the sheet or the towel on the grass in the sun and keep wetting it. The sun draws out the offending marks. I have done this many times and it works.
Thank you for Helena Voss for these details about purchasing Linen & quality sheets from the US.
I love my old and not so old bedlinens too.The first pieces
I inherited from my mother in law and than stated to collect them purchase them at fleamarkets and at old aunts mother in laws of my girlfriends.You know the guesthouse needs a lot of white linen. Though I try to dry them in the sun it is not so easy in the cold periods of the year.Thank you for mentioning not to machinedry them. Lavender is a must in every armoire or closet in our house.Sending you the last sunshines from the Great Hungarian Plain. Dorka
Beautiful story and the linens are so lovely.
Where can I find good, used French linens here in the United States? I would love to get some for all of our beds! Thank you.
Hi Cindy…you might try Restoration Hardware online or bricks and mortar across the US..cheers
Sharon these are all wonderful tips for keeping beautiful linens.
I love seeing them all folded and stacked in your armoire!!
The Arts by Karena
Featuring India Hicks!
I too would love to know where to buy antique French linens? Would you be able to help me search for a site?
I love old linens + especially sheets xxpeggybraswelldesign.com
But how do you keep them so white? I struggle with that with my regular sheets. We have hard water here, but we have a water softener in our home, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
I’d also like to know the secret to keeping natural fiber clothing and sheets white, and warding off that awful yellowed look. Any tips?
I’m on the hunt for some lovely linen sheets. Thank you for the care tips!
I have had excellent luck removing fold stains and other stains on my vintage linens using OxiClean, followed by drying them in the bright California sunshine. You can get OxiClean as an additive to your normal linen laundry detergent or you can buy it already incorporated into Arm & Hammer detergent. I have used both with great success.
I hang my head in shame because I am too lazy to iron my linens and just call it the Shabby Chic look. 😮
I live in France and have these old linens also, and recommend using oxalic acid in water, a pretty strong solution, to remove rust stains. The oxalic acid reacts with the iron in the rust — which is of course what it is, oxidized iron. It doesn’t hurt the fabric. I make a saturate solution with boiling water — meaning I use as much oxalic acid as will dissolve — then put it on the stains with a q-tip. As it cools you can use it, but as it cools off the crystals of acid precipitate out, and you need to microwave it (!) to heat it up again so it will work. Also recommended is soaking a discolored sheet for several days in sodium bicarbonate, which will often take out stains and discoloration. There are e-bay and etsy sellers who deal in these precious sheets, as well as other antique french linen items.
Bonnie in Languedoc
US bedding is slightly different in size from UK or French bedding — and we’re so spoiled by pre-made sheets of a certain size. Is there a particular way to measure to be sure the linen sheet you’re buying is large enough?
I really loved the story. I bought some linen sheets from WestElm in the U.S., but then found Rough Linen, on Facebook, roughlinen.com and will possible buy my next pair from her. She is from the UK I believe, but lives in California and the sheets are made in the U.S. The ones I got from West Elm were unfortunately from China. Ugh!
you revived lovely memories from my youth in Luxembourg…. the women socialised at the washhouse while working hard , the children used to play around them , enjoying nature and water … sometimes lending a helping hand ..
I enjoy your amazing blog …. thank you !
Sharon- When a houseguest (ahem) accidentally drips candle wax on a vintage table linen- what do you recommend? I am certain you have first hand experience handling such a thing…. Lol! I Love the vintage linens we brought back and Tom keeps asking me when we get to sleep on them. I’m saving them for when we officially move into our renovated master bedroom in the farmhouse. XO to you! Sarah
Love old French linens but hate doing laundry/ironing so I will not be doing all that to have them!!!
Ah, don’t be too cross with your ‘houseguest’ Sarah, it happens so easily to drip wax on a cloth …. if the cloth is a dark colour then I’m afraid I have no magic solution because in my experience the darker wax stain just never goes.
If the cloth is white then I would first of all put the cloth in the fridge or freeze and chip off as much cold wax as possible, then iron the cloth between layers of kitchen paper to soak out the residue and then wash on a very hot wash. The mark shouldn’t show after that.
We had a real candle chandelier for years and here is my solution. I always burned white or ivory candles – so don’t know if this would work for a colored candle.
Put the item with the wax on it in the freezer for over night. Next day, place a couple of layers of paper towel under the item on the ironing board. Then place a layer of paper towel directly on the spot on top of the wax. With the iron on a medium heat place directly over the paper towel and hold the iron in place for a few seconds, not to long as to scorch the item. The wax will melt and the paper towels will absorb the wax. Repeat if necessary. Do this with a dry iron – not steam iron.
Good luck – I have had very good success with this method.
One of the biggest regrets my mom had about her life was that she never used the beautifully embroidered table cloths that her Danish mother had made. Before she died, it was a word of advice that my children would have family memories that included all this beautiful handmade ( Mom was very talented and productive too when it came to this ) items. ‘Even if it gets a stain, who cares?’
So I am. ( but I still remove certain table linens if we are have a meal with tomato sauce) perhaps a hard habit to break after all, we do what we’ve seen done not necessarily what we were told to do.
Thank you, as always, for another great post!!
Where can I find linen sheets handmade by nuns?
Sharon, I will be in the south of France in May next year and would love to know which is the best market to source antique linen? In Australia we have little opportunity to find antique linens. Love your site. Janine
I just watched an old film of a village showing the women washing their laundry at the lavoir. I cannot imagine the back breaking work of that daily chore! I have only one very rough linen sheet that I bought in a brocante a few years ago. Very thick, often repaired (beautifully) with a perfect handseam down the center. After seeing that film, and thinking about how heavy that sheet would be to wash and haul, I appreciate my sheet even more. I can’t wait to return next summer to buy some more!
oh, and I never iron this sheet. It is very rough heavy linen (not the lovely fine linen with embroidery) and comes out of the dryer soft and beautiful. It also gets bleached occasionally, with no ill effect.
Lovely post. I would love to buy some antique linen one day but in Adelaide the supply is limited. Perhaps the next time I’m in France. But I’ve been so intrigued with your reference to linen over the years that about a year ago I bought some “new” bed linen from a place called Provincial Living in Australia. I guess Provincial Living source their linen from China and it wouldn’t be anywhere near the quality of the linen woven on hand looms. However, my question is the care instructions for the linen is to wash in cold water. I notice you recommend hot water. I would prefer to wash in hot water as I think it would be far more hygienic. My question is, would even mass produced linen be okay to wash in hot water? Kind regards, Sandra
Also a generous sprinkle of talcum powder on and below the paper towel as you iron with a medium hot iron helps to absorb the wax. Repeat several times and then launder to get rid of the wax stain.
Beautiful linens are a favourite of mine and I can smell the freshness from your post 😉
Many congratulations, Sharon on your book…I’ve just ordered my copy!
I look forward to beginning my day with your amazing site and a cup of coffee. In New Orleans we have a long summer and plenty of sunshine so my linens are always thrown across my side fence after washing. They stay so white. Appreciate all of your wonderful tips and your stories. Warm regards, Del
Hi Sharon~I just water colored a pair of old pillow cases in a pale brown zebra. It was a risk, but I do like them!
I deliberately bought and planted French Lavender this past spring. It is so beautiful, and has blossomed bountifully. The smell is absolute heaven! Now, I am going to be sewing up some of those bags you displayed, and loading them with my perfect lavender blossoms! Next spring, I am ripping out the azaleas and planting French Lavender in their place!
Thanks for such an informative article.
Thanks for another great blog, Sharon!
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What a lovely post, and one close to many of our hearts as beautiful linens are something we all like. I have some inherited embroidered bedlinen, and then newer pieces I like to mix together.
For treating rust stains, apply lemon juice mix with salt, and leave outside….it must be a sunny day.. the stain will be gone in a few hours
For the lady who asked about candle wax…if you are in the uk, we have a product called Mr Muscle ( use the spray kitchen cleaner ) dampen the stain, spray and rub like mad.
The candle stain will go, and if you wash and rinse soon after, the linen item will come to no harm ..I promise! ( It also works on things like grease and oil splashes from cooking)
I hope the sun is still shining for you
I bought a stack of lovely linen napkins at an antique shop in Summerland, California. They were seriously discounted because of small rust stains. Lemon juice and sun took the stains out and they have never returned.
FYI – Chlorophyll does NOT contribute to whitening. It is the Ultra Violet light from the sun that does the job. Same reason that line-dried laundry is whiter and cleaner smelling than laundry from a dryer. BTW , Hydrogen Peroxide is a MUCH better whitener and disinfectant than bleach. Hydrogen Peroxide is also much more environmentally safe, won’t damage your fabrics like bleach does and leaves no chlorine smell. Hydrogen Peroxide breaks down into pure, clean oxygen and water while Bleach breaks down into salt water and chlorine gas. The main reason we use bleach in the US rather than Hydrogen Peroxide is that Clorox was made from salt water extracted from the Oakland Bay. You can thank American advertising for pushing Clorox bleach on us!
This is probably my favorite post of yours, besides any pictures of your dogs. I can tell that a lot of thought and work went into this post. Thank you, Sharon!!!
Believe it or not, but I also had the same problem when I bought my house. My friends advised me to get in touch with biodegradable pressure washer soap and detergent. Therefore, it helps to do the cleaning regularly and then you will have no problems. I think it would be reasonable as each normal person wants to live in the clean house.