How to Properly Care for Your Linens

As much as we love our linens, keeping them looking pristine can be a challenge. Since spills are inevitable—and we refuse to sacrifice our beloved textiles—we reached out to Patty MacKinney and Lara Duffy, co-owners of Monmouth County, New Jersey-based cleaning and organizing company Third & Lennox, for advice on how to treat, wash, and preserve our pieces. Here, they share their time-tested tricks.

Remember, material matters. In general, MacKinney and Duffy note, it’s easier to remove stains from cotton and linen fibers than polyester and polyblends—a compelling reason to invest in natural fiber linens, which will last you much longer than synthetic if you care for them properly.

Make white vinegar your go-to. “We love white vinegar for all manner of cleaning, from floor to laundry care,” MacKinney says of the all-natural product that also acts as a whitener. Simply add half a cup manually at the beginning of the rinse cycle (see below for tips on wash temperatures, etc.). You can also pretreat stains by soaking the fabric in half a cup of white vinegar combined with a gallon of water.

Take action immediately. While you’re obviously not going to remove your tablecloth in the middle of dinner, it’s important to treat your stains as soon as possible. MacKinney recommends taking your linens to your laundry room for a quick spot-check as soon as your guests have departed. “It’s best not to wait until the next morning when stains have really had a chance to get set in,” she advises.

Differentiate your stains. Almost all stains are treatable, though different spills require different approaches. Here’s how to tackle the common culprits:

  • Protein stains. According to MacKinney, combining cold water and salt to remove blood and dairy from fabric works wonders. First, run the fabric under cold water—hot water will cause a protein stain to set—then soak the stain in cold water with half a cup of table salt. If it’s a particularly tough stain, you can make a paste of three parts table salt and one part water, then rub it into the affected fabric (you may need to repeat the process a few times)
  • Grease stains: Whether you’re treating your clothes or your linens, grease stains are best removed by lightly coating the stain in baking soda and letting it sit for a bit. Then, Duffy advises using equal parts water and vinegar to saturate the stain and then lightly brush to remove it. Follow with a warm water rinse.
  • Red wine. Your best bet for combating this common holiday spill is to begin treating the spot before the wine has had a chance to dry. Take the tablecloth to the sink and run boiling water over it, letting the wine run through the fabric. Then, rub a salt paste into the fabric and let it sit for approximately 15 minutes. Rinse and repeat until the stain is gone.
  • Candle wax. For candle wax drips, resist the urge to treat your tablecloth immediately, as you want the wax to harden (Duffy suggests putting the tablecloth in the freezer to speed up the process). Once the wax is completely cool, slowly scrape it off with a dull knife. Bear in mind that wax from all-natural, non-toxic candles is easier to clean up.

Know how to wash—and dry—like a pro. After you’ve pre-treated your linens, make sure you wash them with care. Here, Duffy and MacKinney break down best practices for washing and drying your pieces.

  • Go delicate, always. Whether you’re dealing with a natural or synthetic material, choose to wash your linens in warm—not hot—water on the delicate cycle with a cold water rinse.
  • Ban bleach. “We don’t recommend using chlorine bleach on anything, as it wears down the fibers on fabric,” Duffy says. While you’re on a product purge, go ahead and skip the fabric softener as well. “It coats and weakens the threads, making them less absorbent and ultimately more difficult to extract stains,” Duffy notes.
  • Remember that less is more. “We’ve found that you don’t need much detergent to clean table linens, especially when you’ve pre-treated stains,” Duffy says. Persil is her favorite product for everyday linens, because it has the necessary enzymes to break down stain molecules. For high-end linens, she opts for the linen wash by Le Blanc, which is effective yet gentle enough to preserve the textiles.
  • Be diligent when drying. “Heirlooms and items made out of linen should be dried on the permanent press cycle,” MacKinney says. Your fine pieces should also be taken out of the dryer when they’re slightly damp to make ironing—which should always be done on a low setting—easier.

Pack away your pieces with care. Just throwing your linens in a sideboard drawer is never a good idea, our experts caution. Instead, Duffy recommends storing linens in a fabric-friendly container, like the canvas storage bags by The Laundress, with acid-free paper between your layers to allow for more air circulation.

TSG Tip 339 from Patty MacKinney and Lara Duffy, co-owners of Third & Lennox in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Third & Lennox  is featured in The Scout Guide Two Rivers  & The Shore.