How to Restore Stained and Yellowed Linens

Earlier this month I did a post on the MANY Practical Household Uses for Salt and one of the tips was for brightening yellowed cottons or linens. The timing couldn’t have been better because right after that I purchased a beautiful Battenburg lace tablecloth and 12 matching napkins from the consignment shop in town. (Same day I found my office chair! It was a banner day for thrifting!)

I have always had a “thing” for Battenburg lace. I started collecting it when I was a young girl and my Mom bought me a “Hope Chest”. (Do they even make those anymore?) Anyway………

The lady I purchased it from said she bought it probably 20 years ago while over in Germany, and it had basically sat in a box since then. Of course we all know what THAT usually means (well maybe not ALL of us)…the dreaded YELLOWING! Yellowing occurs on fabrics that are stored improperly and react with the cardboard box or wooden shelves. My tablecloth and napkins were no exception.

whitening yellowed linens

Luckily they weren’t too bad…but there were enough yellow stains that I knew I wanted to find a way to restore them to their earlier glory.

One thing you should know from the outset…this process takes time!! This is not going to be fixed with one quick run through the washer, BUT if you have some things you really want to salvage, it’s well worth it!  Fortunately I was not in a HURRY to get these stains out because Christmas (when I wanted to use them) was still several weeks away.

This is the method/recipe I used: 

Put yellowed items in a large pot of water. Add 1/4 cup salt and 1/2 cup baking soda. (Alternatively you can do this same method using an oxygen bleach.)

Bring to a boil and turn off the burner. The SECRET to cleaning linens is HOT water. Allow to soak (with occasional stirring) for as long as needed. It’s not uncommon for it to take 2 to 3 days. Some people recommend changing out the water everyday, but I didn’t. I also re-heated the water a couple of times a day to allow the HOT WATER to do its’ magic!

whitening yellowed linens

Continue to check the progress of the stain removal and when satisfied, drain the water and RINSE THOROUGHLY!  Soap left in your linens will turn brown when ironed and will also eat away at the fibers over time…so RINSE, RINSE, and then RINSE AGAIN.

If possible, allow to dry in the sun on a flat surface. Putting them on a clothesline will damage them by stretching them out of shape. Even in winter, with a weak sun, outside drying is recommended because the dryer tends to dull linens.

whitening yellowed linens

My tablecloth and napkins took about 72 hours total before the yellow stains were completely gone. But it was worth the wait! They have now been restored to their former brightness and ready to be put to use come Christmas day. :-)

whitening yellowed linens

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  1. Trish says

    Jillee, will this method work on baby clothes that I kept as keepsakes which now have the mysterious yellow stains?

  2. Laurie says

    Exactly the information I’ve been meaning to look for – and here it is today – will definitely give this a try!

  3. Catherine's not naturally crafty, says

    Jillee; couldn’t you just break out the crock pot? I would think that might speed up the process and require less time with the pot on a stove unattended. I can just see myself scorching the whole batch or worse, setting them on fire. I like spreading the sheet out over low shrubs so the neighborhood cats and dogs aren’t as likely to walk on my drying stuff. Thanks for the great hint!

  4. KimH says

    That is a beautiful set.. Im afraid my family would do more damage to it using it than it was in the first place..

    • Sherri McNeeley says

      Use your washer with hottest water setting and add pots of boiling water periodically. I did this with old white sheets that I wanted to use for curtain lining. Dried them on a clothesline in the sun. Voila! No stains.

  5. Karen423 says

    I have a tablecloth that is embroidered and has been in the family for…. almost 50 years (maybe longer, given to my mom, 50 years ago). There is a yellow stain on it (not all over just a couple of spots). Can I use this method and not fade the red and green cross stitching?

  6. Murphy says

    You say rinse the soap out, butyou didn’t put any soap in, did you? You mean rinse the salt and baking soda out?

    Jennifer, I guess you could use, say, an insualted cooler with a drip spout at the bottom, in your bathtub? Would keep the water warm longer, and then you would have to drain and add more hot water plus salt and baking soda every so often. I would try to get a good size fit, so there isn’t too much air to cool the water quickly. Hope you find something that works for you!

  7. golda says

    My mom always laid dad’s socks on the grass in the sun. Combination of sun and chlorophyll or whatever in the grass made them white