· Homekeeping Tips · Laundry Tips · How to Restore Stained and Yellowed Linens

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 yellowingYellowing 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: 

Carefully put 1/4 cup oxygen bleach in a large pot filled with hot water. Then add your linens.

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!

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.

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. :-)

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  • How do you know when you’re done, esp if not changing out the water? I’m on day three already having changed out the water each day, and yes, the water is not as yucky, but it’s still tea coloured.
    And will this method work for curtains stained by leaky roof? Thank you! you’re a God-send.

  • This is a great process for getting out the grease stains [ie, gravy, any fats etc. ] on linens. The boiling water liquifies or melts the fats that have soaked into the fabric and your stain is gone. I have used this method for years on new and vintage linens. Even on old pillowcases as men used to use oil based products on their hair such as Brylcreem etc. Once in a while the stain has been set for to long and just won’t budge. I have also boiled baby stained baby clothes and most came out perfect. It all has to do with the heat of the water. Boiling clothes goes way back, have you ever seen pictures of copper wash tubs placed over fires to boil the linens and clothing? It was not only used for whitening but for killing germs.

  • Thanks for this whitening tip. Can’t wait to try it. I have some beautiful linen tabbed curtains from Country Curtains which have yellowed and I hope this will save them. One thing not mentioned in your article is whether the use of hot water will shrink them. Shall I assume shrinkage is unavoidable? Have others encountered shrinking? Thanks :-)

  • This post is a LIFE SAVER! I received all these lovely white linen napkins from my mom when she was cleaning house… and they all had these horrible yellow brown stains all over them! I did the baking soda/salt/boiling water method over two days (I redid the process on the second day) and then washed by hand in cold water and some regular clothes detergent (there were still some traces after the second round)… lay them out on the grass to dry and they are all beautiful and white again! So nice to be able to reuse them! Thank you!

  • Oh thank you so much for sharing your wisdom!! My grandma has given me some beautiful linens over the years and yes of course some have stains…. Hmmmm I actually did Not know what caused that yellowing so thank you for that too! So once we get the yellow out and I’m finished using them How do I store them properly? Almost all the linens I have were made by my sweet granny and her momma so I’m Very Excited to try this!

    Thanks so much!


  • Dear Jillee :)
    I’m new to all these homemade and DIY cleaners/projects but you inspire me! I have my blessing dress from when I was born the fabric is still white but the lace is yellowing, would this work on lace as well?

  • Just did this yesterday…I don’t know why I was so surprised it work. But IT WORKED and I’m thrilled. I has a few WHITE sweaters and shirts that my toddler ruined on the first wear. GONE are the stains. So far in a week you have helped me twice Jillee! Thank you. I’m so thankful I found your blog on pinterest.

  • Thank you so much, Jillee! This post was so timely for me as I had just taken down some curtains that had got stains on them. I tried washing to no avail. Then I tried your trick! and they are clean! And to answer questions above, the embroidery on the curtains didn’t fade (at least that I could notice). You saved me the price of a new set of curtains. Thank you so much!

  • I was very excited to read this. I have several table antique cloths that have embroidery on them, will this method work with out fading the embroidery thread? Thank you!

    • Kim – I too have some heirloom linens with embroidery. I have been researching this and I am going to mix up the solution with salt and baking soda and do a test for colorfastness using a cotton slob on the end Brontrie. If any color comes on the cotton swab that I know I can’t use the method. If no color then use the brightening method that Jillee mentioned above.

      Jillee – I have some white crocheted snowflakes that my grandmother made many years ago over the years and hanging on my tree they’ve gotten dingy and a few have gotten the yellow stains from being stored. I made a small batch at the solution and have them soaking in the crockpot right now I will definitely get it after picture I wish I had gotten a before picture. Thank you!!

      • No clue what Brontrie is… LOL my iPad likes to add random words.

        follow up – my snowflakes looks as beautiful as the day my Nana made them. After soaking in the crockpot, and rinsing I laid them on a towel to dry. I used pins to hold them in perfect shape, and sprayed them with starch to stiffen them. I made homemade starch with cornstarch and water. I didn’t have any distilled water so I brought it to a boil first, let it cool then added 4 tablespoons of cornstarch to 2 cups of water. Funnel into spray bottle and spray both side of the ornaments as they dried.

  • Just surffing around for different sites on making home made remedies… for all sorts of things… I like the help in getting rid of the yellowing on tablecloths and things… I know I will keep that one… thanks for sharing the ideas… with us… God bless…

  • My ‘go to’ method for yellow spots on old linen items consists of lemon juice (fresh) and sunshine. Granted, I’ve never tried it in the winter but in the summer it works! Those linens were my grandmother’s and my mother’s. I might add, it also works for those ‘unknown’ spots on clothing.

    Ellen – a Grandma in northern OH

  • Your post has inspired me to look for my own set of linens.

    When I go into an antique store I don’t know what to look for. What are your favorite things to look for? Pinterest has inspired me to look for old jingle bells.

    Sounds silly, but I want to be more successful when I go thrifting.

    • Honestly, that depends on where you are. If it’s clear and low humidity, even in the cold it would still pull the moisture out, and “bleach” naturally from the sun. Might have to let it seriously warm up when it comes inside though, from being “freeze dried”. =)

  • Love your website Jillee! Do you think this might work on whites clothes that are dingy from… more organic reasons, like perspiration stains in blouses and dingy white sheets?

  • Love your posts, Jillee! Similar to Karen423 above and her embroidered linens, I have baseball pants that are stained with Georgia red clay. I’ve tried to spot clean these areas with the Dawn dish soap trick with only some success. I’m hesitant to try the above process because I worry about the black piping fading down the sides of the pant legs. What do you think?


    • To: KLA
      There is a product called “Iron Out” that you can find in some grocery stores and Walmart. It is for removing rust stains (similar to CLR, if you’ve seen that.) I used to add about 1/3 cup to detergent and hot water in the washer and let the pants soak for a while before running the regular wash cycle. It is safe for the synthetics used for the baseball pants and works wonderfully. Two warnings, though: it stinks (like sulphur) and it will remove red dyes as well as the stains.

      Good Luck,
      Kathy (former team mom) in SC

      • Thank you so much, Kathy! I’m pulling Amazon up after I finish this to go in search of it! :)

        Thanks again!

  • So, after you go to all that trouble to make your linen napkins white, you set them on the table and people USE them, they get food, lipstick and other nasty stains on them, does that worry you at all??? I suppose you just wash them and hope for the best… :)


    • Wretha…MOST stains like that are pretty easy to get out if you tackle them right away….but those yellowing stains that develop in storage are TOUGH! :-)

  • Thanks a million for showing how to remove those yellow stains…..what a life saver as I have several linen pieces from my Great Mother…so dearly want to keep them perfect for my grand children one day……hint hint, son (ok he’s only 12, got a few years to go) lol. Also wanted to say I really enjoy your daily topics, my niece and I enjoy all the homemade recipes you give us.

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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!

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