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How to Care for Table Linens

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To judge from the number of fine table linens offered at thrift shops and yard sales, using them may be a dying art.

But like many good things in life, their use is due for a revival. Old linens are treasures: firm, close-woven, and pure. Handling them gives you a sense of the energy and strength of the women who wove them and "soured" them with buttermilk to make them purely white. Old-time tablecloths, often called "board cloths," were made from holland, huckaback, osnaburg, or lockram—all comparatively coarse materials—or of fine damask, some trimmed with lace.

Here are some tips to keep your table linens at their best: 

  • Linens needn't be washed and ironed immediately after use. In fact, it's not good for them to be folded and tucked away. Do wash and dry them, but to preserve the fiber and color, put them away simply rolled, to be ironed before use.
  • Or follow the advice of one veteran table-linen lover: Secure a long, wooden dowel to the basement ceiling and drape freshly ironed tablecloths over it; cover these with plastic bags, and when you need one, simply take it down and spread it out on the table.
  • Before built-in closets, our foremothers kept linens in capacious chests, tucked in with sprigs of lavender.


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