Marshal the Power of the Sun: Restore Vintage Fabrics on a Clothesline

SunA clothesline in a shady spot can air dry your laundry without the expense of energy resources, keep your clothes in better condition without subjecting them to the wear and tear of a clothes dryer cycle, and return them to you smelling fresh and sweet without the chemicals contained in a dryer sheet.

A clothesline in a sunny spot can do all that and bleach out soil and stains, to boot, again without the worry of harsh chemicals.

This factor, combined with a very gentle handwashing and some pre-treatments, can restore even very stained and very valuable vintage fabrics. It can also get your kids’ grape juice stains out of your beloved childhood Snoopy sheet set. Here’s how:

The first thing to know is that gentle treatments work slowly–all that stuff that makes stains disappear right before your eyes? You don’t even want to know the chemicals involved in that business. So, if you really want to restore a vintage linen tablecloth to its original whiteness, or get a funky stain out of an awesome Goodwill find, expect to spend several sunny days on this task. And the sunny days don’t have to be consecutive, of course–whenever you have the time, this process is there for you.

If your fabric was originally white or cream or unbleached, with no pattern, or if your fabric has clearly been washed a lot with no special treatment, then you can safely handwash it with my methods below. If it’s vintage with a pattern or may have never been washed before, you may not want to risk even a handwashing.

The other thing to remember is that when you hang fabric on your clothesline in a sunny spot, the sun will gently and gradually bleach everything it touches. It will gently and gradually fade a brightly colored fabric or pattern, but only where the sun touches it. If you don’t mind a bit of fading overall (it does help with the vintage look), then remember to change up the way in which you hang your fabric so that it will fade evenly. If you don’t want your color or fabric to fade, don’t leave the fabric out for long periods of time in the sun–the stain will tend to fade before the fabric dye fades, so if you’re vigilant you can still restore your fabric without suffering significant sun bleaching.

For the very gentlest of spot washing, hang your fabric on the clothesline in a sunny spot, then, with a spray bottle filled with vinegar and water, mist only the stained part of the fabric until it’s damp. Everybody likes a different ratio of vinegar and water–just remember that vinegar is a little acidic, so if your fabric is extremely fragile, be conservative with the ratio.

For a gentle all-over wash, clean your bathtub well, then fill it partway with a mix of water, vinegar, and baking soda. Again, the ratios here are very friendly to estimation, so feel free to experiment. You can allow the fabric to soak in this solution, or you can gently agitate it to work out some of the dirt and grime. When you’re done you can gently wring the fabric out until it’s only damp, and then hang it on your clothesline in a sunny spot.

For a stronger spot cleaning, make a paste of baking soda and water and pat it onto your stain. When the paste is completely dry, brush the baking soda off, then hold a single layer of the stained fabric over a sink and pour vinegar through it until it’s saturated. Hang dry.

Do you have any other secrets for caring for vintage fabrics?

8 thoughts on “Marshal the Power of the Sun: Restore Vintage Fabrics on a Clothesline”

  1. i would love to use the clothesline more often, but air drying leaves my clothes crunchy, especially towels. is there a secret to getting soft line dryed clothes?

  2. Though it may use the clothes dryer, most dryers have it so that you can just use unheated air. Our dryer has an “Air Fluff” type setting, throw in a couple of tennis balls with the crunchy towels, give it a 2-5 minute spin and they are good to go! That way you use just the minimum amount of power.

    Better yet someone crafty enough could possible setup a tumbler that ran off some charged up car batteries charged by the sun, dry on the line in the sun while the batteries are charging for the tumble !!!

  3. I’ve also found that my stuff drying really quickly on a sunny day makes them stiff. Our clothesline is set up to be partly in the shade, and the slower drying seems to keep our towels softer.

    This is weird, but I also actually like my stuff to be a little stiff. Makes the towels nice and exfoliating.

  4. Pingback: Marshal the Power of the Sun (Part 2): Sun Prints : Crafting a Green World

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