Basic Care Instructions #19: Linen





This is the 19th in a series of articles on common care instructions for domestic items, and materials most often seen in antiques and vintage textiles, including but not limited to housewares and clothing. I hope this care information is helpful to you.

You may well know a lot more about the care of domestic items than I can tell you here, but it's nice to have all this information in one place. At the risk of trying your patience, I go into considerable detail in suggesting how to care for your things. I've also added some general suggestions here, and if you follow them, they can add a lot to the life expectancy of your favorite things.

See our issue BASIC CARE INSTRUCTIONS #1 for information on how to read care labels you may find on vintage fabrics (and you should follow them if you do find them!). All previous articles in the series can be found in our library and in the magazine archives.  Upon request, reprint permission and an addendum of substantiating resources are available for all magazine articles. When requesting reprint permission or addenda, please include the issue date and full issue title. All magazine articles are copyright © Debra Spencer, Suit Yourself ™ International. All rights reserved. ISSN 2474-820X. 





Graduation Class Wearing Linen, 1886. 



Fabrics made from linen are some of the oldest textiles found in the world. Linen, like cotton, is a plant derivative; it's a textile made from flax plant fibers. Linen is laborious to manufacture. It has to grow first, then you have to go out into the field or wherever and harvest it, work it into fibers that can be spun into filaments, and then weave those filaments into fabric.

Linen is very absorbent. Garments made from fabric woven from linen will stay exceptionally cool and fresh in hot weather. When loosely woven, linen is sheerer than cotton, wrinkles more easily than cotton, and has a unique dry hand that feels cool to the touch, very unlike cotton. Linen gets softer the more it's washed. It's generally pill free and lint-free, and is resistant to moths. It's also relatively brittle; the fibers can break from constant creasing such as when repeatedly ironing a hem, collar, or cuff, or from leaving linen folded in storage without opening it up frequently, unfolding it, and allowing the fabric fibers to breath. Yes, most natural fiber fabric needs to breath, just like you do.

Linen wrinkles easily because brittle fibers aren't elastic; linen doesn't bounce back to its' previous shape the way a rubberband can. Wrinkling is part of linen's particular charm and a badge of its' authenticity; authentic linen wrinkles in a unique way.

All this makes linen seem fragile, but it's not! Linen is very durable and it's even stronger when wet. It can absorb and lose water rapidly, without feeling damp and chilly next to the skin in the way that cotton does. A characteristic of linen yarn is the presence of little slubs, small knots occurring randomly along the length of the yarn. These add to the integrity and durability of the fabrics made from them. Extremely fine linen has usually been woven from very fine threads with a consistent diameter and without slubs, but linen fabrics woven from threads of these sorts will also be very thin and fragile; it's not as versatile or suitable for as many purposes.

For more information, please see




The word 'Linen' is used as a generic reference and can refer to many things, which may or may not be made from linen, or which were once made exclusively from linen but are no longer. 

Textiles in a linen weave texture are often referred to as "linen" even when made of some other fiber, such as cotton, hemp, and other non-flax fibers. In fact, these specific combinations of fiber and their weaves will usually have very specific names to designate their uniqueness. For example, 'Madapolam' is the name of a fine cotton yarn in a linen-style weave, often used for handkerchiefs and undergarments. The collective term "linens" is often used to describe a generic group or class of woven or knitted textiles that, once upon a time, were traditionally made entirely of linen and used in intimate and personal areas of the home. These include textiles woven for  the bed, bath, at the table, and in the kitchen, and lightweight undergarments such as shirts, chemises, waist-shirts, and lingerie. An inner layer, worn next to the skin, found on fine garments such as jackets, was traditionally made of linen, and this gives us the word 'lining'.

For more information, please see and


Pressed Linen Summer Dresses, 1919.




While linen can withstand high temperatures, and has only moderate initial shrinkage, it should not be dried too much by tumble drying, as that weakens the fibers over time. Linen is much easier to iron when it is damp. Linen wrinkles very easily, and more formal garments may require frequent ironing to maintain perfect smoothness. Nevertheless, the tendency to wrinkle is part of linen's particular alure, and many modern linen garments are designed to be air-dried on a good clothes hanger and worn without the necessity of ironing. While linen can be dry-cleaned, machine-washed, and air dried or steamed, by far, the safest recommendation for truly fine linen care is dry cleaning. 


Laundry Duty, 1900, Pressing A Petticoat.



Some people prefer blends of linen and cotton.  Unless treated, these fabrics can achieve much of the coolness of linen while reducing the wrinkling. Unfortunately, many, if not most fabric blends, are treated before garments are assembled with them, and the treatments are usually ammonia or formaldehyde based, either of which blocks the 'pores' of the fabric, contains body temperature, and makes the garment 'warmer' by not allowing the skin to breath through it. If you have ever purchased a summer cotton shirt only to wonder why you're sweating profusely whenever you wear it, or why it feels greasy or slimy to the touch, this may be one reason. Not all cotton fabric and not all linen fabric is treated; blends almost always are.


Docteur Albert Einstein Avec Une Marionnette 'Einstein'.




If you do own something labeled as "washable linen", such as a treated linen, or a treated blend where linen is the largest percentage, then here are some things you can do to ease the care process.

1. Before you wash linen or any fabric containing linen, test the fabric for colorfastness. Dab some mild detergent on an inside unexposed seam, press the fabric between paper tissue, and if no dye bleeds onto the tissue, then and only then go ahead and wash. 

2. Wash gently, in pure soap and warm water. Never use chlorine bleach. Some dyes come off only when they come in contact with water; always wash dark colors separately. With these sorts of fabrics,  manufacturers often tell you that dye running all over on the first washing is not a bug but a feature. If you believe that, you'll believe anything.

3. Drip dry over a shower rod, or hang on a wooden or padded hanger. Never use a wire hanger or cheap plastic hanger as these stretch out the fabric and they will also mark wet fabrics.

4.  Linen is much easier to iron when it is damp. NEVER and I repeat, never iron linen when it is bone dry. Totally dry linen fibers are brittle. You can use the trick of rolling up wet linen fabrics in a towel while still wet to remove any excess moisture, just as I suggested in previous magazine articles for fine cotton. This works. Really.

5. Linen should be ironed the wrong side first. In other words, turn the clothing inside out, or the fabric upside down, and iron it inside out, on the 'wrong' side.  I repeat, linen is much easier to iron when it is damp, and this is MUCH safer for it. Heavy linens should be ironed while damp, using a high setting; you should hear a hissing sound and perceive STREAM.  Fine linens should be ironed only while damp, using a cooler setting. 

Do not iron linen when it is bone dry!
Do not iron linen when it is bone dry!
Do not iron linen when it is bone dry!


Remember, if your fabric is a blend of linen plus any other fabric, then read the care instructions extra carefully! I repeat: in any fabric that is a blend of materials, the material with the largest percentage wins. In the case where there is no care information on the label, but the label does state the percentage of ingredients in the fabric, apply what you know are the care instructions for the ingredient with the largest percentage. For example, in the case of "60% Linen / 40% Cotton" care for the garment as if the garment were entirely composed of linen, NOT cotton!




Sometimes you just don't have time to sit and actually iron something, or you might not even have an iron readily available and just can't find one. In those cases, there are a couple of tricks that can get you by without too much of a headache. But don't use these tricks to avoid ironing. Remember, it takes an average of three minutes to properly iron a shirt, doing it the right way,  and some of these suggestions take a lot longer.  These suggestions use water, pressure, and / or heat.


Traditional Costume of Volendam, North Holland, The Netherlands.


Use the Shower: As funny as it sounds, hanging your clothes up directly outside the shower curtain or door while running hot water is actually a very easy way to get rid of most of the wrinkles in your clothing by hot steaming them out. The only problem with this method is that clothes can get soaked pretty easily with one wrong splash, and creases that were there on purpose will also likely disappear soon afterwards.

Water Spritzing: Using a spray bottle with a good adjustable nozzle is already a trick used during ironing to help get steam deeper into fabric, but if you don't have an iron and need to get rid of some serious wrinkles, just using the water itself can help you out immensely. The best way to do something like this is to find something flat and heavy, like a book. Spray some water on the wrinkled area, rub it in gently, and place a paper or fabric towel over it, then try to flatten it out by pressing the book down over it on a flat table. Don't hold it too long, though, or you may be causing a whole new set of nearby wrinkles. You can wet and repeat.

Use the Dryer: If you've got a good half hour to spare, you can spray heavy amounts of water on the wrinkled item, and throw it in the dryer for a quick and hot tumble. The trick here is to pull it out of the dryer while it's still hot—then either put it on or hang it up immediately. Nearly all the wrinkles can be taken out of a single item this way.


In short, have fun with your clothes and take care of them.  

After all, you're a "picture worth a thousand words"!



Harry Whittier Frees Kitties: Photograph, circa 1900. "Entertainment Projector Watching Our Favorite Miss Kitty".



I sign our magazine articles "See Into The Invisible". Thanks for reading.

Best Wishes, 
Debra Spencer

All Content is © Debra Spencer, Suit Yourself™ International. Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.
All Content is ©2020 Debra Spencer, Appanage™at Suit Yourself ™ International, 120 Pendleton Point, Islesboro Island, Maine, 04848, USA 44n31 68w91 Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.

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All Content is ©2020 Debra Spencer, Appanage™at Suit Yourself ™ International, 120 Pendleton Point, Islesboro Island, Maine, 04848, USA 44n31 68w91 Technical Library FAQ Index ISSN 2474-820X. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce in part or in whole without express written consent. Thank you.
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