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Martha Stewart: Preserving antique linens takes special care, skill

SHARE Martha Stewart: Preserving antique linens takes special care, skill

My passion for exquisite linens began years ago. If I remember correctly, it was engendered when I was given the task of organizing my mother's linen closet at our home on Elm Place in Nutley, N.J.

Behind the confusion of mismatched towels and masses of sheets and pillowcases used on the eight Kostyras' beds were a few beautifully embroidered hand towels and some pillow slips with satin-stitch needlework and colorful crocheted hems. When asked, Mother admitted that they had been part of her mother's dowry and were never used. I wrapped them in white tissue paper and put them aside, and they are the core of what has become a very large collection of bed and table linens.

My collection grew as I grew, got married and created a home with my family. Our house on Turkey Hill Road in Westport, Conn., had very few closets, so I found two big mahogany linen presses, fitted with large sliding drawers, in which to store white-work sheets, chintz coverlets and monogrammed napkins.

In the '70s and '80s there were fantastic tag sales in Fairfield County, Conn. Many old estates were being broken up, and the country manses were emptied of embroidered bed linens and personalized table linens made from Irish linen, Eastern European damasks and fine Italian needlework.

These linens, purchased by wealthy families on grand tours of Europe, were sold for a fraction of their original cost. I think this was the result of several factors: the absence of trained laundresses to take care of these beautiful items, the difficulty and time required to wash and iron such complex creations and the influx at department stores of no-iron sheets and other linens that made making the bed so much easier.

Collectors and dreamers like me gathered these extraordinary castoffs. I learned to wash them properly, iron them correctly and store them archivally. Great cardboard boxes were purchased and loaded with new items, labeled and stacked in the cool attic spaces of Turkey Hill.

Skylands, my home in Maine, boasts not only a great assortment of linens but also a linen room — original to the house — and a wonderful, sunny laundry room that encourages a collector to launder and iron these lovely items.

My laundering skills have improved over time: I never use scented soap in my laundry room, and all bedding and towels are washed in front-loading nonagitating washing machines, without fabric softeners.

When I bought Skylands, my collection grew exponentially. The two former owners left, intact, an incredible assortment of extraordinary linens — hundreds of sets of napkins, dozens of one-of-a-kind tablecloths and dozens of sheet sets. There were embroidered, appliqued, crocheted, tatted, lace-embellished, fringed and hemstitched versions of what dealers of such things call estate linens.

All the linens were in great shape, but they were stuffy, having been stored in wooden drawers and cupboards for years. I sent them off in batches to Milwaukee, to a special laundry named Linens Limited (www.linenlaundry.com). There, they were washed and air-dried and had minor repairs. Then they were returned ready to use.

Not all of my linens are museum quality, but when the table is set with them — heirloom place mats and beautiful, large napkins — everyone is always appreciative and admiring.

Washing 101

This technique is for sturdy, washable linens. You'll find more remedies in my "Homekeeping Handbook" (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2006).

1. If your item is stained, pretreat it following the instructions in the stain-removal chart on www.marthastewart.com. Then soak the item in a tub of warm water with a mild detergent. Agitate the fabric gently, without wringing or rubbing too hard. Drain and rinse with fresh warm water; repeat until the water runs clear.

2. Do not wring or twist the wet fabric; instead, roll it in a clean white towel to remove excess water.

3. Dry the fabric on a rack — smooth, varnished wooden racks are perfect. I never put fine linens in the dryer. Remove and iron them while they're still damp.

Ironing how-to

Monograms and other embroidered designs need special care.

1. Always iron embroidery on the reverse side, atop a soft terry-cloth towel. This technique permits the design to "pop" — it doesn't get flattened by the iron.

2. Spray lots of water on the cloth while ironing. For just a bit of crispness, spritz the cloth with fabric sizing.

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