Adventures in Laundry

When last we left our intrepid adventurer, she was puzzled as to how to remove several large black India ink stains from her grandfather's linen handkerchief, which had been a wedding gift embroidered by her grandmother.  

The handkerchief is 100 years old, the ink stains almost as old.  Assume that a Minnesota farmwife in the 1920's did every thing at her disposal to remove the stains, but was unsuccessful.  At that point, she folded the handkerchief and put it away in a cedar chest, where it wasn't seen again for nearly 100 years.  I imagine she was heartbroken, she may have just been disgusted.  But she could not bear to throw it away.  


I wish I had taken a “before” picture.  You'll just have to trust me that there were *many* large black ink stains, and one smaller brown ink stain - where you could just make out the writing that had been blotted. 

Several suggestions were made to use Orvus, but as a spinner, I know that Orvus, originally invented for use on sheep, is designed to lift stains by dissolving the grease/oil that is holding them to the fabric.  Old inks are water based, not oil based.  I had previously used Dawn dishwashing liquid to wash the handkerchief.  Dawn and Orvus have the same active ingredient - sodium lauryl sulfate.  I suspected that a the stronger concentration in Orvus would have no effect whatsoever.

Some time ago I purchased some "Retro Clean" from We of the Needle, an embroidery shop that also sold antique linens.  They told me they used it on the items in their shop.  It is marketed primarily as a whitener, and this handkerchief was not very yellowed - just stained.  

Retro Clean is primarily sodium per borate.  It is stronger that Oxyclean, which is mostly sodium per carbonate, or 20 Mule Team Borax, which is mostly sodium borate.  Sodium per borate is mostly a whitening agent, safer than chlorine bleach, and is useful for lifting water-based stains.

I had my doubts that anything would remove these ink stains.

I soaked the handkerchief in about 4 tablespoons of Retro Clean dissolved in about 1 gallon of hot tap water for 48 hours.  The instructions suggested leaving the soak in a sunny place to keep the water warm.  However, although the weather was sunny, it was also cold (by California standards), so every time I made a cup of tea, I just poured a little boiling water into the pan where the handkerchief was soaking.  

After a few hours, it was obvious that something was happening.  After the recommended 48 hours the stains had changed from dark black to blue, with yellow centers.  An improvement, but far from perfect.

The shop that sold the Retro Clean said they sometimes had to use more than one soak.  So I washed the handkerchief in Dawn, rinsed it and put it to soak again.  After another 48 hours, many of the stains were gone completely.  The remaining stains were no longer blue, just yellow.  

In for a penny, in for a pound, I decided to go for round three.  The results were less dramatic this time, but more stains were gone and the ones that remained were very faint - more easily seen by the camera than by the human eye.  Only one large stain is easily visible.  I decided that I can live with this.  

Clockwise from top: the stains that remain; the embroidered corner with a quarter for scale; close-up of my grandmother’s exquisite whitework embroidery.

Clockwise from top: the stains that remain; the embroidered corner with a quarter for scale; close-up of my grandmother’s exquisite whitework embroidery.

(Someday I will learn to do beautiful flat lay photography.  Today is not that day.)