The Linen Cupboard: Washing, Drying and Ironing

Do we still have time today top spend hours washing, ironing, folding and putting away the linen of which our ancestors are proud? The interior of the wardrobe, fragrant with wax, was protected from dust with sheets of paper, and piles of linen were tied with ribbons. As soon as you opened the door you could smell lavender, picked in small sachets wedged between piles of linen.


Once an essential activity in daily life, laundering used to be surrounded by beliefs and superstitions. Often it was thought that you could not do the laundry inside a house where a sick person or pregnant woman lived as this could bring bad luck to the household. On certain days and some periods of the year laundry was forbidden: the advent period, the days between Christmas and New Year, Purification of the Virgin Mary, not forgetting Good Friday or during a woman’s menstruation when she is traditionally considered impure…transgressing these taboos would bring ill-fortune.


Modern households may no longer be concerned with these ancient superstitions. We are, however, becoming increasingly aware that our use of chemicals and plastics is having a detrimental effect on the world around us. Therefore we can look to our great-grandmothers to look for chemical and plastic-free natural solutions.


I find there is wonderful tranquility and connection to my late grandmother in slowing down and taking the time to care for my clothes. The evocative scent of orange blossom on crisp laundry will instantly place me back in her kitchen. I know it would please her to see my airing cupboard full of delightful folded and scented linens and carefully laundered garments. If we a reinvesting the time to make our own clothes then why not care for them by making our laundering of them beautiful too.


Keeping clothes white

 Add lemon peel secured in a cloth bag to the washing for whiter underwear. Add a glass of water with 30% hydrogen peroxide to rinsing water for whiter than white clothes.



To wash silk, wool, and dark delicate textiles, use ivy, panama wood or beer leaves. Our grandmothers sometimes used the cooking water of dried haricot beans to wash light cotton fabrics and silk or cotton muslin. In the past, stout beer was used to clean black lace such as Chantilly.

 You can prepare a mixture of soapwort root, a small wildflower that grows on slopes or in fields. Its five-petaled flowers are light pink. Washerwomen and drapers used it often as its leaves and even more its roots, rich in saponin, make the water foam and render it an ideal detergent for delicate textiles.

 It is in fact still used today by specialists at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

 To clean delicate and light coloured fabrics that you do not want to wash in water, especially woolens, you can use plain flour or cornflour.

Place the clothing in a basin, cover with flour, and rub gently so the flour penetrates well. Leave overnight then brush or beat the clothing with a fine bamboo cane or a rug beater.


Tough stains

 In the past, to get rid of an ink or fruit stain on white fabric, sorrel salt or oxalic acid was used. This is an aggressive treatment and must be carried out with care. Because if it stays in contact with a piece of fabric for too long, it can make a hole.

Wet the stained area, sprinkle with the salt or acid and let it take effect for a few seconds. Rinse thoroughly. Rust or bloodstains disappear or fade if you wet them thoroughly with the juice of rhubarb stems or sorrel leaves. Then wash as usual.

 When old linen has reddish-brown stains or marks, soak in raw fresh milk (our grandmother used why or what they called ‘pestle milk’) and expose it to sunlight before washing as usual. Sprinkle red wine stains straightaway with fine salt. Even if most of it is absorbed, this is still not enough to make the stain vanish. Dampen it with white wine, white alcohol or simply with methylated spirits. Wash straight away.


Scented clothes

If you need to boil soiled white fabrics, add Florence iris rhizomes to the water to give it a marvelous, yet subtle scent. You can replace perfumed softeners which are often too harsh with the same measure of spirit vinegar. TO give your clothes a delightful fragrance, add a few drops of your favourite essential oil, such as rosemary, or vervaine, to the vinegar. You can also add some essential oil to iron water, or try adding a teaspoon of rosewater, orange flower water, and sage or basil water.


In the countryside, clothes used to be dried on the grass and bleached in the meadow for three days. The combined action of the sun moon and morning dew, was thought to give clothes an incomparable whiteness. Moreover, it has now been proven that the sun has beneficial disinfecting properties.


In Holland, for want of sun, indigo or pastel blue was used very early on to give clothes a must sought after sky blue tone. This habit spread throughout Europe. Not so long ago, a blue bag was still one of the essential accessories of the housewife. The small cloth bag was pressed by hand in a basin of water. When the water was the desired tone, clean clothes were soaked in it then squeezed and left to dry.


In any very cold winter weather, to prevent any clothes drying outside from becoming stiff, add a fistful of coarse salt to the rinsing water. Always turn coloured clothes inside out before drying outside. The colour will fade in the sun. Delicate colours must be left to dry in the sun. Rubbing terry towels gently between your hands will restore the softness lost by washing.



To dampen clothes before ironing, spray water on them then roll them up in balls so the moisture spreads throughout the fabric. If the iron’s sole is dirty, rub it with half a lemon sprinkled with fine salt. So the iron glides more easily, heat it slightly, and spread candle wax on the sole. Wipe with a clean cloth. To iron embroidered clothes or fabric without the embroidered pattern being imprinted, simply place a towel under the embroidery.

If an old fabric has lost its lustre, spray it with vinegared water and ironed with a damp cloth which has also been dampened with vinegared water.

If you leave a hot iron too long on the same spot and it leaves a mark on the fabric, try to get it off immediately with the following mixture: an equal quantity of spirit vinegar, fine salt, and soap flakes. Mix these ingredients and apply the paste to the fabric. Leave to take effect for a few minutes, and rinse, in warm water. Clothes will smell wonderful if you replace the distilled water used in a steam iron with rosewater, lavender, or orange blossom.


Ivy water

Ivy water was used to clean delicates such ask silk, wool, and black or dark linen. Prepare the concoction by boiling 150g of ivy leaves in one litre of water for a few minutes. Wet the clothes before putting them in the ivy-and-water preparation. Leave to cool and then scrub gently before rinsing in cool water.


Soapwort water

Start by soaking 150g of soapwort in 1.5l of water overnight. Boil the water gently for 15minutes then drain the mixture, reserving the water. Pour 500ml water on the fresh-cooked soapwort, and then boil again, for another 5 minutes. Filter, then mix the two liquids. Simply stir the water to make it foam. You can replace the soapwort with the same amount of panama wood, cut into chunks.



 Rice water was a natural starch, commonly used by our grandmothers. Ro starch delicate fabrics or shirt collars, here is a simple recipe for a laundry dressing. Dissolve 115g of starch in 1l of hot water. Add 40g of gum Arabic and soak the clothes. In the past, so that the starch clothes would not stick to the iron, laundry women would add a pinch of salt to the starch.