Removing Stains on Needlework

We get goop on our own work or someone else does it for us. Sometimes we inherit (or buy) antique linens. One way or another, all of us have to deal with stains. Here's a collection of tips I've found. I can vouch only for your-blood-your-saliva and Orvus, however. Please proceed with caution with the others!

Should You Treat a Stain on a Piece in Progress or Wait Until the Stitching is Finished and Then Do Something?

Don't wait! If something spills on your piece while you are stitching on it, treat it right away! Time isn't going to help the stain come out more easily or more thoroughly! Depending on what the spill is, you may want to use one of the ideas below as a first step. More information on washing, ironing, blocking, etc. of needlework is available here on my home page.

Testing First

For any of these solutions below, I recommend testing them on a scrap, seam allowance, or someplace that's not going to show too much before treating your needlework with the solution. You don't know how the liquid is going to affect the fabric. Play it as safe as possible by testing first.

I take no responsibility for these methods. They are provided for your consideration. Whether you use them is your choice. What happens to your needlework is your risk.

Tried and True: Orvus

No matter what kind of mess I've gotten myself into, my first line of defense is always Orvus Equine Soap (sometimes called Orvus Equine WA, with the WA standing for "wetting agent;" a wetting agent makes water wetter!). Sashay into your hay and grain for this product, which is made by Proctor and Gamble. It's been repackaged as "quilt soap," so you can try your local quilt emporium, too. I believe these are all "repackaged Orvus:" Treasure Wash (Cottage Mills), Ensure Quilt Wash (Stearns Textiles), and Quilt Soap (Quilter's Rule).

Make a weak solution of Orvus and tepid tap water (say, 1 T in a kitchen sinkful of water), dissolving well. It doesn't take much Orvus. Add needlework. Gently swish the piece around a little. Now leave it to soak overnight.

I bought a big plastic "dishpan" and this use since normally we need the kitchen sink before 24 hours are up! This tub is also portable, and I can move my disaster repair away from other possible disaster occurrences, for which my kitchen is well-known.

After 24 hours, take a look at your piece of needlework. Look at it in good daylight and turn the piece this way and that. Is the stain gone? Good. Rinse it like crazy. Rinse until you will take up some of the rinse water an drink it. Not inclined? Rinse some more! You want all that residue out of there! Any residue (of the stain or the soap) can attract dirt particles later, and you don't want that! (Think of the mysterious spot on your rug that "just appeared." Someone spilled something there and didn't own up to it, and now soil is attracted there like a magnet.)

If you notice some dye has bled during the Orvus soak, it's no problem. As long as the dye is in solution, you can rinse it off. The problem is if that dye dries on your piece. Sometimes this happens if we need to wash our piece before it's finished because someone spilled [fill in the blank] on it. As long as it's in solution, though, you're ok. Keep rinsing until you see no trace of dye. Blot with a white paper towel or napkin; any dye? If so, keep rinsing.

Stain still there? Put it back in to soak. It may take a couple days. Even a week! Or longer! (If so, I change the solution every 4 days or so, so I don't get anything unfriendly growing in it. I don't know if this necessary, but I feel better about it, so I do it.)

If you can't find Orvus, and a rumor has it that it's going to be discontinued, but I can't imagine that it would, given the number of horses still in the world, substitute a pure soap, such as Ivory. Don't use a detergent. Don't use WoolLite (it has bleach in it).

Your Blood

Have you managed to poke yourself with a tapestry needle and draw blood? Oh, good! I'm glad to know I'm not alone! (Do not ask how talented I am with a sharp needle!)

The best thing to remove your blood is your saliva. DNA match or something! This does work. I have several quilts and samplers to prove it!

It may take a good deal of saliva to dissolve the blood, so you probably will want to do this in private! Saturate the blood with saliva and keep adding more saliva until the blood is gone. Use good light so you're sure.

When you finish removing the blood, wash the piece, as described in the hot link above. Use cold water only! Warm (or hot!) water will set the blood permanently.

As soon as you discover the blood, get to work with the saliva. The longer it's there, the less likely it is to come out.

Somebody Else's Blood

Alas, but the saliva trick works only with your own blood. On somebody else's (unless you and this person are identical twins), use hydrogen peroxide. Dab this carefully on the blood drop and be all ready to rinse well. Remember to test first, as described above.

Another suggestion for someone else's blood is to mix an 85% (isotonic) solution of table salt and water and rinse the area.

Pencil Marks

A solution of 3 parts rubbing alcohol, 1 part water, and 1/2 t dish detergent has long circulated as a way to remove pencil marks. I'd try it first with Orvus instead of the detergent.

Ballpoint Pen Marks

Hairspray, squirted directly on the mark, has worked for me on applications other than textiles. I -don't know- if it will work on fabric. If you have a scrap of the fabric and the same pen, give it a test run.

Addendum: I just read on RCTN that for fabric one should saturate the mark and then rinse with water. Let dry. Repeat if needed (and as needed).

Another reader followed up on the post. She says she has used this technique often (for computer toner). She added refinements to the general method: (1) put a white paper towel under the fabric to wick away the hairspray and the stain; (2) don't rinse or dry the fabric until ink is all gone; keep the ink "moving" until you have gotten rid of it; (3) have lots of white paper towels on hand to blot. This reader said that the hairspray re-liquifies and also dilutes the ink, which is why you have to be vigilant with your paper towels, as the ink spot may spread once it's in a more "mobile" state.

Maryon Allen's Elixir for Antique Textiles

This is the "secret elixir" of Maryon Allen, whose specialty is restoration of antique textiles, including old wedding dresses. She says this solution can remove all types of stains from fabrics, even delicate, fragile antiques.

To one quart of tepid water, add 1 T powdered Clorox II bleach and 1 T Dove dishwashing liquid. (It must be -powdered- Clorox II, not the liquid.) As with the Orvus, put the fabric in and soak; swish a little at the beginning but otherwise leave it alone. Maryon says it may take "7 to 20 days." She doesn't say whether you should change the solution. If you do not, I'd keep an eye on the water level in the pan, adding more to make up for evaporation and watching for "volunteer growths."

She also says that hot water might be used with sturdier fabrics, otherwise stick to tepid.

A Similar Solution from the Valentine Museum

This museum has a wonderful needlework collection! Don't miss it if you're in Richmond, Va.

Here's a variant of the above solution, this one from the curator at the Valentine, Grace Wells, promulgated by needlework teacher Marion Scoular. Mix 1 T Ivory Flakes (or slivers grated from bars of Ivory soap) and 2 T Snowy Bleach. Dissolve this in 1 gallon of -hot- water and let it cool to room temperature. Put your needlework in this solution and soak until the stain is gone, up to three weeks. Rinse very well. The "up to 3 weeks" part of the directions implies that the solution is not changed, but I'd check water level for evaporation and stray "things," as above. And if I needed to add water, I'd give things a gentle swish.

A Similar Solution for Yellowed Linens,
Especially Those with Food Stains

Similar to the solution above, this one has Dove replaced with Dawn or Palmolive because of their grease-cutting additives. Many old stains are food stains. (Coffee with cream and sugar is impossible to remove. Coffee with cream or coffee with sugar are possible, the experts say.)

Mix 2 parts very hot water with 1 part detergent and 1 part -non-chlorine- bleach. Soak. Rinse well. Launder in a manner appropriate for the piece.

A reader on RCTN said she used this successfully on a Thanksgiving tablecloth that had red wine, gravy, and coffee spilled on it. (Sounds like my house!)


Sometimes we get rust on our projects or find rust on antique linens we buy. Rust can result from failing to remove a metal hoop when finished stitching, storing a needle in the fabric, or being in contact during storage with something else which rusted, such as a pair or scissors or a pin.

The following is an old-fashioned remedy which -may- remove the rust. Test first a scrap of fabric you purposely rust. To do this: take a steel nail or canned vegetables lid and wrap it in a piece of the fabric. Wet it and thrust it all inside a zipper-lock bag until it rusts successfully. No, you are not nuts to do this, but people might think you are! Just have a piece of chocolate and ignore them!)

Mix 1 teaspoon oxalic acid (available very inexpensively at most pharmacies) in 1 cup hot water. Dab this solution on the rust stains. Wash and rinse well, as described in the previous hot link.

Another rust remedy is to mix Zud (a commercial scouring-powder-type product) with water and make a thickish paste. Spread over the rust and leave it on 15 minutes. Rinse off well. Repeat if needed. You may need to do this several times.

There are other commercial products for rust. Wink is among them. I have never used it, but evidently it is quite strong: don't breathe fumes, keep it off your skin. Supposedly it changes the chemical composition of the rust, which disappears in a minute or less. The friend who told me of this says she has used it on needlework, with to damage to the fabric. Directions are on package, but roughly the drill is: wet the place where the rust is, put Wink only on the rust stain, and rinse it very well as soon as the chemical reaction takes place.

Air-Disappearing Markers

If you've used an air-disappearing marker, the color is gone but -not- the chemical, so don't forget to wash your project after you've finished stitching, or you'll have a stain later (cf: your rug).

Food Stains on Table Linen

Shave thin pieces from a bar of Fels Naphtha bar soap. This is not very easy to find. It may not even be made any more. I think it is toxic in the extreme.

Make paste of the shavings. Smear on the stain. Let sit overnight. Wash in washer. Now the weird part: dry the piece outside, spread out on the grass. The story goes that the chlorophyll in the grass somehow reacts with the stain.

Whether this works I don't know. If you know about this method, let me know if it really works.

Stains on Linen Items

Exercise caution with any solution with bleach in it if you are using it with 100% linen, as chlorine bleach will *disintegrate* the linen fibers.

Hot water (very hot water!) is ok for linen, however.

Red Wine

A French friend treats a red wine stain on the tablecloth by immediately dumping a pile of table salt onto the stain. Mop up what you can get with a paper napkin and then add the salt. Lots. Rub it around and massage it into the stain. Wash the cloth as soon as possible.

I don't find this method too good, but it's a quickie at the dinner table.

I do have a methhod that works to remove red wine. Guaranteed! It works on carpet and table linen. Guess it would work on needleework. (What are you doing drinking red wine while you're stitching?!)

Whether it works on tomato sauce, I don't know. Maybe.

Rub your wet fingertip over a bar of soap; or use a very tiny bit of liquid soap. The purpose is to break the surface tension of the hydrogen perioxide.

Rub your soaped finger on the stain. Not too much! You don't want suds!

Pour on hydrogen peroxide, enough to cover stain. Sop up with white paper towels. Repeat as needed.

I once knocked over a full glass of red wine onto the carpet. It didn't take took long to remove the wine, and when the carpet dried, there was no trace of wine. Not even a "ghost" stain to collect dirt!

If this doesn't work, buy a new bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Shop quickly! Or keep an unopened bottle on hand! It usually comes in a dark-colored bottle. Store in the dark, too.

Hydrogen peroxide is water with an extra oxygen molecule attached (H2O2 - pretend the numbers are subscripts, ok?).

As I said, I do vouch for this method, having used it several (ahem!) times. Do do a test patch with a drop of wine on a to-be-cut-off margin of your project fabric. You might want to dab on with a Q-Tip in this case, rather than pouring.

How to Keep Stains Off Your Needlework

It's been said that the worst culprit in staining hand-worked table linens is to use them to eat over. I don't know how it is at your house, but we are little piggies at our house! A clean cloth is "christened" within seconds!

Supposedly coffee (with cream) and red wine are the very worst. To this I'd have to add spaghetti sauce/chili.

So the way to preserve your antique table linens is -not- to use them as active tableware.

Whether you want to do this or not is up to you!

If anyone has another stain remedy to share, please e-mail me, and I'll add it to this file.

copyright 1999-2008, Martha Beth Lewis
Contact me about reprint permission.

Needlework Home Page | Tips and Tricks | Home Page