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Linen care: the big debate

Honest conversations and sharing of knowledge can help to control costs, improve working lives, and ensure the maximum lifespan for this precious commodity

They say talk is cheap, but that’s not always true as there can be a real value to exchanges which lead to ‘light bulb moments’ for all sides. Right now, one of the best examples is what we would term as a ‘grown up conversation’ between equal partners involved in hotel linen and uniform care – the laundries and senior housekeepers who oversee supply and usage at their properties.

Housekeeping Today UK and our sister publication Laundry & Cleaning Today were privileged to witness a round table meeting bringing together representatives of the TSA (Textiles Services Association), membership of which includes many commercial laundries, and UKHA. Before all that the UKHA had invited its members to share their thoughts on the challenges they face. A key aim is to map out sets of targets that all interested parties can embrace and progress together, continuing to provide input along the way. Two project groups were formed, ‘Linen and Logistics Guidance for Hospitality’ and ‘Cross-Industry Sustainability’.

Lorraine Dale, national chair of UKHA, is convinced that with TSA support more housekeeping teams will achieve best practice in laundry and linen stock management. Some are already there, but others can be encouraged to ‘iron out the wrinkles’ which cause issues. The same can be said for TSA members who learn more about the pressures faced by housekeepers. There’s no pointless “He said, she said, they said,” here – we can confirm just how united the two sides are in the aim of tackling issues, including producing a sustainability plan. As everything’s moving along so nicely it seemed a good time to air some views and opinions. We’ll start with the laundry side as, after all, they are our ‘guests’.

rona tait TDS commercial laundry news
Rona Tait is confident shared interest can improve working practices for all

RONA TAIT, MD at TDS Commercial Ltd

Tait is delighted by the collaborative approach and stresses it’s not just a chance for laundries to list complaints from their side. She believes there will be lessons regarding what happens in laundries but also that ‘some weight’ will be added to support housekeepers trying to make improvements to their work.

“I think we can help them with impressing on hotel GMs that many housekeepers are making legitimate points – everything from needing new equipment down to matters like the e-cloths purchased by the hotel being too small. That’s one of the ways housekeepers can end up using hand towels or pillowcases to complete cleaning jobs in their race against time.” She points out that both sides in this story have been through – and continue to experience – the aftereffects of the pandemic, staff shortages and loss of some very skilled operators: “It’s a sobering message but these shared issues can be turned into a united strength and understanding.”

Tait is also aware that with hotels trying to improve their carbon footprint and reach sustainability targets this is a good time to ensure the learning curve reaching the ears of hotel GMs. “There’s a need to understand the real value of linen, right through from the cost of cotton to manufacture and delivery. The environmental case is huge and we have an education job to do here, not just in hotels but in our side of the industry.” What would be a quick win for Tait? “An understanding that there are certain things we just can’t remove in the normal wash process, such as heavy deposits of concrete dust, rust or if the linen is very muddy.

“I’ve always been struck by the words of Helen Wood, MD at Johnsons Hotel Linen, who said ‘Our process is fit for purpose but only if the product has been used for the right purpose’. That means no use of pillowcases to polish mirrors or shoes, or clean floors.”

Can you bear to look? We’re not saying where this is, but a CLEAN rep found this diabolical ‘storage cupboard’ at a hotel

TED WALKER, head of group marketing, CLEAN

Hotels pay for every piece of fresh clean stock delivered, if there is too much linen on site there has been an overspend in relation to the number of rooms sold, says Walker. If there is too little, housekeeping teams run the risk of running out of linen and towels, rooms can’t be made up and the hotel will be unable to sell rooms. It is in the interest of both a hotel and its laundry service provider to get stock levels right.

“Generally, linen isn’t owned but rented by a hotel from its laundry service provider. This means at the start of a contract the laundry usually purchases five (5) PAR for each hotel. But what is a PAR? It is a popular way to calculate hospitality ratios and is an acronym meaning per-available-room (PAR). In this instance 1 PAR is the amount of linen and towelling needed to make up every room in the hotel. The 5x PAR makes certain there is enough stock in circulation throughout the laundry cycle to ensure all the beds sold can be changed and made up each day.

Laundries can only clean what is returned to them. If a hotel is over stocked, there will be less linen and towelling in circulation. That’s what leads to unfulfilled orders, commonly known as ‘shorts’, as there is nothing to pack and nothing in stock at the laundry, Walker points out. “Not only does over stocking at a hotel result in an overspend and waste in the housekeeping budget. It can also result in unnecessary creasing, damage to linen and crowded linen rooms become a fire risk. Also, over stocking reduces the frequency of stock rotation, linen is no longer at its freshest, and we all know no one likes to sleep in stale sheets.

“On average it takes 11 days for a piece of linen or towelling to complete the full cycle and be returned to the laundry. But when a hotel is overstocked many items will complete the cycle more frequently, resulting in overuse, wearing and faster degrading than stock stuck in storage at the hotel. Perhaps surprisingly, linen and towelling can actually spend a relatively short amount of time at the laundry, with some items being sorted, washed, dried, ironed and folded and packed in under an hour.”

That’s better: everything in its place and stock checked and rotated

If a hotel is understocked housekeeping teams run the risk of not being able to make up the rooms sold that night – delivery vehicles can suffer breakdowns, get stuck in traffic or be delayed due to inclement weather, and although most laundries are incredibly effective and efficient, machinery breakdowns can also cause processing delays. Walker explains: “This is why keeping the right stock levels at the hotel is so important – a laundry service provider is not to blame if a hotel has not maintained its 1 PAR stock level within its storage facilities. Hotels should never be waiting for that day’s delivery to arrive before starting to service rooms.” Hotel linen and towelling storage is essential to keeping the housekeeping operation running smoothly. A hotel’s linen and towelling stock is constantly moving between guest rooms and storage facilities. Allowing stock to rest in storage for at least 24 hours before it is used also provides an opportunity for wrinkles to smooth out in polycotton permanent press fabrics.

Linen is typically stored in a main linen room, or in larger hotels distribution rooms on each floor, and linen or housekeeping trollies are used for transportation around the hotel and easy access by room attendants. This ensures that all linen and towelling is adequately stored and accessible when needed. Keep the linen storage room humidity-free with adequate ventilation and invest in good quality shelving that is smooth and snag-free to avoid tearing fabric. Keep shelves clear and free of obstructions and organise shelves by linen type, with clear labelling. Make sure that there is enough space in the linen storage room to prevent linens from being crushed or crowded. Keep the linen storage room locked at all times to help prevent theft or loss.

Many factors can influence the life span of linen and towelling, but when it is purchased, it’s predicted lifespan is three years. Walker says: “ We know housekeeping teams work extremely hard to prepare rooms each day, and understand the frustration caused by having to make a bed twice, due to a stain or a tear. This is why it is vital to look after linen and towelling while it is at the hotel. Misuse costs hotels and laundries millions of pounds each year.

“When we consider the energy and resources that go into growing cotton, producing yarn and manufacturing the textiles it’s more important than ever to use linen and towelling only for its intended purpose – rather than using it for cleaning or soaking up spills – chemical products will degrade and damage.

“We have seen hotel linen used in many situations where it shouldn’t be. Using it to prop open doors or drag it across floors tears the fibres and causes holes, linen stored on concrete floors can suffer a burn effect that causes unremovable stains. We have even seen linen being used as a dust sheet for decorating and maintenance. But our top tip is to keep the linen dry to avoid it going mouldy, it is a natural fibre and can suffer mildew within 48 hours.”

JAMES LINCOLN MD at Royal Jersey Linen

Lincoln’s laundry supplies some of the finest 5 star hotels in London and he believes the key to best practice always lies in the correct PAR levels, respecting the stock and correct stock rotation. “It’s a fine balance and if these go wrong the downward spiral can be rapid, and linen can fail prematurely, leading to a situation whereby the hotel has no linen to make the beds and huge increases in linen spend,” he says. Lincoln is more than aware of cases of linen being misused, right down to F&B departments or even a maintenance worker cleaning with a pillowcase! Extra washing in the laundry to remove the likes of cleaning fluid or black marks means the item is wearing prematurely. PAR levels should be set at 5, moving down to 4 in-between stocktakes, he believes, and recommends monthly stocktakes, as the correct PAR level allows linen to rest in between washes and ensures linen is not in a continuous cycle of being used excessively: “Lowering the level ruins all existing stock very rapidly and will lead to increased costs in the short and long term. “Stock rotation is always the hardest part to monitor. Sometimes the last delivery in from the laundry is placed in the pantry on top of the old delivery and it is this linen which is used first, meaning a selection of stock is washed continuously and some items of stock are never washed. “To help with the above we use HID’s RFID system which has reports to monitor rolling stocktakes and stock rotation. This is a new feature which advances linen management for the 21st century and allows better control of linen management. We can now scan every linen item for certain hotels and analyse the number of washes and ensure hotels are adequately rotating the stock.”

FERNANDA LEWIS executive head housekeeper at The Goring

The chair of the UKHA’s London region says: “Crisp white linen is the gold standard for luxury hotels across the world, and indeed the minimum expectation for guests. And since the expectation is high, having stains on linen is just unacceptable. But where do the stains come from? This is something I have spent over 22 years of hands-on experience finding out.”

Lewis points out that if you cannot reliably identify where the stains come from, how can you eliminate or minimise it? And she says: “ It’s not only guests who benefit from an exceptional night’s sleep. Controlling our impeccable stock and ensuring a low number of rejects is also a staff motivation tool, and we all know how important is to retain our good staff these days. Room attendants and waiters would not choose to go through five or six pieces of linen before they find a good one.” She believes all executive housekeepers should fully understand the internal and external processes and know each step that happened before a room attendant picked it up. It’s also crucial to have a close and honest relationship with the linen supplier so that our guests just see the gold standard on their bed.

“Decreasing of the stock shouldn’t take us by surprise, and when it occurs it needs to be properly investigated so the cause can be reliably identified. Could it be caused by the hotel teams misuse? But it also could be originating at the laundry during the cleaning process or during transportation.

“I’m a great believer that the best way to solve these issues is by having open, sincere communication on a weekly basis with the laundry company. Work as one team, sharing photos and discussing effective ways to identify the cause of the stains that will require consistent and immediate action if stock levels are to be maintained at optimum levels.” In the past she has sent a few sample pieces for textile analysis and discovered that the black stains were coming from rubber through entrapment in a rubber seal on the washing machine, and orange stains were from rusty water. “The life span and care of the linen, whether hired or not, is the responsibility of both parties and trusting one another is fundamental.

“Many hotels are facing so many challenges, as are the laundry companies. But together, we can overcome the staff shortage issues by working closer and smarter.” The UKHA London & SE region is hosting an executive housekeepers forum on 18 April at The Goring Hotel from 6pm where linen will be on top of the agenda.

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