Washing Vinyl Tablecloths

Vinyl tablecloth with illustrated lemons and foliage with bowl of lemons and glass pitcher and drinking glasses with lemonade

The Spruce / Sarah Lee

Today's vinyl tablecloths come in every shape and style. They are designed for both indoor and outdoor use and for ease of use and care. The biggest downsides to vinyl tablecloths can be staining, wrinkles, and mold. However, with a bit of care, they can last for many years.

Origin and History

The origin of oilcloth has its roots with seamen who needed waterproof clothing. There was also a need for some type of waterproof fabric for luggage, tarps, and carriage tops. It worked well, but if the cloth was cleaned with anything harsh or scrubbed too often, the waterproofing was removed.

Oilcloth was soon replaced with a product made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) bonded to a flannel fabric. Isn't PVC rigid like plumbing pipes? Not if you add plasticizers like phthalates which makes polyvinyl chloride flexible. As manufacturing techniques changed, the vinyl was often created with a synthetic non-woven backing. The colors were still just as vivid, but the designs were more varied than just chickens and vegetables and included polka-dots and bold graphics.

Care and Washing

  • Always wipe up spills promptly. Use a soft cloth or sponge to avoid scratching the surface.
  • Outdoor tablecloths can often develop mold or mildew. Sunlight is a great mold fighter. Place the cloth in direct sun for several hours to kill the active mold. Then wipe clean the dishwashing liquid and water solution. Rinse well (use the hose) and then grab the white distilled vinegar. Saturate a clean white cloth with the white vinegar and give the cloth a wipe down front and back. Then, hang the tablecloth to dry. Do not rinse. I promise that your cloth will not smell like a pickle.
  • There will come a time when the cloth needs a good overall cleaning, which can be done in your bathtub, large sink, or washer. Use cold water, mild detergent, and the gentle cycle. Remember, no bleach and no excessive wringing! After washing, hang to drip dry. If the tablecloth is quite wrinkled, place it in the dryer with a couple of heavy towels. Set the dryer on low heat tumble dry and set the timer for two to three minutes. Stay next to the dryer and do not allow the tablecloth to overheat. If the wrinkles are still prominent, repeat the process but never let the vinyl get too hot or it will melt.
  • If you are storing your tablecloth, roll it on a heavy cardboard tube to prevent severe creases. Or, fold neatly. Be sure to store the tablecloth in a cool, dry place.
  • For creases that won't go away, you can iron the tablecloth if you are very, very careful. Use low heat and always iron on the back of the tablecloth using a pressing cloth or damp towel between the tablecloth and the iron. Lift the iron away often to prevent scorching or melting.
  • Note: You can use these same cleaning tips for vinyl covers used to protect outdoor furniture.
White cloth dipped in white distilled vinegar cleaning off mold and mildew on illustrated lemon and foliage vinyl tablecloth

The Spruce / Sarah Lee

Treating Stains

  • To clean food or outdoor stains, use a mixture of dishwashing liquid and water.
  • If you have grease stains, clean promptly with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Dampen a clean white cloth with the alcohol and work from the outside of the stain toward the center. This will prevent the stain from spreading. Once the stain is removed, rinse with a white cloth dipped in plain water and then dry.
  • Isopropyl alcohol will also remove most ink marks that appear on the vinyl. Again, work carefully to prevent spreading the ink. Keep moving to a clean part of the white cloth and rinse when the stain is gone.
  • To spot clean the dye-based food stains, mix a solution of one part water and one part hydrogen peroxide. Saturate a clean white cloth and apply to the stained areas. Let the solution work for several minutes and then wipe clean with another white cloth that is just dampened with water. If the stain is particularly heavy, try using straight hydrogen peroxide. Work from the outside of the stain toward the center to prevent spreading. Always "rinse" with a clean, damp white cloth.
White cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol removing stains from illustrated lemon and foliage vinyl tablecloth

The Spruce / Sarah Lee


Do not use chlorine bleach or bleach-based cleaners which will dry out the vinyl and cause it to crack or harsh, abrasive cleaners which will scratch the finish.