How to Wash, Iron, and Store Tablecloths and Linens

How to Wash and Iron Table Linens
Proper linens.

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Entertaining is so much easier when tablecloths, table runners, cloth napkins, and placemats are ready to use. Even heirloom linens that we use only a few times each year, can be kept looking their best by washing, ironing and storing them correctly.

How to Wash Table Linens
Detergent Regular or heavy-duty laundry detergent
Water Temperature Cold to Warm
Cycle Type Permanent Press
Drying Cycle Low to Medium heat
Special Treatments Hand-wash beaded or embellished linens
Iron Settings Varies by fabric type

Project Metrics

Working time: Up to 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours

Skill level: Intermediate

What You'll Need

Supplies

  • Laundry detergent
  • Stain remover
  • Water
  • Oxygen-based bleach (optional)
  • Bluing (optional)
  • Starch or sizing (optional)

Tools

  • Washer
  • Dryer
  • Iron
  • Ironing board
  • Pressing cloth (optional)

Before You Begin

Not all tablecloths are cotton or linen these days. All newer table linens, including man-made fabrics, have a care tag with instructions on how to wash them. If you are not familiar with washing vintage damask, lace, brocade, and beaded or embellished fabrics with no labels you cannot go wrong by washing them by hand in cool water.

Instructions

  1. Treat Stains

    Table linens catch all the drips and splashes. Always check the fabric for stains before washing. Refer to a stain removal chart to help with treating specific food stains. If you aren't sure what caused the stain, start by placing a dab of an enzyme-based stain remover or a bit of heavy-duty laundry detergent (Tide or Persil) onto the stain. Use your fingers or a soft-bristled brush to work in the cleaner and allow the fabric to sit for at least 15 minutes before you toss it in the washer.

  2. Detergent and Fabric Softener

    Table linens can be washed using your regular laundry detergent. However, a heavy-duty detergent will work better to remove food stains, especially oily stains. Adding fabric softener to the final rinse will provide a protective coating to fibers that will help spilled liquids and foods from penetrating the fibers as quickly.

  3. Select the Washer Cycle and Water Temperature

    Table linens, especially those made from synthetic fabrics, should be washed using the permanent press cycle. This cycle has a cool-down feature that helps reduce wrinkling. Most table linen fabrics can be washed in cold or warm water.

  4. Drying

    As you remove the tablecloth from the washer, give it a good shake to help release wrinkles. Always check to see that all stains have been removed. If they remain, treat them again and rewash the cloth before drying. The high heat of the dryer will make stain removal more difficult. Most fabrics should be dried on medium-high heat or the permanent press cycle. Remove the cloth as soon as possible after the cycle is complete to prevent excessive wrinkles.

    Tip

    If you know that you'll be ironing the tablecloth right away, removing it from the dryer while still slightly damp will make ironing easier.

  5. Dingy White Tablecloth?

If you have a white cotton, linen or synthetic fiber cloth that is dingy or has yellowed or become dingy you should remedy the situation before you iron or store the linens.

Mix a solution of warm water and oxygen-based bleach powder following the product directions in a large sink or tub. Submerge the linen and allow it to soak overnight. Then wash as usual. An oxygen bleach soak is safe for hand-painted linens if the paint has been set properly, printed, and colored fabrics.

Laundry bluing can be added to the wash or rinse water to make white linens appear brighter.

Tips for Ironing Table Linens

If you've selected permanent press fabrics you can skip much of this section. But even those fabrics get wrinkled if you store linens crammed in a drawer.

  • Before you begin, make sure that the soleplate of the iron is clean. If you’re using a steam iron, test it on an old cloth to be sure no mineral deposits are being left by the iron. Those droplets will cause brown staining.
  • Use a well-padded ironing board with a smooth heat-reflective cover. If you don't have an ironing board, follow these steps.
  • Place your ironing board near a table when ironing large items such as tablecloths. Roll finished sections of the cloth over the table rather than letting it pile up under the ironing board.
  • If you are concerned about the cloth getting soiled as it puddles on the floor, place a clean white sheet under the ironing board.
  • The linens should be slightly damp for easier ironing. Press them until they are smooth but not completely dry and allow them to finish drying in the air.
  • Start with the wrong side of the cloth first, pushing the cloth section by section over the board as you iron. Turn the cloth over and finish by pressing on the right side of the cloth.
  • Starch or Sizing? If you like to fold napkins into fancy shapes, you’ll need to use starch and a hot setting on your iron to get the crispness you need. For a softer look, use spray-on sizing and iron on a medium setting.
  • For light-colored linens, iron on the wrong side first, then on the right side to bring out the sheen. On dark-colored articles, iron on the wrong side only.
  • Many napkins or placemats have monograms. To keep the stitched monograms looking crisp and smooth, iron with the design face down against a thick, terry towel that is white or colorfast. The soft texture will prevent the monogram from being flattened. After ironing the monogram face down on the towel, finish by pressing the right side of the napkin but iron around the monogram.
  • Do not fold or store freshly ironed linens. They should be kept spread out flat and smooth for some time to dry completely.

Repairs

Unless the table linen is a vintage piece that requires extensive repairs, most small holes can be mended by hand- or machine-stitching with matching threads. Many repairs can be camouflaged with appliques or other embellishments. An experienced tailor or seamstress can often make repairs to vintage linens.

Storage

Linens can be stored flat or hanging but always in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area. To store flat, wrap each piece in acid-free tissue paper, not regular tissue paper. The acids in regular tissue paper can yellow white linens. Use the tissue between folds to soften edges; any crisp creases can weaken fibers.

Place heavier pieces like placemats on the bottom, then fabric tablecloths and napkins and place lace pieces on top of the stack. It is better to store linens that have not been starched because starch can attract insects.

At least twice per year, refold the linens to prevent continued stress on any one area.

Tip

Always wash or dry clean linens before storing and check each piece for stains. Some stains may not be visible but can provide food for mildew or insects like silverfish. And, be sure the linens are completely dry before you store them. Moisture means mildew.

Using a padded hanger is the best way to prevent wrinkles on permanent press or freshly ironed linens. Hang only one cloth per padded hanger and leave plenty of room between hangers so air can circulate. You can also use an over the door hanger and pad the rods for long term storage.

Warning

Avoid plastic bags, cardboard boxes, or with direct contact with cedar chests or any wood drawer for folded linens. Fumes from petroleum-based polyurethane plastic boxes and wood acids can yellow or weaken the fabrics.

Never cover hanging linens with a plastic bag. It can trap moisture and cause a chemical reaction that can discolor the linens. Instead, cover the hangers with a white 100 percent cotton sheet or pillowcase.

You can also prevent wrinkles by rolling the linens around a cardboard tube. If they will be stored for more than a week or so, make sure that the cardboard is acid-free to prevent staining.