How to Wash Tablecloths and Linens

A table with a white tablecloth and gray chairs

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 15 mins - 1 hr
  • Total Time: 2 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $0

Learning how to wash tablecloths, table runners, cloth napkins, and placemats is fairly easy since most of these items are machine washable and can be cleaned using regular laundry detergent. The key to keeping table linens looking their best is pre-treating stains and washing them immediately.

Heirloom linens used only a few times each year should be washed, but do it as infrequently as possible to prevent fading. Spot-clean stains on heirlooms, and when necessary, clean them and delicates like lace by hand using a gentle laundry detergent.

Many newer table linens are made using synthetic fabrics and have a care tag with instructions for washing them. Most tablecloths and linens should be safe if you wash them using cold water and the permanent press cycle. Wash tablecloths at least once a month; more if soiled. You should wash cloth napkins after each use. To dry the items, use a low heat setting, or if it's a vintage or delicate item, air-dry it.

Read on for more detailed information on how to wash tablecloths and linens and keep them looking their best by washing, ironing, and storing them correctly.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Washer
  • Dryer
  • Iron

Materials

  • Laundry detergent
  • Stain remover (Optional)
  • Fabric softener (Optional)

Instructions

Materials for caring for table linens

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

How to Wash Tablecloths and Linens
Detergent Regular or heavy-duty
Water Temperature Cold to warm
Cycle Type Permanent press
Drying Cycle Type Low to medium heat
Special Treatments Hand-wash beaded or embellished linens
Iron Settings Varies by fabric
How Often to Wash Once a month; more if soiled, less if vintage
  1. 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. You can clean most table linen fabrics in cold or warm water.

    Someone putting linens in the washer

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  2. Pre-treat Stains and Wash

    Ensure all stains have been pre-treated with a spot cleaner before loading the table linens in the washing machine.

    You can use your regular laundry detergent; however, a heavy-duty detergent will be better for removing food stains, especially oily ones. Adding fabric softener to the final rinse will provide a protective coating to fibers that will help prevent spilled liquids and foods from penetrating the fabric quickly.

    Someone adding detergent to the washer

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  3. Dry Your Linens

    When removing 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 using the permanent press cycle. If ironing, remove the cloth from the dryer while very slightly damp. If you're not immediately ironing the item, remove it as soon as possible after the cycle is complete to prevent excessive wrinkles.

    Someone shaking linens to dry

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Treating Stains on Tablecloths and Linens

Always check table linens for stains before washing. Refer to the stain removal guide for specific cleaning instructions for a particular type of stain. 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 (like 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.

If you have a white cotton, linen, or synthetic piece that's dingy or yellowed, brighten the linen with a solution of warm water and oxygen 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 printed and colored fabrics and hand-painted linens if the paint has been set properly. Or, for another alternative to brighten white table linens, you can add a drop of bluing liquid to the wash cycle following the package instructions.

Tablecloth and Linens Care and 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 color threads. Many repairs can be camouflaged with appliques or other embellishments.

If you're not confident in your sewing abilities, take vintage or heirloom linens to an experienced tailor or a dry cleaner that mends clothing to make repairs on your treasured items.

Ironing

If you know that you'll be ironing your tablecloth or linens right away, remove them from the dryer while still slightly damp; it will make ironing easier.

If you're ironing table linens that have just come out of a crammed drawer, here are some ironing tips:

  • Clean your iron: Before you begin, ensure the iron's soleplate is clean. If you're using a steam iron, test it on an old cloth to be sure no marks get deposited on the fabric.
  • Set up your ironing surface: Use a well-padded ironing board with a smooth heat-reflective cover or an alternative surface. Place your ironing board near a table when ironing large items such as tablecloths so you can put finished sections of the cloth over the table rather than letting it pile up under the ironing board.
  • Best ironing techniques: Start with the cloth's wrong (opposite) side first, pushing the cloth section by section over the board as you iron. Turn the fabric over, and finish by pressing on the right side of the cloth. Iron on the wrong side first and then on the right side to bring out the sheen for light-colored linens. On dark-colored articles, iron on the wrong side only.
  • Using starch or sizing: If you like to fold napkins into fancy shapes, use starch and a hot iron setting to get the crispness you need. Use spray-on sizing and iron on a medium setting for a softer look.
  • Monogram care: Many napkins and placemats have monograms. To keep the stitched monograms looking crisp and smooth, iron with the design face down against a thick terry towel that's white or colorfast. The soft texture will prevent the monogram from being flattened. After ironing the monogrammed part, finish by pressing the right side of the napkin, but iron around the monogram.
An iron on an ironing board with linens

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Storing Tablecloths and Linens

Always wash or dry-clean linens before storing, and check each piece for stains. Some stains may not be visible on linens but can provide food for mildew or insects like silverfish. Don't fold or store freshly ironed linens if they're still damp. They should be spread out flat and smooth for some time to dry completely.

Once completely dry, linens can be stored flat or hung 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 of a storage container or drawer, followed by fabric tablecloths and napkins. Next, place lightweight and delicate lace pieces on top. It's better to store linens that haven't been starched because starch can attract insects.

Linens folded up on paper to be stored

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

How Often to Wash Tablecloths and Linens

When used daily, tablecloths and linens, such as placemats and runners, can be spot-cleaned as stains appear and deep-cleaned at least once a month. Fabric napkins need to be washed after each use.

Heirloom items used infrequently or for more formal occasions need gentle care to preserve the strength of their fibers and color. If you're unfamiliar with washing vintage linen, damask, lace, brocade, and beaded or embellished fabrics with no labels, you can't go wrong by washing them by hand in cool water.

Tips for Washing Tablecloths and Linens

  • Consider using laundry bluing to make white linens appear brighter.
  • Using a padded hanger prevents wrinkles on permanent press or freshly ironed linens. Hang one cloth per padded hanger, and leave plenty of room between hangers so air can circulate.
  • Avoid putting tablecloths and linens in plastic bags, cardboard boxes, or in direct contact with cedar chests or wood drawers. 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 stored for over a week, ensure the cardboard is acid-free to prevent staining. 
  • At least twice per year, refold the linens to prevent continued stress in any one area.
  • If you're concerned about the oversized cloth getting soiled as it puddles on the floor during ironing, place a clean bedsheet under the ironing board or drape it over an adjacent item that keeps it flat.
FAQ
  • Can tablecloths go in the dryer?

    Most tablecloth fabrics can go in the dryer—aim for medium heat using the permanent press dryer cycle. However, before you dry an item, check for stains. Do not dry an item that is stained; heat sets the stain making it harder to remove. If the item is a delicate heirloom, air-dry it to be on the safe side.

  • Can I wash a linen tablecloth in the washing machine?

    For best results, linen tablecloths can be cleaned in the washing machine using cold water and a cold rinse cycle. It's best to air-dry linen since it can shrink in a hot dryer. To release wrinkles, iron it on high heat while still damp. You can also put linen in a low-heat dryer, take it out while damp, and line-dry it until dry.

  • How do you unwrinkle a tablecloth in the dryer?

    To remove wrinkles in a vinyl or polyester tablecloth, use a dryer on low heat filled with a few damp towels. While the tablecloth is still warm, remove it and flatten it on a smooth surface. You can try the same method for fabrics like cotton or linen; however, they are heavily wrinkle-prone and may retain stubborn wrinkles. An iron might be the only way to get out the stubborn spots.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Silverfish, Vol.4, No. 5. Mississippi State University Extension.

  2. Managing Pests Around the Home. The University of Tennessee Extension.