How to Clean and Care for Tablecloths and Linens

A table with a white tablecloth and gray chairs

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Overview
  • Working Time: 15 mins - 1 hr
  • Total Time: 2 hrs
  • Skill Level: Intermediate

Entertaining can be stressful, but you have one less thing to worry about when your tablecloths, table runners, cloth napkins, and placemats are clean and ready to use. Even heirloom linens that are used only a few times each year can be kept looking their best by washing, ironing, and storing them correctly. These days, not all tablecloths are cotton or linen. All newer table linens, including synthetic fabrics, have a care tag with instructions on how to wash them.

How Often to Clean 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. However, heirloom items used infrequently or for more formal occasions need gentle care to preserve the strength of their fibers and color. If you're not familiar 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.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

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

Materials

  • Laundry detergent
  • Stain remover
  • Water
  • Oxygen bleach (optional)
  • Bluing (optional)
  • Fabric softener (optional)
  • Starch or sizing (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
  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. Most table linen fabrics can be washed in cold or warm water.

    Someone putting linens in the washer

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  2. Add 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 ones. Adding fabric softener to the final rinse will provide a protective coating to fibers that will help spilled liquids and foods from penetrating into the fabric as quickly.

    Someone adding detergent to the washer

    The Spruce / Michelle Becker

  3. Dry Your Linens

    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 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

Ironing

If you know that you'll be ironing your tablecloth or linens right away, removing them from the dryer while still slightly damp will make ironing easier. If you're ironing table linens that have just come out of a crammed drawer, here are tips for smoothing them out.

An iron on an ironing board with linens

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Clean Your Iron

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.

Set up Your Ironing Surface

Use a well-padded ironing board with a smooth heat-reflective cover. Note that there are ironing board alternatives if you don't have one. 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're concerned about the cloth getting soiled as it puddles on the floor, place a clean white sheet under the ironing board.

Best Ironing Techniques

Start with the wrong (opposite) 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. For light-colored linens, iron on the wrong side first and then on the right side to bring out the sheen. On dark-colored articles, iron on the wrong side only.

Starch or Size

If you like to fold napkins into fancy shapes, use starch and a hot iron setting to get the crispness you need. For a softer look, use spray-on sizing, and iron on a medium setting.

Ironing Monograms

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.

Storing Tablecloths and Linens

There's a lot that goes into correctly 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 kept spread out flat and smooth for some time to dry completely.

Once completely dry, 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 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

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. An experienced tailor or seamstress can often make repairs to vintage linens.

Treating Stains on Tablecloths and Linens

Always check table linens for stains before washing. Refer to a stain removal guide 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 (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 as well as hand-painted linens, if the paint has been set properly.

Tips for Washing Tablecloths and Linens

  • Laundry bluing can be added to the wash or rinse water 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, in 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 they'll be stored for more than a week or so, make sure the cardboard is acid-free to prevent staining. 
  • At least twice per year, refold the linens to prevent continued stress on any one area.
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.