How to Clean and Care for Tablecloths and Linens

tablecloth

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

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

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 linen, damask, lace, brocade, and beaded or embellished fabrics with no labels you cannot go wrong by washing them by hand in cool water.

How to Wash Tablecloths and Linens
Detergent Regular or heavy-duty laundry detergent
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 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)
materials for caring for table linens

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

Instructions

  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.

    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 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.

    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 the permanent press cycle. Remove the cloth as soon as possible after the cycle is complete to prevent excessive wrinkles.

    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 to smoothing them out.

preparing the ironing board

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. 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 all 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.

Best Ironing Techniques

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. 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.

Starch or Size

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.

Ironing Monograms

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 monogrammed part of the linen face down on the towel, 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.

Do not fold or store freshly ironed linens if they are 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, then fabric tablecloths and napkins, and next place lightweight and delicate lace pieces on top of the stack. It is better to store linens that have not been starched because starch can attract insects.

properly storing linens

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 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 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.

If you have a white cotton, linen, or synthetic fiber cloth that is dingy or has yellowed, brighten the linen with 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 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, cardboard boxes, or in direct contact with cedar chests, or any wood drawer. Fumes from petroleum-based polyurethane plastic boxes and wood acids can yellow or weaken the fabrics.
  • Never cover hanging linens with a plastic bag. The plastic can trap moisture and cause a chemical reaction that can discolor the linens. Instead, cover the hangers with a white 100% 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. 
  • At least twice per year, refold the linens to prevent continued stress on any one area.