Cleaning Vintage Tablecloths: What to Do and What Not to Do

Shabby Roses Tablecloth

Shabby Roses Tablecloth

Stains in vintage tablecloths are problematic for some collectors and my intent here is to give you the best of the varying advice I found online.  Most vintage cloths are made of linen, cotton or a cotton/linen blend.  Fortunately, the best cleaning method works equally well  on both. Newer cleaning products have made many of the older methods, while effective, obsolete. So here are the DO’s:

  • The sooner soiling and spots are treated and laundered, the easier they come out.  Immediate washing avoids stubborn staining.
  • Rely on modern enzyme treatments which are contained in laundry pretreatment products (Spray ‘n Wash, Shout, Zout) and detergents (Biz, Era) for laundering linen tablecloths, napkins and placemats.  Three different types of enzymes work on the usual array of food stains:  those that break down cellulose, protein, and oil and fat.
  • Treat and repeat until a stain is out.  Be patient and methodical.
  • The best way to clean linen tablecloths and napkins  is to pretreat the stains, soak in Biz and hot water overnight and then wash.  The trick is to use a laundry pretreatment product like Spray ‘n Wash and go over the tablecloth and napkins, immediately after the guests have gone home, treating all the places that have food and beverage spots.  Then start filling the washing machine with hot water, add the directed amount of Biz to dissolve it, and put the tablecloth and napkins in the machine while it is still filling.  Stop the machine filling when the material is submerged and leave to soak overnight (or for 8 hours).  Go to bed.  In the morning continue filling the machine with hot water and run it on a short cycle.    Once the wash cycle has run, remove the items and line dry them.

The DON’Ts:

  • The first and fundamental rule for washing linen is NO CHLORINE BLEACH.  Chlorine bleach causes linen to yellow.  If you use it to spot treat stains on linen you will end up with yellow stains.  If you use chlorine bleach to wash linen, you will yellow the entire piece.  Purists eschew chlorine bleach on fine cotton items, too, because each exposure is believed to permanently weaken the cotton fibers.
  • Don’t use fragile vintage or antique textiles on your table.  Use modern linen cloths and napkins or vintage ones that are sturdy enough to take a short, gentle machine washing.  Fragile antique textiles should be hand washed using archival-grade soaps and detergents meant to preserve them, like Orvus WA Paste (an unbuilt detergent), castile soap flakes or liquid Ivory soap (be very careful not to combine these agents with acids like white vingear when laundering).
  • Don’t  spend time on elaborate stain treatments like pouring boiling water through a stain from two feet above.
  • Don’t  soak textiles in mixtures of cleaning agents (ammonia, washing soda and bleach) that might weaken or damage the fibers, or scrub at them unnecessarily.  The strongest method I use is one used by vintage textile dealers, a long soak in boiling or simmering water and Rit Color Remover — and then I do it only as a last resort.
  • Since linen is more amenable to alkaline cleaning agents than acids like white vinegar, do not soak linen items overnight in white vinegar solutions.
  • Line drying is not only the best method for drying linen, it prevents setting any residual stains by exposure to the heat of the dryer.  While quick pretreatment and laundering almost always gets all the food stains out the first time, there sometimes are a few tough stains remaining.  You don’t want to set them in the dryer.


Sources: eBay Guide:Laundering a White Linen Tablecloth and Napkins Sferra eSSORTMENT Martha Stewart

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