Linen is a top choice for tablecloths and napkins because it is long wearing and releases stains. But it does require a little know-how to do the washing and stain removal right. Many of the methods and rules for handling linen are no longer common household knowledge. Moreover, newer products have replaced old stain removal methods.
It used to be that caring for a tablecloth meant washing it and hoping the stains came out with simple laundering or going through elaborate stain treatments to be sure the stains came out. But with the advent of enzyme laundry products, getting the usual food and beverage stains out of a tablecloth and napkins takes only a little straightforward work. Doing it will keep your linens pristine and give you years of use from your tablecloths, napkins, placemats and runners.
This guide outlines how I remove stains and launder my Irish linen damask tablecloths and napkins and also my vintage table linens, including napkins, placemats, runners, tea cloths, tray covers and tablecloths. I aim for the least effort and least wear to my textiles while getting them clean and free of stains. This not a guide on caring for fragile antique linens. 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).
Some Words on What I Don't Do: I don't use fragile vintage or antique textiles on my table. I want to relax and enjoy the meal and conversation, not worry about the antique tablecloth. Accordingly, I use modern linen cloths and napkins or vintage ones that are sturdy enough to take a short, gentle machine washing. I don't like spending time on elaborate stain treatments like pouring boiling water through a stain from two feet above. Nor do I soak textiles in mixtures of cleaning agents (amonia, 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, I do not soak linen items overnight in white vinegar solutions.
Linen is a fabric made from the flax plant. It has been in use in the western hemisphere since ancient Egypt. While cotton grows in tropical and subtropical climates, flax has been grown in Europe's temperate climate since prehistoric times, even as far north as Ukraine. Trade with North Africa and India in the late Middle Ages brought the first cotton cloth to Europe. European colonization of Asia, Africa and the Americas eventually supplied the raw fiber to the looms of Europe and made cotton widely available. But for millennia before cotton was available, Europe relied on linen for much of its cloth. Thus the term linen has become synonymous with sheets (bed linen), table coverings (table linen), and even shirts and undergarments. But when using the term linen in this guide, I refer to the fabric made from the flax plant. That said, the care methods I outline also can be used on cotton and should be used on cotton-linen blends.
Even after cotton became a dominant fabric, linen remained the favored material for tablecloths, napkins, placemats, runners and coverings for sideboards because it releases stains and wears well. The one big drawback to linen is that it must be ironed. In the 1960s and 1970s synthetics seemed to take over the market for tablecloths and napkins. But as people discovered that synthetics held on to stains and pilled and snagged, cotton and linen regained popularity. Linen will keep its good looks for decades. Synthetics don't.
How to Wash Linen and Remove Stains
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.
The second rule for linen care is the sooner soiling and spots are treated and laundered, the easier they come out. Immediate washing avoids stubborn staining.
The third rule is to 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.
The fourth rule is to treat and repeat until a stain is out. Be patient and methodical.
My Simple Method
The best way to clean linen tablecloths and napkins, which obviously are subject to having spots of food and drink left all over them, is to pretreat the stains, soak in Biz and hot water overnight and then wash.
While there are many old methods for removing food stains (you can find them on the Martha Stewart site or in reference works on fabric care), modern stain treatment products and enzyme detergents have made a lot of the old methods obsolete. The trick is to use a laundry pretreatment product like Spray 'n Wash and go over the tablecloth and napkins, or placemats and runners, 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. The fabric has soaked long enough to remove stains, beating it up on a long wash cycle won't get it any cleaner. This long-soak, short-wash method also spares the fabric from abrasion, especially important in caring for vintage textiles. Once the wash cycle has run, remove the items and line dry them. 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.
The Basics of Pretreating Food Stains
To pretreat a tablecloth, clear the table completely but leave the cloth in place. Starting in one place, put laundry pretreatment product on each spot, smudge or spill you find. Move methodically around the table until you're back where you started. Check the part of the cloth hanging down over the edge, too. You'd be surprised how often I've found this soiled. I use the pretreatment products in stick form because they are easier to control and I don't want sprays or liquids dripping all over the furniture and floor. Also, if you can't launder immediately, the solid form of the product can be left on fabric for several days and starts treatment immediately so stains don't set. After finishing with the tablecloth, sit down with the pile of napkins and carefully inspect and pretreat the soiling on them. Pretreatment on lipstick stains on napkins will usually take care of them. You can do this while watching the 11 o'clock news.
If food is glopped or crusted on the fabric, gently scrape it off with your fingernail, the side of a spoon, a dull table knife, or plastic implement before applying pretreatment or laundering. Do not abuse your silver flatware by using it to do this. I use Spray 'n Wash stick to pretreat, but Shout and other products are also good. I sometimes do an additional pretreatment with liquid Zout on bad chocolate or fruit-based stains (this includes red wine and vinegar). By and large, the grease solvents, enzymes and other chemicals in Spray 'n Wash and similar products along with the enzymes, detergent and mild bleach in Biz, plus the hot water will get all the organic and oil-based soiling out of table linens in the first laundry. I very rarely have to re-treat for stubborn stains if I pretreat, soak and launder within 24 hours. It really is a matter of the old adage: a stitch in time saves nine.
Removing Tough Stains and Old Yellow Stains
If a post-laundering inspection reveals stains that haven't come out completely, you will have to pretreat and launder again or use some of the older removal techniques. A comprehensive outline of specific stains and removal methods can be found in How to Clean Everything by Alma Chestnut Moore and in Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson, chapter 28. Martha Stewart also has a stain removal chart for specific types of soiling on her website. Here is a brief overview of treatments for some common stains on tablecloths, placemats and napkins.
For stubborn grease stains or lipstick stains, which are oil based, you should use solvent-based spot removers, like Carbona and Goof Off. Follow the instructions on the label.
For stains like chocolate, red wine and fruit that have faded but aren't completely out, you can repeat treatment with Spray 'n Wash, Zout, liquid enzyme detergent like Era, and liquid Clorox 2. Let the products sit on the fabric for a few hours before rinsing out or re-washing. It may take repeated treatments to fade the stain completely. Carbona Stain Devils are a line of seven or more formulas targeting specific types of stains and are useful when dealing with chocolate and fruit-based stains that remain after laundering. Or you may have to move on to treatment with alternative bleaches.
For other stubborn stains, including those mysterious old yellow stains, you can turn to the arsenal of non-chlorine bleaches. There are actually several types of non-chlorine bleaches. People are generally familiar with these as "all-fabric" or "color-safe" bleaches, like liquid Clorox 2 (hydrogen peroxide), Snowy bleach and Oxiclean (sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate). More powerful non-chlorine bleaches are found in Tintex or Rit Color Remover, Rit Fabric Whitener & Brightener, and Rit White-Wash. These latter products contain sodium hydrosulfite and sodium carbonate anhydrous and are not color safe. The hydrogen peroxide you get at the drugstore can be used to remove stains on white linen, and is the first thing you should use on a blood stain on white fabric. Additionally, Stain Devils spot remover formulas for fruit and red wine and for coffee, tea and cola are essentially the same sorts of non-chlorine bleaches or color removers. Stain Devils is a Carbona line of stain removers. They are sold at my local Safeway. Use them as directed on the label. This usually requires dissolving the powders in hot water and soaking the stained area or the whole article, or making a paste that is applied to the stain and left in place for several hours. Note that these bleaches will remove yellow chlorine bleach stains on linen. These additional stain removal treatments should remove or lighten the stain. If the stain is only lightened, you will have to repeat the treatment one or more times or use a stronger treatment to get the stain out completely. Be patient and methodical. Don't ruin the fabric to get out a small residual stain.
Finally, if all else fails, follow directions on the package of Tintex or Rit Color Remover for boiling and simmering the linen article in a pot on the stove using the product. I have used this method successfully to get rid of mysterious old yellow stains on vintage linen napkins and stubborn perspiration stains on cotton pillowcases. Be warned that it will lighten the color of the item.
In fact, as I hope is obvious, many of these non-chlorine bleach treatments can remove color from a colored linen articles--particularly if they're labeled "Color Remover" of "Whitener" as the sodium hydrosulfite-containing products are. But then, most colored linen won't show pale stain residues. For colored linen with stubborn stains you will have to test the product on a hidden place before using these bleaching stain treatments, resort to the older non-bleach stain removal methods, or consult a really good professional cleaner or the Fabricare Institute for help. If you find your natural-colored linen has been lightened to a degree that is not to your taste, consider using Dylon Tea Dye or traditional tea dyeing to return the darker shade to the fabric. Familiarize yourself with the technique and follow instructions closely to get even color, consistent color among pieces and the shade you want.
A Few Stains Require Special Pretreatment
Wax, rust, ink, etc. require special pretreatment before laundering
While I find that the combination of a laundry pretreatment product and Biz (which has both enzymes and non-chlorine bleach) gets gravy, meat, most chocolate, salad dressing, fruit, most red wine, dessert, vegetable, sauce, coffee, dairy, and lipstick stains out in one laundering, there are some stains that require special treament and care. You should work on them before the first laundering. Among these are candle wax, especially colored candle wax, tar, heavy fish oil (like from lox), ink, crayon and rust. Either use the Carbona Stain Devils formula for the particular stain following the directions on the label, or look up the method for dealing with the specific stain. Again, consult How to Clean Everything and chapter 28 of Home Comforts for full instructions on how to remove specific stains. Note that many of these tough stains are oil based (i.e., tar, gum, crayon, wax, lipstick) and require a solvent stain remover like Carbona or Goof Off.
For candle wax you scrape off all you can and then gently heat the wax with an iron while the fabric is covered on both sides by an absorbent paper (like paper towels, blotting paper or kraft paper) that will take up the wax, changing to fresh paper until all the wax is absorbed. Then treat the area with a solvent stain remover, like Carbona or Goof Off, both to remove residual wax and any color left behind by colored wax. Then launder. Initially removing wax from fabric is aided by freezing the article so the wax more easily chips and peels off. Frankly, I recommend avoiding the color removal step by sticking with classic white or ivory candles.
Rust stain removal requires lemon juice and sunlight (or another form of heat, like boiling water) or oxalic acid. Rust marks seem more daunting than they actually are. Commercial products like RoVer, Whink or Zud contain oxalic acid. Rit Rust Remover combines sodium hydrosulfite, sodium bisulfite and sodium carbonate.
Ink is very tough and if it's a big spot or important to get it out, you should consult that really good professional dry cleaner again. If you try to remove it yourself, you must first know the kind of ink. If you have on hand a commercial ink removal formula for the specific type of ink, use it following the instructions exactly.
A new spot remover, Amodex, claims to work on all types of ink and comes recommended by several pen makers. Crayola recommends it for removing crayon stains. It also claims to work as a spot remover on a wide range of food stains, plus toner, hair dye and scorch marks. However, it may affect colored fabrics, so test before using. I have not yet used it, but anything pen manufacturers endorse for ink stain removal should be noted. Martha Stewart has featured it on her shows. Ink being what it is, Amodex does not guarantee the removal of heavy ink stains. Notably, the Amodex instruction insert counsels patience and repeat treatments in dealing with all tough stains (Rule 4, above).
The old ink removal methods are: Ballpoint ink is removed with plain alcohol (rubbing or denatured), drugstore glycerin or a solvent spot remover followed by laundering. Drawing ink often cannot be removed by home methods, particularly after it has dried, but you can try flushing with cold water with an absorbent material underneath to take up the pigments, then applying liquid detergent and washing it out several times, and next soaking in warm water with soap and amonia, followed by laundering in the hottest water. For felt-tip ink, which is equally difficult, pour water through the stain to remove pigment, then let the article dry and treat remaining stain with a solvent spot remover, followed by the steps for drawing ink removal of repeatedly rubbing liquid detergent into the stain and washing out, then the soaking and laundering steps. For mystery ink, carefully test one part with water, the other with a solvent cleaner to see which method might work. Martha Stewart has detailed instructions for treating ink stains on her website.
Some Last Words on Linen Care and Storage
These cleaning methods will work on all linen articles that can be laundered, especially linen bed sheets and towels. For linen clothing, particularly blouses made of handkerchief linen, much gentler Ivory detergent or Woolite is the first choice and unless there is heavy staining, long pre-soaking isn't required. The laundry pretreatments and spot treatments outlined above work well on perspiration and skin oils that soil clothes. Be very careful that an article is pre-shrunk before washing it. Linen fabrics used for drapes and upholstery often aren't pre-shrunk, so they can't be laundered and must be dry cleaned. The same is true of linen jackets and other tailored clothing. Linen has the virtue of standing up to very hot water as a general rule, but table linens may have some minimal shrinking after the first hot water laundering. Linen also needs a hot iron and should be ironed damp -- but ironing is another subject.
Be warned that Biz will tend to lighten fabrics a shade the first laundering because it does contain a non-chlorine bleach. I find this acceptable. Be careful of some stain treatment myths. The Fabricare Institute says that club soda is not a good stain remover and warns that it contains sugars and salts that can set stains or cause additional stains. The only time that I have had trouble removing red wine from a tablecloth was when someone tried to absorb a wine spill by covering it with table salt while I was in the kitchen. The salt treatment is another stain myth and seemed to set the stain. It took several treatments with a bleach paste to get that stain out completely. Absorb wine and other spills with paper towels and go back to your dinner. You should always have a waterproof liner under your tablecloth so spills don't ever reach the wood of the table. It's a real party ender to have to start taking up the tablecloth or shoving towels under it to protect the table beneath if there is a spill. Don't let people mop up spills with your linen napkins. The unthinking will try this and just give you more work.
If you plan to store linen for a long time, give it an extra rinse, or even an extra full wash using white vinegar or water softener in the wash cycle instead of detergent to remove mineral, detergent and iron residues that can cause yellowing over the long term. Never use fabric softeners. My preference for starching linen is to use old fashion liquid starch in the final rinse. It gives an even yet fairly soft body to linen. Experts recommend no starch on linen being stored for long periods. Hang or roll tablecloths to store. Folding and stacking tends to crush the fibers along the fold lines and requires extra ironing to make the cloth look flat and nice. The rule is that you're allowed one crease down the middle of the cloth when it's on the table. That said, I do store linen napkins folded in quarters and stacked, but I never iron in the creases. Use acid-free tissue paper for storing linen, and line the storage drawers or shelves with plain white fabric, acid-free tissue paper, or acid-free mat board. Archival boxes are useful for closet shelf storage and acid-free rolls are available. Wood shelves or drawers can be sealed and made safe for contact with textiles following the instructions provided by Don Williams and Louisa Jaggar on page 257 of Saving Stuff. There is no point in laundering linen to a pristine state if you're going to put it in contact with acid surfaces in storage. The acid in unsealed wood, and in acidic paper and cardboard products can cause yellowing in the short term and deep brown staining and damage to the fabric over the long term.
Remember, the more saturated the stain, the harder it is to remove. The earlier the stain is treated and laundered, the more easily it comes out. Enzyme laundry products are the first best method for cleaning table linens. Be patient and methodical with stain treatment. Never use chlorine bleach on linen.
How to Clean Everything by Alma Chestnut Moore (various editions, out of print, available used on eBay) is a cleaning bible in two alphabetical sections. The first section lists how to clean everything and explains various cleaning substances and the methods of use. The second section lists specific stains and how to remove them. However, the author is mistaken about using chlorine bleach on linen.
Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson (Scribner 1999) is a comprehensive guide on housekeeping, from dust mites to tax withholding for hired house cleaners. Her emphasis is on both the how and the why. There are several chapters each on fabrics and on how to do laundry. Chapter 28 is a compendium of stain removal methods.
Saving Stuff by Don Williams, Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian Institution, and Louisa Jaggar (Fireside/Simon & Schuster 2005) is subtitled "How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions," which pretty much explains the book. The master conservator outlines the storage of linen textiles on pages 256-57.
A lot of housekeeping skills have fallen by the wayside and people are needlessly intimidated by things like laundering table linens and washing china, crytal and silver and so avoid having nice things and using them. My hope is to provide a guide to take the fear out of caring for table linens. Please feel free to email me with any comments. If you have found this guide helpful, please click on the "Yes" button below.