Many of us remember walking into Grandma's kitchen while she was canning, and smelling an unmistakeable smell that came from the oilcloth she had tacked to her kitchen table to protect it. To me, it always smelled like heat. I associated it with humid August afternoons and steam from the canner. Oilcloth could be a utilitarian solid color, or it could be printed in stripes or plaids or florals - really a lovely variety of prints. It was durable, though with time it did get brittle. It was relatively waterproof and thus made an ideal picnic cloth or tablecloth for use in the kitchen. It could be used to make seats for lawn furniture. It was relatively inexpensive, frequently sold by the foot at the local hardware or five and dime.
So what was that oilcloth, and where can we get it today?
Oilcloth was woven natural fiber cloth, usually cotton duck/canvas or
linen, that had been treated with a coating based on linseed oil. The
fabric could be dyed or printed before treatment, or sometimes the
color and design were added in the treatment process. It was a smelly
process, but linseed is a natural byproduct of flax processing, not
petroleum based, and thus it was not toxic in the way that modern
plastics processing can be. Oilcloth also biodegraded in a landfill
when its usefulness was over.
Unfortunately, oilcloth went out of style by the late 1950s, and a new
and "improved" version of waterproof table covering came along: The
vinyl-covered flannelbacked tablecloth. And now, within the past few
years, a PVC-coated woven cotton fabric is being marked as "real
oilcloth," though I personally would not call it such, as it is made
from polyvinyl chloride. True, it is on the old-fashioned cotton duck
fabric, but PVC does not break down in a landfill like linseed products
do. It has a slick plasticky feel to the touch rather than the slightly
sticky oily feel of true oilcloth (or at least of used oilcloth). It is
said to be more durable and long lasting than real oilcloth, but I
think the jury is still out on that. Let's see how it holds up after 20
On the plus side, much of the modern "oilcloth" available is printed
using some of the vintage designs, in many cases using the actual
plates and rollers that were used for the vintage oilcloth, so that we
have easily found
reproductions of the colorful vintage designs - something people are
looking for as they redecorate in vintage style. Most of this
oilcloth is made in Mexico in 48" widths and has wonderfully bright
pigments and vibrant designs that seem ready to leap off the fabric.
They are lovely in their own right. But in my opinion - and I'm the one
writing this review, so I get to say this - they should not be called
I did find a source for real, honest-to-goodness oilcloth by the
yard, but it's utilitarian, brown or very dark green, and is marketed
to war reenactors. It is available from Hamilton Dry Goods (check their
eBay store or their website). If you are looking for the pretty stuff
that would look nice on your kitchen table, then I don't have an answer
for you; sadly. I am still looking for a real source for real,
But wait! All is not lost. You can always make your own oilcloth. It's quite
possible, you know, and kind of a fun experiment. Start with a piece of
heavyweight cotton canvas. Pick one that already has a print that you
enjoy, or you can tie-dye it with fabric dyes, or even stamp it with
colored oil paints. Now you need to stretch it, just like you would an
artist's canvas. You want it smooth and you want it to hold still. So
staple it to a square wooden frame. Now you need to take linseed oil
and a paintbrush. You are going to paint the cloth in long strokes, all
over the "good" side. Set it aside. It will take a couple of days to
dry. Give it a few more coats. If you don't already have a design on
it, pause between coats and add some color using oil paints. Add more
coats of linseed. After you have a nice thick coating built up and it
is thoroughly dry, remove your oilcloth from the frame and trim the
unpainted edges, or better yet, turn them under and glue them to make a
smooth edge and use your new oilcloth as a floor cloth.
You can also make an item out of canvas and then after the fact dip it
in linseed oil and allow it to dry, repeating the process until the
article is thoroughly coated. I learned this from the folk on eBay's
Dolls Discussion Board. Many vintage doll shoes are made of oilcloth.
If you can build the shoe from canvas or duck, you can then coat it and
end up with a pretty authentic oilcloth doll shoe.
The short version of all this is: The modern fabrics being marketed as
"real oilcloth" are no such thing. They are beautiful in their own
right, but they should be called something else.
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