The tablecloth, napkins, and all can last a lifetime if treated in the wash properly.

By Nancy Mattia
October 14, 2020
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Sidney Bensimon

Table linens are as important to a beautifully set table as the dishes, flatware, and floral arrangement. It doesn't matter if you're setting a casual or formal table—a pristine tablecloth and napkins will instantly elevate the look. By cleaning them the correct way and taking care of stains so they don't become a permanent part of the fabric, your linens are ensured a long life. Below, we asked the experts for their tips on caring for the two common tablecloth materials—cotton (and cotton blends) and linen.

Cotton and Cotton Blends

You don't have to do anything out of the ordinary to clean these fabrics—you can even wash them with other laundry. But don't throw them in the wash with the kids' soccer uniforms or anything else that's not made of cotton. "It's a good idea to wash like fibers together," says Colleen Mistry, product line director of Matouk, a luxury linen company. (What you should wash alone: table linens that have a delicate detail, such as an embroidered or lace edge, to avoid any snagging or pulls.) Use hot water and a cold rinse on the regular cycle. An all-purpose laundry detergent like Tide ($7, target.com) is fine for cotton or cotton/polyester, says Mistry. "We also recommend mild specialty detergents like Le Blanc ($36, linenwash.net) or Laundress ($19, thelaundress.com) as a nice alternative."

And how do you dry them? "Although this will vary from dryer to dryer," says Mistry, "we recommend drying table linens until they are almost dry, but not all the way and then finishing by air-drying or even using an iron while still damp." This is especially helpful for all-cotton styles, which can be more prone to wrinkles.  

Linen

All it takes is a good washing in cold water on the gentle cycle and finished off with a cold rinse to keep linen tablecloths and napkins happy. As with cotton, wash linen tablecloths and napkins with other linen items. Use a mild detergent. Then, let linen dry until almost dry then let air-dry or finish with an iron. "Or better yet," says Mistry, "embrace the wrinkles for a more lived-in look and enjoy the fabric getting softer over time."

How to Treat Stains

Mistry says a stain remover like Shout ($3, target.com) is perfectly safe on both cotton and linen tablecloths and napkins. "Have a stain brush on hand, instead of trying to rub with a paper towel, which can make a total mess!" It'll be most effective in obliterating stains if you pre-treat them with the product as soon as a spill happens. Leave on for 15 to 20 minutes then wash in the washing machine. For red wine stains, you can try removing some of it using table salt. "Salt can do wonders if you get to the stain right away," she says. Pour onto the affected area liberally and leave a heap on the spot. The salt will soak up the wine, then you can brush the salt away. "Follow up with washing in cold water as soon as possible," says Mistry.

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