Which Fabrics Hold Up Best Against Spills and Stains?

Plus, we asked a textile expert for her cleaning recommendations.

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fall tablescape decorated with dried flowers
Photo: Ryan Liebe

At the dinner table, spills and stains are common occurrences. Even the most careful among us are prone to an accidentally tipped-over wine glass or toppled casserole dish that makes its mark on a napkin, upholstered chair, or, woefully, that heirloom tablecloth. That's why a proactive mindset—and choice of fabric—may prevent these spills and stains from happening in the first place. When it comes to choosing the table linens, there are endless options. That's why we consulted a textile expert to weigh in on which varieties hold up best against spills and stains.

Fabric Absorbency

All fabric is composed of fibers, and these fibers are either "hydrophilic (absorbent) or hydrophobic (not absorbent)," explains Deborah Young, also known as The Textile Expert. "Natural fibers are all absorbent. Manufactured cellulose such as rayon, acetate, modal, and lyocell are also absorbent. Synthetic fibers (polyester, nylon, and acrylic) are not absorbent." There are also degrees of absorbency; therefore, some fabrics will be more absorbent than others. Young says that high absorbency means that the fabric will absorb water-based stains. While synthetic fabrics like polyester are more resistant to water-based stains, they are also oilophilic. "This means they absorb oil and grease stains," explains Young. "If you spill salad dressing on your [synthetic] carpet, the oily stain will be more complicated to remove."

Natural fabrics can be made to be more resistant to stains with chemical finishes. Something as simple as Scotchgard Fabric Water Shield ($5.39, target.com) can help. It also "washes out easily and quickly, lacking longevity," she says. Resin treatments, which are done at the manufacturing level, tend to last longer but are less absorbent of perspiration, often making the fabric a bit more uncomfortable to wear.

How Absorbency Affects Cleaning

Getting stains out is easier for absorbent fabrics. "In the washing machine, it is water that cleans—detergent helps to make the fiber more absorbent," Young explains. "The more absorbent the fiber, the better it will clean." This is why cotton may easily stain but can usually be good as new after a good washing.

Oily stains on synthetic fibers are harder to get out. You may need to use dry cleaning solvents on the fabric or pre-treatments like Zout Laundry Stain Remover ($11.76, walmart.com) or Resolve Spray 'n Wash Pre-Treat Stain Remover ($2.89, target.com). "Synthetic fibers are difficult to stain but difficult to clean once they're stained," she says. "Natural fibers are easy to stain but easy to clean."

Choosing Stain-Resistant Fabrics

With that in mind, you should weigh whether you want to be able to easily clean an item or reduce the potential of it getting stained in the first place. Consider how the fabric will be used and how much hands-on contact it will receive every day. Check the label on the fabric or look at the fabric guide at the shop. Does it say "stain resistant" or "stain release"? What are the wash instructions for the fabric? These details can give you clues as to whether that particular fabric is the best choice. It's worth noting that all fabrics—even the most stain-resistant options—should be laundered with care. Always check the label of your chosen fabric before putting it to use in your next home project.

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