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How to Delicately Wash Grandma's Priceless Tablecloths Without Worry

Jun 08, 2023Jun 08, 2023

Study up before the holidays.

Every Southerner knows about "The Good Silver". It comes out for special occasions and occasionally "just because," but with it, The Good Linens also emerge from the drawer where they're stashed. Mama's favorite cloth napkins will require ironing before Christmas dinner (And yes, people are still doing that), but what about Grandma's heirloom tablecloth? In our family, we walk on eggshells to not spill a drop of gravy on my great-grandmother's gorgeous lace tablecloth. But what happens when you-know-what happens to these precious linens? I've consulted with the experts.

Mary Gagliardi, or "Dr. Laundry," Clorox's in-house scientist and cleaning expert says it starts with the age of the item.

"Since some tablecloths will pre-date care labeling requirements, you may not always know the fiber content of an item," she says. "But if you know the history of a tablecloth, that can help."

For reference, she says "newer" tablecloths from 1950 and beyond usually blend polyester with cotton or flax and are easy to treat. As far as my great-grandmother's piece goes, "For very old, extremely fragile items (or items with a special family history), it may be that getting them perfectly clean is too big a risk to the item."

In that case, all Dr. Laundry recommends is a simple hand wash with a bit of liquid laundry detergent that contains a brightener in lukewarm water. She does, however, offer a warning to proceed with caution.

Newer (but still just as special!) tablecloths that are made of cotton or polyester should be able to hold up to a pre-soak and gentle wash cycle. Here's what Gagliardi suggests:

"Dissolve 1 scoop of Clorox 2 For Colors powder in 2 gallons very hot water, then submerge the items and soak for at least 1 hour, and as long as 8 hours (overnight works well). This allows the enzymes and gentle peroxide bleach extra time to break up any residual soil on the tablecloth that have caused it to yellow with time. Once the soak time is complete, pour off the soaking solution and then thoroughly rinse the tablecloth before rolling it in a clean dry towel and squeezing to remove excess moisture to speed up air drying.

If the tablecloth is sturdy enough, you can machine wash it on the gentle cycle using hot water, a good detergent, and a little more Clorox2. After the presoak (instead of rinsing it by hand), just add it to the machine. Be sure to select the gentle cycle!"

Hannah Yokoji, brand director for The Laundress, also weighed in on the washing process. She opts for cold water instead of hot.

"For cottons and linens, launder using an everyday formula, like our Classic Signature Detergent," she says. "For silks, delicate synthetics, or lace, wash with our ultra-gentle, specially-formulated Delicate Wash instead, which removes oils, dirt, and stains while cleaning and preserving fabric."

Yokoji recommends using a large mesh bag to protect your tablecloth, even during a gentle wash. Without one, a washing machine's agitator can tear delicate fabric or appliqué, even on the least aggressive cycle.

If you happen to spill this holiday season, don't fret. There are plenty of ways to remove a stain, but both Gagliardi and Yokoji advise against spot-cleaning as your only method of washing. Why?

"This helps achieve a unified appearance instead of a few really clean places," says Gagliardi. Especially for vintage items that haven't been laundered in a long time, echoes Yokoji.

Most stains on tablecloths will be candle wax drippings or food spills, which are both often oil-based. One thing that I didn't know beforehand is that you should spot-treat stains while the tablecloth is still dry.

"Rub in enough detergent to saturate the stains, wait 5 minutes, then rinse with warm water," says Gagliardi.

Yokoji uses a similar tactic: "Spot treat stains using the appropriate stain product, let sit for a few minutes, and then blot away residue with a clean, damp cloth" like a micro-fiber one—nothing that will scratch the fabric. For older, set-in stains, she soaks the stained area (or entire tablecloth if needed) in a basin full of tepid water for 30 minutes before laundering.

To avoid a tie-dye look after spot treating, wash the entire tablecloth with the methods described above.

One thing is for sure: Don't use the dryer for vintage pieces—air drying is your friend! For an easy way to air dry large items, Gagliardi uses two pants hangers with plastic clips to hang a tablecloth, so it won't touch the floor. Using this system also ensures the tablecloth can fit in your shower to dry, preventing you from having to wipe up any water that drips.

Once your gorgeous tablecloth is clean and dry, it's time to store it. For properly stored antique items, don't just throw them in a bin or drawer alone. To prevent yellowing over time, the tablecloth needs to be stored covered with another fabric of some sort. Gagliardi suggests folding the tablecloth and then wrapping it in a clean white sheet before storing it in a plastic container with a lid. Yokoji likes using breathable storage bags with a sachet thrown in to keep things smelling fresh.

One final tidbit from Yokoji surprised me. Though my family only brings out The Good Linens for holidays and special occasions, she says more is more!

"The best way to preserve heirloom fabrics and keep them beautiful for years to come is to enjoy them!" she says. "Don't be afraid to whip out your special tableware—keeping fabrics stored away without use for years can encourage yellowing."

With these tips, I might just break out my great-grandmother's tablecloth for weeknight dinners!