Stress-free Thanksgiving Table Linens

Thanksgiving is a time for gathering friends and family around a table draped with new or heirloom linens. Unfortunately, stains of all kinds are just waiting to land on your tablecloth, placemats and napkins: gravy, butter, wine, coffee, melted wax or lipstick on the napkins. Don’t let these things ruin your favorite linens or your day.

Ready, Set, Treat

Here are the basics you need to know to be ready for tackling those spills on your linens. Stains come in three varieties – water-based, oil-based and combination. Water-based stains like coffee and wine usually have a thin ring around the perimeter. Oily stains like butter and gravy have no outline and appear absorbed into the fabric. Combination stains like lipstick have additional components like wax or dye and require extra steps to remove all traces from fabric.

For your own sanity, gather some stain removal supplies to have on hand and you’ll be set when the inevitable spills happen. Keep a stain pretreater with like Zout or Spray ‘n Wash in the laundry room to use as soon possible once the table is cleared. An all-fabric bleach is also an essential to help remove the dyes in combination stains and is safe to use on colored linens and any washable fabric.

As your family takes their after dinner walk or settles in for some football watching, shake the linens to remove any crumbs or loose food. Remove melted wax or globs of gravy with a butter knife or the edge of a credit card. This will lift off the stain maker without driving the matter deeper into the fabric. Pretreat each stained area with a stain remover and allow that product to work for at least 15 minutes before washing.

The linens should be washed within 24 hours. Use a heavy duty laundry detergent and the hottest water temperature recommended on the fabric’s care label. After washing, look over each napkin, placemat and area of the tablecloth to be sure that the stains are gone. Oily stains that remain often look clear or gray and blotchy. Do not place the linens in the dryer until you are certain that stains are gone. It is much better to rewash now rather than later when dryer heat has made the stains very difficult to remove.

If oily traces of that Thanksgiving meal remain, retreat the stained areas. For leftover color from red wine, coffee or lipstick dyes, soak the linens in an all-fabric bleach and cool water solution. Follow the label directions and allow them to soak for at least two hours for best results.

Chat With Your Dry Cleaner

If you decide to leave the stain removal to someone else, you can send your linens to a professional cleaner. A reputable dry cleaner will be happy to answer your questions to insure that your linens come back impeccably clean: Are the linens done “in-house” or are they sent out? Are they pre-spotted for water-based and oily stains? Are they pressed and packaged with tissue?

Heirloom Treasures

Many of us have lace, damask and embellished linens that have been handed down through the family for many generations. Whether you wash them at home or take them to the cleaners, it is important to remember that delicate linens cannot take aggressive stain removal and agitation.

If you wash them at home, consider washing by hand or use the gentle wash and low spin cycles on your washer. Avoid chlorine bleach even on white linens that can weaken fibers. For professional cleaning, talk with your cleaner, share your expectations and point out the stains and weak areas.

Once your linens are clean, store them correctly in a dry, well-ventilated area so they will look their best for the next occasion. Hanging linens on a sturdy, padded hanger will prevent excessive wrinkles. If stored flat, pad folds with acid-free tissue paper to prevent creases.

Need more help? Visit our Stain Emergency section or email me at with all of your stain, storage and laundry questions.