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Summer Entertaining: Linen Care 101

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There was a time when every hostess worth her salt had a full linen closet: A stockpile of napkins, tablecloths, and runners for every event and season. The modern entertainer is a bit more casual, but table linens still hold pride of place in the entertaining tool kit—and without stacks of options to choose from, taking good care of the ones you do keep on hand is pretty critical. Napa-based La Tavola, which offers a museum-like archive of linens for everything from black tie weddings to casual garden parties, has seen and tested it all when it comes to linen care best practices. Below, just in time for peak entertaining season, we tapped La Tavola’s Emarie C. VanGalio for her tips for keeping linens crisp, clean, and ready for anything.

A Q&A with Emarie C. VanGalio

Q

When it comes to table linens, what would you suggest a beginner home entertainer invest in?

A

For the home entertainer, a great start to a linen collection is a set of 12 white and 12 dark-colored linen napkins. The white is classic and a dark color, such as a gray, should be used for meals that will cause inevitable stains, like a pasta with red sauce. While it’s not always necessary to have a full table linen assortment on hand, napkins are a necessity (and most things can be rented to match the occasion if you feel like you’re missing something). Owning a basic white tablecloth can be useful for a wide array of events and a fun table runner could be a good investment for livening up a table.

Q

For those of us who don’t own an at-home press, how do you get wrinkles out of napkins and table cloths?

A

Your basic, at-home iron can work wonders on wrinkles—just make sure to use the steam setting, especially when dealing with cotton or linen. One no-iron option is to lay the tablecloth or napkin flat on a table, lightly spritz it with water, then smooth out all the wrinkles by hand allowing it to dry overnight. If you have a couple of days before using the linens, you can take them to the dry cleaner. Pro tip: Depending on the fabric, it is typically not suggested to put tablecloths in the dryer as there is a good chance they will shrink.

Q

What are the most common table linen fabrics and what are the main differences between them?

A

The ideal basic fabric is one that is transitional for both indoor and outdoor entertaining—cotton-polyester blends are great as they do not wrinkle easily, are somewhat stain resistant, and are easier to wash. For upscale indoor entertaining, the texture of a 100% cotton or linen fabric is preferred. Specifically for outdoor parties, there are linens made with a solution-dyed acrylic or durable Sunbrella fabric that are resistant to sun fading and everyday wear and tear.

Q

We know stains are unavoidable, so how do you get them out of tablecloths and napkins?

A

Candle Wax

Candle wax is notoriously difficult to get out of linens. For a small drip, try holding an ice cube to the stain to harden the wax before attempting to gently remove. For light-colored fabrics only, you can try pouring boiling-hot water on the wax to essentially melt it off (attempting this method with darker colors opens you up to the risk of fading). Finally, you can try scraping off the candle wax with a dull knife, then put the stained part of the fabric between two paper towels or paper bags; and using a low-setting iron, iron the paper towels or paper bags where the stains are. This technique will transfer the stain onto the paper towel or paper bag.

Wine, Pasta Sauce, and Oil-Based Dressings

For almost any stain, you can soak the linens in baking soda or soda water. However, it is very important to treat the spill as soon as it happens so that the stain does not settle into the fabric. For red wine specifically, you can blot the fabric with white wine vinegar. For more sturdy fabrics, coat the stain with salt and allow it to sit for five minutes. Finally, try stretching the stained fabric over a bowl secured with a rubber band and carefully pouring boiling water over the stain, then put the fabric in the wash.

When dealing with oil-based stains, like salad dressing, start by rubbing in cornstarch or talcum powder to absorb the oil, then let it sit for about 20 minutes. Brush off the powder with a dry washcloth or dry brush. You may need to repeat this stain removing technique a few times before washing the linen.

Photo Credit: Michelle Boyd

Q

How do you care for kitchen towels, potholders, and aprons that get a lot of use, and get extra dirty in the process?

A

Kitchen towels, potholders, and aprons are likely to get very dirty. All of these items can be washed together in the washing machine, preferably on a deep clean setting to really get the grease and grime out. You can use any sort of detergent and a couple of scoops of an extra cleaning agent like baking soda. Most kitchen towels can then be thrown in the dryer on a regular setting, but hang dry the aprons and potholders.

Q

Are there any fabrics that are more stain resistant than others?

A

The most stain-resistant fabrics have polyester as part of the blend. Polyester is a synthetic textile fiber and is the easiest to care for since it has stain-resistant properties built right in—all you have to do is wash and dry.

Q

How do you revive vintage pieces and get them ready for use?

A

Vintage pieces typically require a little extra care to maintain. When deciding whether to use a vintage linen for an event, keep in mind the meal you are serving. I suggest bringing these out for a light luncheon of quiche and salad, or an afternoon tea and staying away from heavy, stain-prone dishes. If stains do occur, apply some of the techniques listed above and take care to avoid using harsh chemicals, such as bleach. After soaking the stains out, machine wash on the delicate or handwash cycle in the washing machine, then let them air dry.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Hollis

Q

What’s the best way to store delicate tablecloths and napkins when not in use for a long time?

A

How you store your linens can make a pretty huge difference in their appearance down the line. To avoid creases and wrinkles, store tablecloths and larger linens lightly folded over a rounded hanger in a closet. Rounded hangers are wider, and therefore prevent creases where the linen is folded over. Napkins are best stored with minimal folding to prevent creasing, so opt for rectangular folds which allow napkins to be ready to go for a party when needed.

Q

Do you have any table linen no-nos?

A

Not really, but here’s what I do recommend: Choose table linens that complement your existing décor and reflect your personal style—have fun with patterns and prints! Consider mixing and matching—it’s a modern, playful way to add a special and memorable touch to any party. Pay attention to seasonal colors, textures, and patterns. For spring and summer, it’s nice to go for warmer hues like crisp blues, bold pinks, and bright yellows; deeper reds, rich browns, and rusty oranges are usually best for the fall and winter seasons.

Q

And while we’re on the topic of linens, what do you opt for in terms of guestroom bedding?

A

White sheets with minimal sheen and soft texture always provide a fresh and clean feel. Common fabrics like cotton are a smart choice to avoid any skin irritations—when in doubt, opt for Egyptian 100-count cotton sheets.

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