When oilcloth was first created, it was usually made out of canvas or some other thick fabric that had a strong cotton base. Sometimes thick linen was used. Manufacturers would take this base and coat it with linseed oil, which when dry added the necessary durability and protection. Eventually, floral patterns and other designs were included to give consumers more color options.
Modern cotton oilcloth is made from a cotton fabric that has been overplayed with a vinyl coating instead of a linseed coating. Since the base itself is a cotton fabric, users have an option to resew it if the fabric becomes damaged. The cotton also makes the cloth more flexible than traditional types of oilcloth.
Vinyl oilcloth is made out of a sheet of vinyl bonded to a thin cotton mesh. This is not as flexible as oilcloth made with cotton fabric but tends to be more durable and tear-resistant. Vinyl is a plastic derivative that easily resists water and stains. This is probably the most common type of oilcloth available today, and has one of the widest ranges of patterns, colors and sizes. Sometimes these clothes are printed with traditional designs using the same prints as the original oilcloths to give them a vintage feel.
One of the newer types of oilcloth is made by coating cotton fabric with a PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, layer. PVC is known to be very durable and is expected to last at least as long as vinyl versions.
Oilcloth is used for many different eating and cooking applications where regular tablecloths would be stained or ruined. Making jams and jellies is a common example: the oilcloth is used to protect the table during the jamming process, which can often create a mess. Oilcloth is also used to cover chairs or shelves that need to be protected from stains. Sometimes it is used to create waterproof coverings or sacks.
Benefits and Considerations
Oilcloth is very water resistant and tends to deal with stains very well. The plastic types of oilcloth can usually be wiped clean without any lasting damages. Also, the thick protective layer of oilcloth keeps its edges from fraying easily. However, oilcloth colors do fade after extended exposure to sunlight, and traditional coatings may wear away over time.
Oilcloth should not be machine washed. Washing machines may strip coats off older versions and warp modern plastic versions. Instead, a sponge with warm water and soap should be used on the cloth before it is put away. Fold or roll up oilcloth for storage--even though this creates creases, the creases will fade once the cloth is used again. Oilcloth can only be ironed if there is a cloth between its surface and the iron for protection.