What is Oilcloth? Definition, Types, Uses

What is oilcloth? While dining outside, you might have observed a few dewdrops of your beverage have already wet a portion of your table cloth yet doesn’t seep through. This occurrence is not magic. Instead, it is due to a piece of water-resistant fabric called oilcloth.

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What is Oilcloth Definition

What Is Oilcloth?

Oilcloth is also known as American cloth or enameled cloth. It was traditionally a close-woven linen cloth that used boiled linseed oil as a coating, providing its waterproof quality. Modern oilcloth may be cotton with a PVC coating or even vinyl.

Regardless of what oilcloth is made from, it is considered durable fabric and water-resistant and so is highly desirable for tablecloths, sails, and outdoor uses.

While many of us don’t know what is oilcloth or how to distinguish it, its applications are too many to count. For example, the checked table cloth at that fast-food chain you frequent might be an oilcloth. Additionally, unknown to many, it was initially used as an alternative to conventional wood flooring.

What Are the Properties of Oilcloth?

Now that you have an idea of ​​what is oilcloth, we will be discussing its properties next. As mentioned, the oilcloth is waterproof due to its unique coating making it also resistant to liquid stains. Its high density also makes it strong and durable.

However, the downside is that oilcloth can be easily wrinkled. So, to prevent that, you need to roll it up before you store it.

Oilcloth fabric can be made from different designs, patterns, and colors.

What Is Oilcloth’s Origin?

After understanding what is oilcloth, it doesn’t seem believable that its origin is not well-documented. For example, before they were used for tablecloths and placemats, they were already being used by sailors for their sails and by masons as substitutes to wooden flooring.

During the 1950s, when synthetic materials became commercially available, vinyl products replaced oilcloth. A few years later, a fabric made from PVC-coated cotton base was named the ‘real’ oilcloth.

What Are the Different Types of Oilcloth?

Today there are two different types of oilcloth: vinyl and cotton PVC. The old-school oilcloth with a linseed oil coating has now been replaced by these types in order to make way for mass production. Synthetic materials are used to mimic the traditional oilcloth’s qualities.

Here are the 2 main types:

  • Vinyl Oilcloth – In the 1950s, the traditional oilcloth was replaced by its vinyl counterparts. Since then, it has become the most popular type of oilcloth. Its manufacturing process is generally easy, which is why there is an abundance of it on the market. Vinyl oilcloth is a PVC fabric with the design printed on the surface.
  • Cotton PVC Oilcloth – Although its base is cotton fabric, the coating is a glossy clear PVC coating. While it is costlier than vinyl, its thickness ensures it is durable and long-lasting.

What Is Oilcloth vs PVC

Nowadays, the PVC-based oilcloth is considered the “real” oilcloth. There are also tablecloths in the current market that resemble oilcloth, but they are purely made from PVC. They seem to be incredibly similar at a glance, but there is a significant difference as you look closer.

Let’s identify the differences between the original and the PVC style of oilcloth fabric.

Difference Between the Base Fabric

The original oilcloth was made from 100 percent cotton. PVC oilcloths, on the other hand, are made from pure PVC. The designs available for both tablecloths are printed on the surface of their respective fabrics.

Difference Between the Coating

PVC tablecloths and cotton PVC oilcloths are two different materials. The former is made from pure PVC material with printed designs. Because of this, no coating is needed. Meanwhile, cotton PVC oilcloth and the original oilcloth both have base fabrics, but their differences lie in the coating used.

Difference Between the Price

Because it’s a synthetic material, PVC is significantly more affordable than the original good quality oilcloth. In fact, the price difference can be quite significant.

What Is Oilcloth Made Of?

Since the original oilcloth now has a reduced market value due to vinyl and other synthetic products’ dominance, not everyone knows that the original is more environment-friendly. This is because the linseed is a natural byproduct from processed flax and not a product based on petroleum.

How is Traditional Oilcloth is Made

There are generally two steps in creating it, and here are they:

Step 1: Preparing the Base Fabric

Natural fiber fabrics like linen, cotton duck, or cotton canvas are used as base fabric. Any design is implemented at this stage, right before it is coated with linseed oil. These designs are often painted, dyed, or printed.

Step 2: Apply the coating

What is oilcloth good for if it wasn’t for its waterproof quality, right? To achieve that, manufacturers prepare boiled linseed oil. During the boiling process, metal salts, specifically manganese and lead salts, are added along with sienna and umber pigments for a more humidity-resistant cure.

After the coating is prepared, the base fabric will be stretched across a tenter frame. Then, the coating mixture will be poured and left to cure by relying on the air’s oxidation.

After the process, it will be dusted or waxed with pumice to prevent the fabric from sticking to itself while folded. Any seams on the base fabric will also be included in the coating. Because of this, oilcloth isn’t seen as an alternative for everyday clothing.

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How to Make DIY Oilcloth?

After understanding what is oilcloth and how it is produced, you might be wondering how to make your own. If so, do the following steps:

  1. Place a piece of plywood on a flat, smooth surface.
  2. Put your cloth or base fabric at the plywood’s center and make sure it stays flat with no creases forming.
  3. As you begin stapling the cloth on the plywood, ensure that the entire surface is even.
  4. If you want to add designs, you may do so. However, allow the design to dry long enough before doing the next steps.
  5. After the design is dry, prepare the boiled linseed oil. (All caution should be used when using the stove. Any oil can severely burn your skin.)
  6. After that, while the linseed is sizzling hot, dip your paintbrush and apply the coating all over the fabric. Make sure you’re using an amount enough to cover the material entirely.
  7. Once you’re done, leave it for a couple of days. This is to allow it to dry.
  8. Repeat the application of coating three more times over the next few days.
  9. Once the last application of the coating is dry, you can remove the fabric from the plywood.
  10. Trim the edges and smoothen them by hemming or applying fabric glue.

What Is Oilcloth Used For?

Due to the oilcloth’s waterproof capability, it has been used in several ways. Most of them are for outdoor applications. Long before its transition towards synthetic materials, oilcloth was known for its use as sails on small boats and flooring mats inside houses.

Nowadays, the most notable usage of oilcloth is tablecloths. Other applications include place mats, lunch bags, pillows, equipment covers, bags, totes, tents, and drawer linings. What oilcloth offers now is its flexibility in its application and how long-lasting it is even under constant use.

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What is Oilcloth Used For

What Is Oilcloth – Advantages and Disadvantages

There are a lot of advantages to using oilcloth. However, there is no such thing as a perfect piece of fabric, which also applies to oilcloth.

Advantages of Oilcloth:

  • Antibacterial
  • Resilient
  • Easy maintenance
  • Highly resistant to water and staining
  • Designs of the base fabric will be preserved
  • Edges can’t unravel or fray

Disadvantages of Oilcloth:

  • Vinyl is toxic, and overexposure to it can result in health issues
  • Can fade under direct sunlight
  • Cannot be recycled despite its long lifespan

How to Handle Oilcloth?

Synthetic materials can disintegrate over time, creating a sticky residue. The modern oilcloth is not immune to this phenomenon. Here are the things you have to prepare and the steps you have to take to clean this unwanted residue.

Things to Prepare:

  • Warm water
  • Mild detergent or soap
  • Ammonia
  • Sponges or soft cloths
  • Bucket

Steps for Cleaning Oilcloth:

  1. Fill the bucket with warm water.
  2. Add a tiny amount of detergent or soap and some ammonia.
  3. Stir the water mixture until suds are forming.
  4. Dampen a sponge or soft cloth with the soapy mixture.
  5. Wipe the surface of the oilcloth gently.
  6. Rinse it with clean water and wipe again with a new sponge or soft cloth.
  7. If the residue is gone, wipe the oilcloth’s surface dry using a new soft towel.
  8. If not, go back to wiping with a sponge or soft cloth soaked in the soapy mixture.

Additional Tips:

  • If you don’t have ammonia, you can use rubbing alcohol or white vinegar as a substitute.
  • Do not machine-wash the oilcloth.
  • For regular cleaning, apply the steps above without using ammonia or its substitutes.

How to Sew PVC Oilcloth

When sewing PVC oilcloth or vinyl oilcloth the presser foot will stick to the surface causing skipped stitches. This can be helped by using a Teflon presser foot or a walking presser foot. Placing some tape at the bottom of your presser foot can also help.

Do not use pins as they will leave holes. Instead uses clips or temporary double-sided tape to hold the pieces together.

What Is Oilcloth – In Conclusion

After knowing what is oilcloth and its properties, you probably realized how beneficial it is. It can be great for covers and aesthetics for furniture, equipment, fixtures, and other objects. This is especially true for those placed outdoors, under sunlight or rain exposure. Oilcloth is easy to clean, too. Additionally, with a bit of TLC, it can last a long time.


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