Top Tips for Stain-Free Cloth Napkins

Cloth Napkin. Photo by Becky Striepe

Americans use over 7,000 paper napkins per household each year. Between the water and energy for manufacturing and the often brand new trees cut down to produce all of that paper, it adds up to a huge impact.

If you’re looking to make the switch to cloth napkins, keeping them clean and stain-free is definitely a priority. Who wants to serve guests with a stain-covered napkin? With a little bit of love, it’s pretty simple to keep them looking fresh.

Rinsing and Soaking

Before washing, and especially if you aren’t going to wash them right away, you’ll want to rinse and soak any used napkins that have any visible food residue on them. Start by rinsing the napkin with cold water, letting the water run through the back of the stain. This can make a huge difference and help “push” the offending food- or drink-residue out of the fabric.

One you’ve done your best, toss the napkins into a bowl of cold water and let them soak over night. For light colored napkins, you can add a squeeze of lemon juice before soaking. Make sure you test this out on the corner of one, though, because some fabrics don’t hold up so well to that much acidity.

If you’re not going to wash for a while, change the soaking water every day or so, and don’t apply the lemon juice beyond the first day – it can cause the fabric to fade.


It might seem a little counter-intuitive, but it’s best to wash cloth napkins in cold water. Washing them in hot just helps set the stain.

Use a mild detergent, and check your napkins before drying. If you can still see the stain, don’t toss it into the dryer! That will set the stain, as well. Instead, check out the tips below for more stubborn stains.

Treating Tough Stains

If rinsing, soaking, and washing in cold didn’t do the trick, there are a few more ways to get those stains out of your napkins. First, try rubbing some mild detergent directly on the stain and rinsing it by hand with cold water. Let it air dry and check to see if there’s still stain residue.

Rubbing some salt or lemon juice onto the stain can also help loosen things up. Again, rinse with cold water and hang the napkin dry.

Of course, some stains just refuse to budge no matter what you do. In those cases, you can always use those old napkins as rags. If the stain is very close to the edge and you’re sewing-inclined, you try trimming down the side, pressing a fresh seam, and stitching it back up or adding some embroidery or an applique to cover up the stain. You could also grab a stamp or stencil and some fabric paint and cover the stained area that way.

Prevention is another fantastic stain fighter. Light-colored napkins tend to show stains more readily. If you can, opt for darker colors with a pattern. They’re so much more forgiving!


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