Linen, made of flax and used thousands of years before cotton, is a relatively durable fabric that generally releases stains well. For those reasons it's a standard fabric used for tablecloths, napkins, placemats, table runners and other table linens. Synthetic linen blends don't need as much ironing, but they more stubbornly hang on to stains. It's fairly easy to keep your white linen tablecloth looking clean and fresh whether it is old or new.
Pretreat stains as soon as you can--immediately if possible. The longer stains remain on the your white linen tablecloth, the more difficult they are to remove. Remember to examine the entire tablecloth, including the section that hangs from the table. (This area often picks up stains from napkins.)
Gently scrape any food off the stain before you pretreat it.
Pre-treat stains using a commercial enzyme remover such as Shout or Spray 'N Wash. The enzymes in these products are safe on linen and are designed to break down the enzymes in most food stains. For oil-based stains, such as those made by grease or lipstick, use a solvent-based stain remover, such as Goof Off.
To remove candle wax, scrape off as much of the wax as you can. Place paper towels on both sides of the fabric; go over the wax with a warm iron until the paper towels absorb the melting wax. Continue using fresh paper towels until all the wax has been removed. Treat any remaining stain with an enzyme stain remover.
Never use chlorine bleach, which causes linen to yellow. Never soak your white linen tablecloth in harsh chemicals, such as ammonia, or expose it to acidic cleaners, such as vinegar; these weaken the fibres and can ruin the fabric.
After pretreating stains, fill the washing machine partway with hot water; then turn it off. Add an enzyme detergent, such as Era or Biz, and let the detergent dissolve. Submerge the white linen tablecloth in the hot water.
Let the tablecloth soak in the soapy water for at least eight hours, preferably overnight.
When you're ready to wash the tablecloth, finish filling the washing machine with hot water. Make sure there is plenty of water, because linen absorbs water during the washing process.
Wash on a short cycle to protect the white linen from unnecessary abrasion. The overnight soaking will have actually begun cleaning the linen, so a regular cycle isn't needed. Do not use liquid fabric softeners in the wash.
Run an extra rinse cycle; the extra cycle removes all soap and stain remover residue and helps prevent yellowing and "age spots."
Check the tablecloth to make sure all the stains came out. If any stains remain, repeat all the steps and rewash the tablecloth. Some stains are stubborn, and you may need to keep at it two or three times to get the tablecloth completely clean.
Line dry the white linen tablecloth; if you can, dry it in the sun. A good alternative is to lay the tablecloth out flat on a terrycloth towel, and shape it before it dries. Do not dry linen in the dryer; the heat of a dryer saps moisture from the linen, making it brittle and reducing its durability.
If you need to iron the tablecloth, iron it on a low setting while it is still slightly moist. Spray starches can be used on white linen without yellowing or staining the fabric.
Store the tablecloth in a dry, well-ventilated, cool area. Because creases break down the fibres, store the tablecloth by hanging it or rolling it around acid-free tissue paper. If you store the tablecloth for a long time between uses, occasionally reposition it by rolling it in the opposite direction or re-draping it on the hanger.
To clean white linen napkins, use the same method described for white linen tablecloths. When storing napkins, fold them carefully around acid-free tissue paper, taking care not to crease them. Because vintage linens are usually more fragile, do not use them on the table while food and drink are being served. If you do, however, the method outlined above works on vintage linens as well. If your linen is a fragile antique, hand wash it in a gentle archival-grade soap, such as liquid Ivory soap or Castile soap flakes. Line dry the tablecloth and store it in a cool, dry area with plenty of ventilation to prevent mildew.
Ink can be extremely difficult to remove since different kinds of ink require different kinds of cleaning agents. If your tablecloth is stained with ink, consult a professional dry cleaner for the appropriate kind of stain removal agent.