What is an Oilcloth?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Oilcloth is a specially treated fabric which is waterproof. Originally, it was made from oil-impregnated canvas, which gave it its name; in the modern sense, the term usually refers to cotton-backed vinyl material. There are a variety of uses for oilcloth, including as a covering for tables, chairs, and shelves; as cushion covers for outdoor furniture; and in the form of waterproof sacks, bags, and raincoats. It often comes in distinctive bright colors that are relatively fade resistant, although more subdued colors and patterns are available.

Modern oilcloth is typically cotton-backed vinyl.
Modern oilcloth is typically cotton-backed vinyl.

The likely origin of oilcloth can be found in sail making, as the original fabric was made from canvas and often used by fishermen and sailors. The canvas material could be coated in oils, waxes, clays, or other materials to make it waterproof, and then used to wrap valuable materials for sea journeys or to make weather-resistant outerwear. Oilcloth would have been sturdy, durable, and relatively inexpensive. It probably also came in a limited range of colors, because it was designed for function, rather than beauty.

As the market for oilcloth increased, some enterprising artisans realized that it could be used as a durable floor covering as well. While the homes of the wealthy did not feature oilcloth flooring, more impoverished families used it to provide spots of bright color, and to keep floors cleaner, especially in homes with packed dirt floors or poorly constructed wood flooring. This type of flooring later evolved into linoleum and similar products, but examples of oilcloth “rugs” and other floor materials can still be seen in some museums.

When vinyl and similar plastics began to be widespread, they replaced canvas as the base material for oilcloth. Plastics do not need to be treated in order to be waterproof, and can also be made brighter and stronger than canvas. Most vinyl oilcloth still has a fabric backing of some form or another, but it is much easier to care for than the traditional type. To clean vinyl oilcloth, a warm soapy sponge can be used, and the fabric can be hung out to dry if it needs to be. As long as it is stored rolled up, rather than folded, the material will remain wrinkle free and ready to use. Should oilcloth become wrinkled, an iron on a very low setting can be used to smooth the fabric, as long as a layer of cotton is used between the iron and the oilcloth, so that the material does not melt.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Unfortunately, my hillbilly parents, in late 1970s Pennslyvania, had oilcloth for my cold bedroom floor.


There is some inaccurate information here. Plenty of wealthy families used oilcloth floor coverings in the 16, 17 and even 1800's. They did not use them in the more public parts of their homes, but they did use them. A family that made use of oil cloth was not necessarily impoverished.

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