Oilcloth, Oil Cloth, and Oiled Cloth: A Short History

April 10, 2010

Wonder why it is called oilcloth when there is nothing oily about it? Modern-day oilcloth is simply a cotton fabric that has a thin coating of vinyl applied to the front, making it waterproof and durable.
Our way back when ancestors, however, had not yet invented vinyl, the poor dears, so they applied several layers of thick linseed oil to their heavier cotton fabrics to make them water resistant and more sturdy. It was not exactly a fast process, as it involved stretching and fastening the fabric to a wooden frame of some sort, then applying several coats of thick, stinky oil.
Housewives did this with gingham fabric and other colorful prints to make their kitchen tablecloths more durable (i.e., more child- and husband-proof). People made their tents out of oiled cloth to keep them drier outdoors, and men of the sea were well known for wearing yellow oilcloth hats and jackets (both called Sou’westers for some reason) to protect them from waves and rain (remember the Gordon’s Fisherman in his floppy yellow hat and long yellow rain slicker?) Them be the Sou’westers that were all the range with the nautical types so long ago.
These old types of oilcloth were not truly water proof, unfortunately. But in the late 1950s, fabric manufacturers came up with the idea of applying a thin coating of polyvinyl to cotton flannel, and the public went crazy nutso for the stuff. This popular trend continues today, and it is fantastic to see just how many amazing things people can make out of oilcloth.
Most of the oilcloth sold in the United States is imported from Mexico, but some designer patterns
If you are hardcore DIYer, you can make your own oilcloth in the old-school way (instructions here), using any medium- to heavy-weight cotton fabric, in order to impress your friends and neighbors! But linseed oil does not smell so lovely, so consider yourself warned. Also keep in mind that the quality grades of linseed oil, found in the oil painting section of art supply stores, can get quite pricey. But who am I to keep you from your fun, stinky project?

*Red Toile Oilcloth image to the right is from Modern June (oilcoth by the yard, aprons, and more).

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