Oops! How to Handle Stained Table Linens and Other Holiday Mishaps—Now and Later

The holiday season is a time for fabulous feasts with family and friends. Unfortunately, it’s also a time for extra laundry, spills and stains. To the rescue, our expert "now and later" tips show you how to clean the most common stains, whether they're on tablecloths, napkins or other festive linens.

Wax

You’ve just served and enjoyed a wonderful holiday feast for your family and friends, but when you clear the table, you find that the candles that so beautifully lit your repast have leaked all over your decorative table runner and left behind ugly red stains.

What to do now: Wax dries fairly quickly. Wait until it does, then gently scrape off as much as you can with a dull knife and shake off the scrapings. Be careful not to let any of those scrapings get on your carpet or other fabric in the process!

What to do later: After your guests have left, lay the stained area of your linen flat on top of a white paper towel on an iron-friendly surface. Place a second paper towel over it. Press this linen “sandwich” with a warm (not hot!) iron. The paper towels will absorb the residual wax. You may have to change paper towels a few times to soak it all up, depending on the severity of the stain. Follow up your ironing session with a 20-minute pretreatment using liquid detergent and a warm-water wash using bleach, or wash by hand, depending on the fabric.

Wine

You’re at the office holiday party sipping red wine when your arm is jostled and a bit of it sloshes onto your outfit. You don’t have any other clothes to change into, so you’ll have to do a little surgery now, and then a little more when you get home!

What to do now: Head to the bathroom and wet a paper towel or cloth with warm water. Blot the stain to remove excess wine that hasn’t soaked into the fabric. If you have an instant stain remover stick with you, use that instead of water. Another trick is to rub a little salt onto the stain after blotting with a little cold water. Wait a few minutes and then rub the stained area between your fingers. The salt will soak up the pigment.

What to do later: Rub a little liquid detergent into the stained area and let it sit for a few minutes. Then wash according to the instructions on your clothing care label.

Cranberry

This winter berry is a hallmark of many traditional holiday dishes. But it also tends to leave behind rather vivid red stains on your tablecloths. Dealing with the stains, however, is well worth the enjoyment you’ll get from the sweet flavor.

What to do now: Blot the stain with a little bit of cool water, and follow up with a 15-minute soak in a mixture of 1 tablespoon white vinegar and ½ teaspoon liquid laundry detergent.

What to do later: Wash the fabric according to care label instructions. Use a bleach alternative product if fabric care allows.

Gravy

When the holidays are here, you’ll be ladling this thick, delicious dressing on just about everything—and sometimes that includes your placemat! Gravy, while delicious, is usually greasy, which makes any stains it leaves behind more difficult to treat with just water or club soda.

What to do now: Mop up or scrape off any excess gravy with a paper towel. Then apply an instant stain remover. If you don’t have that handy, pour a little bit of liquid detergent over the stain and let sit for 20 minutes.

What to do later: Wash the stained fabric in the hottest water that it can tolerate, according to care instructions.

Lipstick

The holidays aren’t the only times you’ll find little smooch-marks on your napkins after a dinner party, but ’tis definitely the season for darker, bolder lip colors. Lipstick stains are unfortunately an unavoidable side effect of entertaining with fabric napkins, but fortunately there’s an easy way to get them out.

What to do now: After you’ve cleared the table, toss the napkin or napkins in a plastic bin or bucket. Fill it with a liquid laundry detergent – about 1 1/2 tablespoons (about half a capful) per gallon of cold water. Make sure the napkins are completely submerged, and let them soak for about a half hour.

What to do later:  Wash the stained napkins in warm water and detergent. If there