I’ve never really thought about the history of the plastic tablecloth until my mother-in-law referred to it as an oilcloth. At first I thought the name came from the fact that plastic is a by-product of petroleum but it is really the description of the original manufacturing process. Oilcloth was made from thick cotton and linen that was stretched, pumiced, and coated with linseed oil to both strengthen and waterproof. Roof coverings, tents, backpacks, and tablecloths were made from it. The cloth product being sold today is still referred to as an oilcloth but technically it is vinyl. I have always loved the vinyl version, not for its utilitarian peculiarity, definitely not for its toxic characteristics (re: PVC-coating), but for its vintage 1950’s floral and gingham prints. Many of these prints are still in production today.
My parents were big into camping so pretty much every childhood holiday consisted of a pilgrimage into the Northern territory of Ontario. We sleep in a tent made of oilcloth. It was huge, heavy, and dark on the inside – sunny day or not. What stands out the most is the pungent odor it emitted, like rancid oil, the residuals of which lingered inside my nostrils forever thereafter. The vinyl-ized version of oilcloth was also present on these camping trips, specifically the red gingham printed tablecloth that was draped over our dining table.
I thought I’d try my hand at making oilcloth. I took that lazy way out and choose not to stretch or pumice the canvas. I used a vintage stamp (the happy-sad man who can turn a frown upside down) from my wooden printing block collection and tinted the linseed oil with oil paint. It might take about ten years to dry but was otherwise a fun little experiment using a retired process.