Why do they call it oil cloth? What is currently being sold in stores as oilcloth is actually made from cotton fabric covered with a petroleum-based coating. However, genuine oilcloth (the real thing grandma had on her kitchen table) is made from cotton, canvas, or linen fabric coated in linseed oil. The fabric can be dyed or printed before the linseed treatment, and the oil gives it a water-resistant surface. Genuine oilcloth (also known as oilskin) is biodegradable in a landfill. The “real” oilcloth sold in stores today is made from PVC or polyvinyl chloride, and as such does not break down in a landfill.
Here’s how to make oilcloth, the old-fashioned way:
Materials for DIY Oilcloth
- Heavy cotton, linen, duck, or canvas fabric
- Boiled linseed oil
- Mineral spirits
- Sealable glass or metal container
- Rubber or latex gloves
- Clothesline or wooden stretcher
- Oil paint or oil dyes (optional)
If you know what you’ll be making from your oilcloth, cut your fabric down to the appropriate size first. I made an outdoor bunting banner with my oilcloth, so I began with the banner shapes. In doing so, I didn’t end up having to oil-coat a bunch of extra fabric I wasn’t going to use.
If you want to add designs to your fabric before waterproofing it, do so now. Create designs by tie-dyeing, stamping, or painting with oil dyes or paints. After the designs are done, let the fabric dry completely (overnight).
For the rest of this tutorial, it would be best to work outside as the vapors and smell of linseed oil and mineral spirits are strong. Put on a respirator and some gloves. In a sealable container, mix together 1 part mineral spirits and 1 part boiled linseed oil. The mineral spirits will aid the linseed oil in drying faster.
If you are oil-treating a large piece of fabric, stretch the fabric onto a frame for stability and smoothness, or hang from a clothesline. If you are treating a smaller surface (like I did), lay down a drop cloth before oil-treating the fabric.
With long brush strokes, cover the entire piece of fabric with the linseed oil/mineral spirits mixture.
If your fabric is on a stretcher, leave outside to dry*. If you are oil-treating smaller pieces, hang from a clothesline outside to dry. Allow the oilcloth to completely dry (anywhere from a day to a week).
If you want to increase the water-resistant effect of oil treating, apply a second coat of the linseed oil/mineral spirits mixture, and let dry as before.
If you want to make an entirely water-resistant piece of material, dip the item completely in the linseed oil/mineral spirits mixture, let dry, and repeat.
Linseed oil does tend to carry a smell with it for a while after it’s been applied. I would recommend leaving your new oilcloth outside for a few days to air it out before bringing it into your home.
Here’s an oilcloth upholstery tip: When using real or PVC oilcloth as your upholstery fabric, use thicker staples. Staple diagonally to the grain of the fabric and use a heavier grade of fabric. Laminated fabric tends to tear like paper if you staple with the grain and using finer staples.
If you dig waterproof textiles, you’ll love this tutorial on how to turn plastic bags into flexible fabric!