Friday, January 18, 2013

Oilcloth placemats

I've been sewing this week. I dearly love to sew. Crochet is wonderful but sewing is my first love. I've been doing it most of my life. As a child, I loved to make little items for my Barbies to wear. I made my first quilt, twin-size, when I was 14. I have had a paying job sewing theatre costumes. Sewing and I go way, way back.

Last week I showed you some oilcloth I had ordered from Etsy. I had an idea in mind for new placemats for our kitchen table. The ones we were using were very old and tired but I couldn't find ones like them as replacements. They were the vinyl type with a little bit of batting to make them slightly puffy, not very attractive but useful and easy to care for.

Because I couldn't find more, I decided I would make some myself. I opted for oilcloth after falling in love with oilcloth placemats in Jackelope, a local import store which sells the coolest, funkiest home decor items. They had some beautiful oilcloth table linens - placemats, tablecloths, runners and such - which had been imported from Mexico and were just gorgeous, in brightly-colored prints. The only problem was that each placemat cost $12. I wanted at least four of them, but I'm just not okay with paying around $50 for placemats. I like pretty things, but not at any cost.

I ended up ordering a yard each of two different prints, one a bright blue ground with red strawberries and blue flowers, and the other a white ground with red dots. This way I could make them reversible, just for variety.

I bought my oilcloth for a total cost of $21, including shipping. That felt like a better deal for something meant to catch food spills and which would need to be cleaned daily.

Today's oilcloth is cotton fabric with a laminated side; vinyl is used for the lamination. Real oilcloth is made with a heavier fabric, such as canvas, which is coated with oil or wax to make it waterproof. It was once very popular but is difficult to find today. I have read that some people buy it for military reenactment items, such as replica tents. But most of what is sold now as oilcloth is actually made with vinyl.

I did some research and learned that oilcloth, like leather, can be "sticky" when sewn on a sewing machine. Most of my reading suggested using a walking foot or a roller foot; some other sources recommended a Teflon foot. I do have a walking foot, but I'm not very experienced with it. I thought it would be nice to have some alternate feet for my machine anyway, so both a roller foot and a Teflon foot were soon winging their way to my home, by way of They were inexpensive, around $10 apiece.

This is a roller foot if you haven't seen one before. There is a tiny, textured steel roller in the foot, which rotates on a pin and helps the foot glide above the fabric you're sewing.

Evidently a roller foot is useful not just for leather and vinyl but also for "slippery" fabrics like velvet. So this seems like a good investment; you never know what you might end up sewing someday. I guess you could say that my sewing machine foot collection recently grew by two feet! Ha.

On a snowy afternoon this week, I got to work on my placemats. I started by measuring off the placemats' dimensions on the wrong side of my oilcloth. I wanted to make a set of four, so I cut four pieces of each of the two patterns. It's very easy to mark with a pencil and my sewing scissors went right through the oilcloth. My dimensions were 19 inches by 15 inches; this is the approximate size of my old placemats and I think it's a good size.

My oilcloth was shipped to me in a postal tube so it was a bit wrinkled; you can see how the edges of the blue pattern are rolled in the above photo. In my reading, I learned that oilcloth can be ironed! But it's a little tricky to get it right because you don't want to melt the vinyl coating on the laminated side. You must use the iron on the wrong side only. Some suggestions include keeping the iron on its lowest heat setting as well as ironing the oilcloth through a tea towel. I tried it with and without the tea towel and found that as long as I worked quickly, the warmth of the iron didn't affect the vinyl coating.

While the pieces were still warm, I quickly transferred them to a flat surface where they could cool off without any risk of wrinkling. I cleared a space on my kitchen counter (I do all my sewing and sewing-prep work in my kitchen since I have no separate sewing room - how I wish I did!), and stacked the pieces as I finished ironing each one. They looked a lot better after the ironing. While they were still warm, they felt a lot softer and more flexible and I started to worry a little bit that I had ruined them but once they cooled they went back to being just as they were before.

Next I started preparing them for sewing. I placed two pieces, a white and a blue, wrong sides together for each placemat. You cannot use pins on oilcloth because it isn't "self-healing" like regular fabrics; pinholes would be permanent and because you're sewing this on the right side you need to be careful about damaging it. You can use paperclips, though! This worked great for me. I fetched our tin of paperclips from the Bear's desk and went to work.

Before I started sewing I wanted to make sure I didn't need to change the needle in my sewing machine. I had read in a few places that it may be necessary to switch to a larger needle, such as one made for sewing denim or canvas. I decided to take my chances with a regular needle for cotton fabrics and it worked fine when I did some practice stitching on scraps. And yes, the roller foot glided beautifully across the coated fabric.

I was ready to start sewing my paper-clipped pieces. I sewed about a half-inch in from the edge and pivoted around the needle in the corners to make them neat. I took the paperclips off as I sewed, removing each one right before the needle came to it. I think they would have broken my needle if I'd sewn over them and unlike pins, they would probably be hard to remove from the seam because of their shape.

When the placemats were sewn together, I opted to pink the edges, just outside the seam. I did this because the edges were just slightly uneven and I wanted a neater look. Oilcloth will not fray like regular fabrics but it's also difficult to hem the edges. Pinking makes them tidier and I think it also gives them a slightly scrappy, vintage look.

I put them on the table and admired my handiwork. I was really pleased with them! They go beautifully in my strawberry-themed kitchen, which also includes some kitschy/vintage-y items.


The white/red dotted side is equally cute and cheerful.

I love them! It was a quick little project, taking only about an hour and a half from start to finish. My pinking could use some improvement (my shears are heavy and don't open and close very easily - maybe an oiling is in order), but I'm very happy with the way my placemats turned out. The Bear came home from work that evening and was surprised by them; he hadn't known I would be making them that day. But he likes them too and my small Bears are just thrilled, especially the little girly one, who loves to watch sewing in progress and enjoys the bright colors of her new placemat.

I feel proud of the frugality which drove this project...I could have spent around $50 on the ones I loved in the store but I spent less than half of that by making them myself. All in all, a very rewarding project! I may need to make two sets...


  1. Great job! They look lovely. Thank you for the advice re sewing/ironing oilcloth. I have some that is destined to become a tablecloth. It has been on its roll so long I know it will need an iron, now I won't melt it.
    Carol xx

  2. Hi Carol! Thank you so much. I really enjoyed working with oilcloth, more so than I thought I would. The ironing wasn't hard at all, just keep your heat very low and you should be fine. Have fun!

  3. I love oilcloth and these turned out so nicely! I love the pinked edges.


  4. Hi Jenny! Thank you. They were fun to make. I'm starting to get ideas for other things I can make with oilcloth, it's really versatile!

  5. I love these, what a good idea. I need some new place mats - we keep using the ones I bought for the kids in Ikea! I have some oilcloth in a lovely red retro apple print that has some marks and stains on it. I was going to turn it into outdoor bunting but place mats would be a fun way to use it up. I like the way you pinked the edges too.

    Gillian x

  6. Hi Gillian! Thank you so much. You should do it, they would be really pretty. Our old placemats were useful but so old and worn out. It didn't help that my daughter had once figured out that she could jab her fork into them and make holes in the vinyl. They were such a mess. I'm enjoying having something new and fresh!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your project at Get Crafty Friday! I will definitely have to give these a try. I hope you stop by the party again next week. Have a great weekend!



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