Q: Vinyl place mats from Chilewich and other companies are great for wiping off crumbs, but they absorb stains from tomato sauce, curry and more. I would hate to throw them out. I've tried cleaning them with Softsoap but have had marginal success. Any other ideas?

Arlington, Va.

A: Spilled tomato sauce, curry and other stain-prone foods should easily rinse off if you do so within an hour, said Greg Epperson, technical services manager for Chilewich, which designs its products in New York City and manufactures them in Chatsworth, Ga. In his home, place mats go to the sink as the table is cleared after a meal. “We pick them up, rinse them with water, pat them dry and put them back on the table.”

But, of course, prompt cleaning doesn’t always happen. Tomato sauce, ketchup and mustard are acidic, and that, plus their bold colors, is a big reason they create such stubborn stains, Epperson said. “The acidity penetrates into the PVC. It’s like when you microwave food in plastic and it turns a hazy yellow: The stain migrates into the plastic itself and won’t come off.”

Even worse than acidic spills are oily ones, he said. And worst of all are ones that are both oily and acidic — and a sharply different color than the place mat.

Chilewich makes its place mats and other products from polyester yarn that’s been coated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is typically a petroleum-based product, but Chilewich uses PVC made from soy. Regardless of the source, though, PVC is, at heart, an oil-derived product, which makes it particularly vulnerable to oil-based stains, Epperson said. In many materials, if a spill shares the same basic chemistry as the material it spills on, then a stain will probably occur, he said. “The oil and the soybean plasticizer, they interact,” he said.

But an explanation of why the stains are happening won’t make your place mats look any better. For that, Epperson suggests immersing the place mats in a “bleach bath” with a few drops of hand dishwashing detergent. He recommends a 1:20 ratio of chlorine bleach to water, so 1 cup bleach to 20 cups (five quarts) water. A stronger solution (even straight bleach) won’t damage the woven place mats, he said, but straight bleach is smelly, and the diluted solution will work just as well.

For place mats that aren’t simple woven designs, check the manufacturer’s website to ensure bleach won’t be a problem. Besides reading instructions for cleaning, also read instructions for sanitizing between uses where that’s an issue, such as in restaurants. Chilewich’s website, chilewich.com, suggests sanitizing with 1 part bleach to 50 parts water, but it says to use hydrogen peroxide instead for printed, metallic and pressed designs. If a 1:50 ratio of bleach to water isn’t safe, then the stronger solution Epperson recommends certainly would not be, either.

If you do try to bleach the stains, wear rubber gloves and old clothes that you don’t mind getting spotted with bleach drips; goggles are also a good safety measure. After the place mats have soaked for an hour or two, pull them out and let them dry, without first rinsing them. But be very careful to work over a surface where dripping bleach water won’t do damage. A tub or shower would work well, or you could do this outdoors over gravel or a lawn. A few drips might burn blades of grass, but the overall effect probably won’t be noticeable.

Once the mats are dry, rinse them to get rid of the bleach smell, Epperson said. This treatment probably won’t completely erase the stains, but it should make them significantly less noticeable. “Usually there’s about 80 percent recovery,” he said.

Another cleaning routine that often makes a dramatic difference in place mats woven from vinyl-coated yarn, Epperson said, is to work the spill area with a nylon brush or old toothbrush. This helps remove caked-on spills, rather than ones that have been absorbed into the yarn. “Go north, south, east and west” with the brushing motion, he said. “It will flick the debris out.”

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