How to Clean Outdoor Cushions and Fabric Furniture

Patio cushions

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Outdoor cushions, pillows, canopies, and umbrellas make patios and poolsides beautiful and comfortable. Unfortunately, they take lots of abuse from dirty feet and outdoor weather, and they need to be cleaned often to remove dirt and stains. 

While most outdoor fabrics are treated to prevent sun damage and to repel stains, the protective finish can deteriorate over the years. If you choose to boost the finish with a spray-on fabric protectant that acts as a water and stain repellent, you must be sure that the fabric is completely free of stains and dirt before treating or you will simply seal in the dirt.

When purchasing outdoor pillows and furniture, look for styles that have zippers or snaps that make the fabric removable for easier cleaning.

How Often to Clean

Don't allow stains to wait for summer to end before you treat them. The type of stain remover you need depends upon the specific stain. The key to success is giving the treatment time to work. No product is magic; allow it at least 30 minutes to penetrate to loosen the stains.

What You'll Need

Supplies

  • OxiClean (or similar oxygen-based bleach)
  • Chlorine bleach
  • Heavy-duty detergent
  • Enzyme-based stain remover
  • Warm water

How to Remove the Most Common Outdoor Fabric Stains

Whether you are cleaning fixed fabric or tossing outdoor fabrics into the washer, prompt removal, and pretreating or spot cleaning stains is a must.

Grass

To remove grass stains, first pretreat the stain with a heavy-duty liquid detergent that contains stain removing enzymes (Tide or Persil are leading brands). Work the detergent into the stained area with a soft brush. Rinse well and then soak the fabric in a solution of warm water and oxygen-based bleach (brand names include OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener or OXO Brite) for at least one hour before washing the entire piece if possible.

Tree Sap

This is a combination stain that requires special treatment. Start by treating the oily/waxy component of the stain with an enzyme-based stain remover that will break apart the oil. After fifteen minutes, add a bit of heavy-duty liquid detergent or a paste made of powdered detergent and water. Scrub the stain lightly with a soft-bristled brush and rinse in hot water. Next, wash the entire piece in the hottest water suitable for the fabric using detergent and oxygen bleach to remove any discoloration.

Mildew

Mildew is a living, growing organism that can attach to cellulosic (cotton or linen) fibers. Mildew eats the fibers, damaging and weakening the fabric and should be removed as soon as possible after it is discovered. It is even more active if there are food stains like watermelon or other fruit stains on the fabrics.

First, shake or brush the item outdoors to prevent spreading the mildew inside your home. Pretreat the stains with a heavy-duty liquid detergent, working it in with a soft-bristled brush. Allow the detergent to work for at least 15 minutes. Then launder the fabric in the hottest water suitable for the material. Place the fabric in the sun to dry.

You can add chlorine bleach to the rinse water for white cotton fabrics to remove stains and to help restore whiteness. Oxygen bleach should be used on colored fabrics to remove the stains. Follow product directions for both types of bleaches,

Sunscreen

Pretreat the stain with a heavy-duty liquid detergent or make a paste with powder detergent/water and let this remain on fabric at least 30 minutes. Then launder as usual. Fabric stained with self-tanner will need additional treatment.

Bird Droppings

When a bird soils fabric, it will be easier to address the problem if you allow the droppings to dry. After the dropping is dry, use a stiff-bristled brush to remove the dried residue. If you must remove the wet droppings right away, use an old dull knife or the edge of a credit card to lift away the solids. Never rub a wet stain because that only drives the stain deeper into the fabric.

After removing the solids, treat the stain with a bit of heavy-duty detergent and warm water and then rinse well. If the droppings left a dye stain from dark berries, treat the area with oxygen-based bleach.

How to Wash Outdoor Cushions

For items that can go in the washer, once the pretreating is complete use a heavy-duty detergent and cold or warm water (unless mildew is present). Do not place the fabric in a hot dryer because that may cause shrinkage. Allow the pieces to air dry. Use a cool to medium iron to smooth wrinkles if needed.

For items like large pillows or umbrella covers that cannot be placed in a washer, choose a sunny, warm day to do the cleaning. Spread the piece out on a patio or plastic tarp and get ready to apply some elbow grease.

Mix a solution of heavy-duty detergent and warm water. Using a soft scrub brush, work from the top to the bottom of a piece scrubbing a small section at a time. Rinse away soil after each section is cleaned. Do not allow the detergent solution to dry on the fabric. When the entire piece is cleaned, rinse well.

Spread the fabric or pillows in the sun to dry. If possible, hang from a clothesline to allow the water to drip and drain away. It may take a couple of days for thick items to dry so plan ahead for hot, sunny weather to avoid mildew problems.