How to Clean Outdoor Cushions and Fabric Furniture

Patio cushions
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Outdoor cushions, pillows, canopies, and umbrellas make our patios and poolsides beautiful and comfortable. Unfortunately, they take lots of abuse from dirty feet and outdoor weather and 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 finish protection 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'll just 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 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. Don't allow stains to wait for summer to end before you treat them. The type of stain remover you use 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 work to loosen the stains.

  • Grass: To remove grass stains, first pretreat the stain with a heavy duty liquid detergent with stain removing enzymes (Tide or Persil). 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 are: OxiClean, Nellie's All Natural Oxygen Brightener, or OXO Brite) for at least one hour before washing the piece.
  • Tree Sap: This is a combination stain that requires special treatment. Start by treating the oily/waxy component of the stain with a stain remover like Shout or Zout. Then rub with heavy-duty liquid detergent or a paste made of powdered detergent and water. Scrub the stain lightly and rinse in hot water. Next, wash in the hottest water suitable for the fabric using detergent and oxygen bleach to remove the dye in the stain.
  • Mildew: Mildew is a live, 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 when discovered. To remove mildew, first shake or brush the item outdoors to prevent spreading the mildew inside your home. Pretreat the stains with a heavy-duty liquid detergent. Allow to work for at least 15 minutes. Then launder the fabric in the hottest water suitable for the material. Use chlorine bleach on white cottons to help restore whiteness. Oxygen bleach can be used on colored fabrics to remove the stains.
  • Sunscreen: Pretreat the stain with a heavy duty liquid detergent or make a paste with powder detergent/water and let this set on fabric at least 30 minutes or overnight. Then launder as usual.

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 apply some elbow grease! Mix a solution of heavy duty detergent and 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.

How to Wash Decorative Outdoor Flags and Banners

If you like to have decorative flags in your garden or decorating your front porch, they will need to be washed carefully so that the colors don't fade and to remove mildew.