How to Wash Upholstery Fabric

A toddler and a dog sitting on a couch
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From the careless drop of a coffee mug to the dirty paws of a dog prancing on the furniture, dirt, and spills on upholstered furniture are part of everyday life. Therefore, to keep that furniture in tip-top shape, washing upholstery needs to become a regular part of life, too.

Some fabrics are machine washable, so you can remove the cushion covers and wash them in your household washing machine. Other fabrics can be spot-cleaned using solutions recommended by the maker of the furniture. Before you wash the upholstery, check the label: A "W" means you can use a water-based cleaner, an "S" means you can a solvent-based cleaner, and a WS means you can use either. If there's an "X," the upholstery should only be professionally cleaned.

How Often to Clean Upholstery

Cleaning upholstery, including washing the fabric, is a job that can vary in frequency. In an ideal world, you would vacuum upholstered furniture once a week and do a complete cleaning once a month.

If you prefer to have upholstery cleaned professionally, consider hiring a certified cleaning technician every one to two years. Organizations such as the International Cleaning and Restoration Association and the International Institute of Cleaning and Restoration certify technicians. Otherwise, you can clean the upholstery yourself.

What You Need

Supplies

How to Clean Upholstery With Soap and Water

  1. Remove pet hair

    Don a pair of rubber gloves and run them over the upholstery to loosen the pet hair so it can be vacuumed more easily.

  2. Vacuum the upholstery

    Use the upholstery attachment on your vacuum, moving it from left to right in short, overlapping lines. Change over to the crevice nozzle, and vacuum in between the seams and under the cushions.

  3. Treat stains

    Attack stains with the appropriate water- or solvent-based cleaner. Let the cleaner sink in, and then blot it with a microfiber cloth. Don't scrub the stain, as the action could push the stain farther into the upholstery or damage the fabric.

  4. Wash the upholstery: Combine a half-teaspoon of clear dish soap and warm water in a small bucket, frothing the mixture up to create suds. Dip an upholstery brush into the suds and gently run it across the upholstery. Don't soak the fabric. Finish up the job by wiping the fabric with a clean, damp cloth. Before sitting on the upholstered furniture, let it dry completely.

Washing Upholstery in a Machine

Removable upholstery covers must pass two tests to ensure that it can be washed in a machine: First, the fabric must be pre-shrunk; second, it must be a colorfast fabric.

If your upholstery is not pre-shrunk, washing in the washing machine will shrink the fabric and make it difficult to impossible to get the cushion covers back on to the cushions. That renders your existing furniture all but useless unless you purchase new covers. The manufacturer's tag should indicate if the fabric is preshrunk or not.

To find out if your upholstery is colorfast, take a damp white cloth and rub it on the upholstered surface. If color comes off onto the cloth, the upholstery is likely not colorfast and a professional will need to handle the cleaning of your furniture.

When washing, avoid warm or hot water since cold water is easier on fabrics. Use the delicate cycle for the first wash to give it the least amount of agitation. See how the fabric holds up in the wash cycle so you can tell how sturdy it is for future washes.

Drying the upholstery fabric is just as important and requires careful instruction. Don't put a slipcover into the dryer because it could shrink or fade, even if it washes just fine. Put it on the tumble dry or fluff setting to dry—air only—but not shrink it. Take it out before it's completely dry, so don't put it on a long cycle. Let the cushions air-dry.

Removing Stains From Upholstery

Certain stains are trickier than others to get out of upholstered furniture, but start by treating the stains with water- or solvent-based cleaner, depending on the furniture's cleaning codes. Blot the stain with a microfiber cloth.

Tips for Keeping Upholstery Clean Longer

Everyday life is rife with opportunities for getting upholstered furniture dirty, whether it's an accidental spill or red wine or just the oils from the body seeping into the couch as you relax. However, you can take precautions to keep the upholstery from becoming stained.

  • Treat upholstery with stain guard, a spray that protects the fabric from stains.
  • Don't let stains set in. Act quickly by mopping up spills as soon as they happen by blotting it with a microfiber cloth. If you need a little extra cleaning power, dab the spill with club soda. In a pinch, baby wipes can help mop up small spills like coffee drips.
  • If there's a smell emanating from the fabric, sprinkle baking soda onto the furniture and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Then, vacuum up the powder.