Tips for Washing Upholstery Fabric

A toddler and a dog sitting on a couch
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Washing upholstery fabric can be tricky. You want to keep couches, ottomans, and chairs clean, but you don't want to ruin the fabric--or render it impossible to get back on the cushions. Many of us have pets, which can lead to fabric messes. Perhaps you simply want to refresh your existing sofas, chairs or ottomans.

Can you wash that upholstery fabric? It depends on the fabric. Some fabrics are washable--as in, 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.

Manufacturers are becoming more aware of the convenience of being able to remove the cushion cover on your couch and toss it into the washing machine. Some use it as a major selling feature of their furniture. Subsequently, many machine-washable upholstery items do exist. There are still plenty of removable upholstery items that should be dry cleaned or handled by a professional, though.

Washing Upholstery Fabric 101

To be allowed in the washing machine, upholstery fabrics have to pass two tests. First, the fabric must be pre-shrunk. Second, it must be a colorfast fabric.

To find out if your upholstery is pre-shrunk, the best place to look is a manufacturer's tag. 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.

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.

If the fabric passes those tests, you can put it in the wash. Some people like to vacuum it first. You can also pre-treat any spots or stains on the fabric.

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. You want to 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 should shrink or fade--even if it washes just fine. Put it on the tumble dry or fluff setting--air-only--to dry but not shrink it. Take it out before it's completely dry, so don't put it on a long cycle. Check on it.

Some people prefer to let the rest air dry or to put it on the cushion slightly damp so it's easier to fit back on.