How to clean upholstery – to keep furniture looking ­fresh

Whether it’s fabric, leather or velvet, be confident about how to clean upholstery with our step-by-step guide

Modern bedroom with colorful headboard
(Image credit: Future)

It often takes an accidental spill or a specific stain to appear before we think about how to clean upholstery. However, dust and dirt does build up over time regardless of how careful you are, so it’s important to give upholstered furniture a freshen up every now and then to keep it in good condition.

Whether it’s cleaning a leather couch, a linen armchair or a velvet headboard, our expert guide on how to clean upholstery will ensure it stays looking as lovely as the day you bought it. 

How to clean upholstery

It’s not the type of furniture that dictates your cleaning method – the rules are generally the same regardless of shape or size. However, the type of fabric can make a big difference, so it’s essential you know what you’re working with – fabric, leather, velvet, linen etc. 

Once you’ve got your cleaning methods and products sorted, you’ll need to act fast. ‘As soon as a spill or stain occurs, get to cleaning it immediately’, says Mahira Kalim, founder of eco cleaning brand, Spruce. ‘Waiting too long before treating a stain – even a matter of a few minutes – can cause it to set, making it much harder to get out.’ 

Whether you’re tackling a specific stain or planning a deeper clean, here’s the lowdown on how to clean upholstery – whatever the material. 

1. Check the label 

To make things easier, the upholstery industry has created an easy-to follow code that clearly states what cleaning methods and products are safe to use. This will appear on the care label – check it beforehand to ensure you don’t unwittingly cause damage to the fabric. 

W – means you can only use a water-based cleaner. 

S or P – means no water, only solvent-based cleaning products should be used. 

SW or WS – means you can either use a water based cleaner or a solvent cleaner – steam cleaners are fine, too. 

X – means you shouldn’t use anything (brushing and vacuuming are fine) – get it professionally cleaned instead. 

2. Vacuum upholstery to remove surface dirt 

One of the best things you can do to keep your upholstery in good condition is to vacuum it regularly – once a week is the recommendation. This will avoid dirt building up and wearing the fabric over time.

‘This will get rid of dust and debris, which is advisable before using any cleaning products,’ says cleaning expert Lynsey, Queen of Clean. ‘Remove all the cushions and vacuum both sides as well as the base, back and sides’, she says. 

Use the upholstery attachment for fabric sofas and the brush attachment on a leather sofa to avoid scratching it. For delicate fabrics like silk and linen, set the suction to low. 

3. Test your cleaning products 

If the care label or laundry symbols are missing, or you want to be extra cautious, Sarah Dempsey, cleaning expert at MyJobQuote recommends testing your chosen cleaning solutions on an inconspicuous part of the furniture (the underside of a seat cushion, for example) to ensure it doesn’t discolor or damage the fabric.

This is particularly important if you’re dealing with velvet and silk. If you’re in any doubt, call in a professional cleaner. 

4. Spot clean upholstery stains 

While specialist store-bought cleaners are efficient, solutions made using simple, pantry staples can be just as effective. Cleaning  with vinegar has a place – white vinegar is a great natural stain remover for most types of upholstery, although again, always check the care label before using any form of cleaning solution, and always do a very small hidden spot check just in case. 

‘Most sofa stains can be removed using a mild washing up liquid, warm water, and a dash of white vinegar,’ says Lynsey. ‘Apply the solution to your cloth (not the sofa) and blot the stain carefully, work from the outside in. Once it’s been removed, use a clean cloth to rinse the area and remove any excess water.' 

Mahira also highlights the importance of dabbing, not scrubbing. ‘Otherwise, you’ll push stains deeper into the fibers of the couch and potentially even damage it permanently’. She also advises using a white cloth; ‘this will prevent dye transferring from the cloth to the fabric, particularly important if your sofa is a lighter color’. 

If you’re wondering how to clean a leather sofa, the steps are fairly similar, as long as it’s finished leather you’re dealing with – unfinished leather will require a professional upholstery cleaner for best results. Consider polishing with saddle soap once a week alongside vacuuming and treating with a leather conditioner after a deep clean. 

5. Remove odors from upholstery

Cleaning with baking soda is the way to achieve fresh-smelling upholstery. Rather than masking odors, like some store-bought air fresheners tend to do, it eliminates them completely. 

‘Apply a sprinkling to the area with a bristle brush then leave for a few hours (or overnight if you have time) before vacuuming it up, says Mark Osbourne, Director at Orangeries UK

6. Know when to call the professionals

If a stain remains after two rounds of spot cleaning, it’s best to call a professional upholstery cleaner – scrubbing fabric repeatedly can cause more harm than good. 

How to care for velvet upholstered furniture

Contrary to popular belief, velvet is actually a very durable material. However, it needs a bit of TLC to keep it looking as lovely as the day you bought it – particularly if it’s vintage. Rather than vacuuming, brush velvet upholstered furniture 3-5 times a month, and be mindful of where you position it – it can mark if pushed up hard against something, so give it a little space. 

Can upholstery go in the washing machine? 

If the upholstery covers are removable and the care label allows it, it is safe to put them in the washing machine. But be sure to follow the guidelines exactly – washing in too-hot temperatures will likely result in shrinkage, which means you won’t be able to replace them easily. If you’re unsure, choose a delicate, cool wash and don’t tumble dry. 

When the cycle has finished, pull the fabric back into shape and leave until almost dry – it’s easier to replace covers when they’re slightly damp. Don’t put the cushions back straight away; leave to air dry fully first, ideally standing upright. 

How often should I clean upholstery? 

While you should vacuum upholstery weekly to keep your furniture in good condition, specific stain removal and deep cleans don’t need to be as regular – aim for once every 3-6 months, or on an as-needed basis.

How can I clean fabric upholstery naturally?

Perhaps surprisingly, cleaning fabric upholstery doesn’t require store-bought cleaning products – you can get the job done with natural ingredients. White vinegar is a natural stain remover while baking soda is great for eliminating odors – together they make a powerful combination. 

‘Baking soda and white vinegar actually react together to make an acidic formula which gently cuts through grease and grime, and it’s completely natural and low waste’, says Mahira.‘Take a teaspoon of washing-up liquid, white vinegar, baking soda and warm water, then mix together until it starts to fizz. Apply directly to the stain and leave to dry for 15 minutes, then wipe with a damp cloth’. 

Can you use a steam cleaner on upholstery?

Can you use a steam cleaner on upholstery? It all depends on the fabric. If it’s suitable for water-based cleaners (look for W, SW or WS on the care tag) then yes, absolutely. In fact, cleaning expert Lynsey Crombie swears by it. ‘Bursts from a handheld steamer will kill surface dust mites, lift dirt, and give it a refreshed look. Go over the entire sofa and leave to air dry – it shouldn’t take long at all’, she says.

Tara King

For 10 years, Tara King worked as a Content Editor in the magazine industry, before leaving to become freelance, covering interior design, wellbeing, craft and homemaking. As well as writing for Ideal Home, Style at Home, Country Homes & Interiors, Tara’s keen eye for styling combined with a passion for creating a happy – and functional – family home has led to a series of organization and cleaning features for H&G.