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 regularly to keep it in good condition.
And be prepared for more than scheduled cleaning, too. Laundry room ideas should include space to keep the rescue remedies that will prevent upholstered pieces becoming permanently marked when there’s a spillage.
Whether it’s 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 method – the cleaning tips 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 whether you’re tackling it as part of cleaning a living room or in other areas of your home.
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 (opens in new tab). ‘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 (opens in new tab). ‘Remove all the cushions and vacuum both sides as well as the base, back and sides’, she says.
Use the upholstery attachment for cleaning a couch with fabric upholstery and the brush attachment for cleaning a leather couch to avoid scratching it. For delicate fabrics like silk and linen, set the suction to low. Cleaning outdoor cushions? These can also be vacuumed.
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 (opens in new tab) 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’.
Removing red wine stains might take just blotting then lifting with salt – or a specialist product may be required to save the day. As for getting rid of coffee stains, blotting and rinsing with cold water could be enough but for upholstery without stain-guard protection, a dish soap solution can be the answer. As above, always check the label.
If you’re wondering how to clean a leather couch, 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 (opens in new tab).
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 wash couch cushion covers and those on other pieces of furniture. 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.
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.
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