Upholstery 101

Upholstery is manufactured from hundreds of different types of fabrics and many dye colors. The multitude of combinations makes avoiding possible cleaning mishaps challenging, but not impossible—if you know what you're doing! Some fabrics are very difficult to clean without special tools, cleaning agents, and technical skill, so when in doubt, leave it to the professionals.

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Upholstery is manufactured from hundreds of different types of fabrics and many dye colors. The multitude of combinations makes avoiding possible cleaning mishaps challenging, but not impossible—if you know what you're doing! Some fabrics are very difficult to clean without special tools, cleaning agents, and technical skill, so when in doubt, leave it to the professionals.

The Fabrics

There are two general groups of fabrics: naturals and synthetics. Thanks to Mother Nature, you’ve got cotton, linen, silk, and wool. Synthetic or “manmade” fabrics include acetate, acrylic, nylon, rayon, and polypropylene. Some fabrics are a blend of natural and synthetic fibers combining the best qualities of each for an appealing texture and lasting durability.

Generally, fabrics with tighter weaves and durable fibers such as polypropylene and nylon are a better match for an active household. Acrylic and polyester fabrics are good choices for family rooms. The fabric is strong and has antistatic properties to reduce static and shocks. Microfiber is a Teflon-based fabric that is extremely durable and cleanable, and is also a good option. Luxurious fabrics like satins, damasks, and brocades are best reserved for seating where durability isn't a primary concern.

Leather

Leather is one of today's most popular upholstery materials. It now comes in a variety of colors and a range of styles from classic to contemporary. Protected leathers are now the most popular and common types of leather sold on furnishings. Protected leather combines the best aspects of natural leather, but has a special tanning process that creates a uniform appearance and color. After tanning, a finish is applied to the surface, making the leather more resistant to the effects of heavy use. Aniline leathers are colored with a dye designed to bring out the leather’s natural grain and markings. But take care, because aniline leathers have very little or no protective treatments and damage easily.

Appropriate Cleaning Methods

The first step in caring for your upholstery is finding the cleaning code for your fabric. Most upholstery manufacturers install a small cleaning instruction label under the cushions of furniture or on the manufacturer’s tag. Leather requires different cleaning processes than fabric upholstery, so these codes do not apply. There are special cleaners, conditioners, and protectants available for leather upholstery. Before trying any cleaning method, it’s always a good idea to pretest a small area before proceeding. If you have an older piece you want to clean but don't know what the fabric or its cleaning code is, try spot-cleaning a small, hidden area to avoid possible cleaning fiascos. But, when in doubt, call a professional upholstery cleaner for advice.

  • Code W: Spot-clean using the foam only from a water-based cleaning agent, such as a mild detergent or nonsolvent upholstery shampoo product. Apply foam sparingly with a soft brush in a circular motion, and avoid overwetting. Vacuum when dry.
  • Code S: Spot-clean using a mild, water-free solvent or dry-cleaning product. Use sparingly in a well-ventilated room. Avoid using products containing carbon tetrachloride, as it is highly toxic.  
  • Code W-S: Clean the fabric with a dry-cleaning solvent, mild detergent foam, or an upholstery shampoo, depending on the stain. Follow instructions carefully and clean only in a well-ventilated room. Again, avoid products containing carbon tetrachloride.
  • Code X: Clean this fabric only by vacuuming or light brushing to prevent accumulation of dust or grime. Professional dry cleaning is recommended for spot-removal.

NOTE: Don’t remove cushion covers for separate dry cleaning or washing. Removing covers from cushions can destroy the backing, shrink, or otherwise damage upholstery fabric.

Fabric Protectors

Although no product can completely prevent your upholstery from getting dirty, fabric protectors can protect upholstery against permanent stains, including grease, wine, water, and even pet stains. Fabric protectors make it easier to clean up spills before they stain the fabric—spills bead up to be wiped clean, preventing stains from setting.

Most commercially available at-home fabric protectors provide a temporary surface coating. They are relatively inexpensive and beneficial, but they do tend to wear off over time. Professional fabric protection products tend to provide a better barrier against soil and tough stains by deeply penetrating fibers without changing the color or texture of the fabric.

If you’ve invested a significant amount of money in an upholstered piece, and are concerned about maintaining its quality, consider retaining the services of a professional fabric protection company. Fabric protection experts specialize in analyzing the content of materials to determine the best formulas of protection, and then offer both maintenance and “emergency services” to protect your investment. Upholstery Upkeep

There are lots of tips to keep upholstery looking its best. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Blot up spills and stains as quickly as possible. Do not rub. Paying prompt attention to stains increases success in removing them.
  • Vacuum furniture once a month using the upholstery and crevice tools.
  • Never wash upholstered fabrics in the washing machine; colors can fade when washed, and the covers can shrink and no longer fit the cushions.
  • Avoid placing upholstered pieces in direct sunlight, especially leather pieces. 
  • Dust all leather upholstery weekly with a soft, dry cloth.
  • When cleaning upholstery with shampoo or detergent, remove excess foam with a rubber spatula or a piece of cardboard. Keep material as dry as possible during cleaning to reduce the chance of fabric shrinkage.
  • Use arm rest and headrest covers if you have them. Covers prevent body oils from soiling the furniture.
  • If you use a futon as your sofa, remember to turn and flip the cushion once a month. Also, since futon covers are machine washable, toss the futon cover in the wash at the same time. 
  • If you have removable cushions on your sofa, flip or re-arrange them monthly to help even out wear.

No cleaning method will remove every stain, and some stains can cause permanent discoloration even after the stain is removed. Do your best to keep your furniture clean, prevent accidental spills, and practice good maintenance to maximize the beauty and durability of your furniture.

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