Furnishing your home wasn’t cheap; and by God, when you bought that beautiful sectional, you swore up and down you’d keep it pristine. But sticky hands, dirty paws, and the occasional spilled glass make keeping a sparkling house the stuff of furniture stores and magazine spreads—real life is much messier.

So maybe your sectional isn’t display-room perfection anymore, but with proper care and cleaning techniques, it will look like new again. In this article, you’ll learn how to clean upholstery, including the best practices for hard-to-clean leather, organic materials like cotton, and synthetic blends like microfiber.

Note: If your furniture is severely stained, or cleaning it yourself has had unsatisfying results, consider having it professionally cleaned.

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Upholstery Fabric Cleaning Codes

Before you begin cleaning, it’s important to identify the upholstery material. There are four cleaning codes found on the tags of fabric couches: W, S, SW, and X.

  • Wet (W) — Code W fabrics are the easiest to clean. It’s safe to use water-based shampoos for stains as well as steam and hot water extraction treatments to deep clean a couch. When spot cleaning, be careful not to oversoak the fabric.
  • Solvent (S) — Code S materials are sensitive to water, and must be cleaned with a water-free solvent or dry-cleaning product. Use solvents in a well-ventilated room, and vacuum the spot after the treatment has processed.
  • Solvent/wet (SW) — Both water-based and solvent cleaners are safe to use on SW fabrics.
  • No cleaning (X) — Only vacuum or use a brush to remove dirt and hair, as cleaners will shrink and/or fade Code X fabrics. Position this type of furniture in low traffic areas to avoid stains, as there is no safe way to treat them.
  • No code — Take caution when cleaning unmarked furniture. Test the cleaner on a discreet section of fabric before using it elsewhere.

How to Deep Clean a Couch

The best cleaning method depends on the type of upholstery. For fabric couches, always check the fabric cleaning code on the furniture tag first. Doing so will let you know how to proceed.

Furniture tags are commonly found underneath the cushions of a couch or chair. If the cushions do not detach, look for the tag under the couch itself. If for some reason your furniture does not have a tag, try checking the manufacturer’s website or bringing a swatch to a fabric store or professional upholstery cleaner for identification.

how to clean upholstery

Cotton and other organic fabrics

Most organic fibers, including cotton, rayon, linen, wool, silk, denim, velour, damask, etc., are Code S and should be treated with solvent-based cleaners.

You will need:

  • White hand towels
  • Stiff brush (optional)
  • Vacuum with upholstery attachment
  • Baking soda
  • Dry fabric cleaner

General cleaning: First, prep the couch for cleaning by running a white hand towel or stiff brush over the entire surface, loosening any dried-on stains. You’ll always want to use a white towel or brush on your furniture, as colored dyes can transfer to the fabric. Remove the cushions and check all the nooks and crannies for crumbs or dirt, using a vacuum for small debris. Also pre-vacuum the surface if you have indoor pets.

Next, sprinkle the couch with a layer of baking soda and allow to sit for 20 minutes to an hour. The baking soda helps release odors and break down fabric stains. Finally, vacuum the couch using the brush or upholstery attachment.

Spot cleaning: Stains or particularly dirty areas will require special attention. Using a fresh white cloth, apply the solvent cleaner to the stain. Blot using a clean section of the cloth each time until you’ve removed the stain. Allow the area to dry, then vacuum or brush the surface to restore the texture of the fabric.

Polyester and other synthetic fabrics

Synthetic fabrics, like polyester, nylon, herculon, acetate, olefin, and some microfiber blends, are typically Code W, and can be easily cleaned with water-based solutions. Again, it’s important to check the cleaning code and test cleaners in a hidden place before allover application.

Not all microfiber fabrics should be treated with water-based cleaners. If your microfiber couch is a Code S, refer to the instructions above.

You will need:

  • Vacuum with upholstery attachment
  • Upholstery cleaner
  • White hand towels
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Spray bottle
  • Box fan (optional)

General cleaning: Run the vacuum over the surface of the couch to remove dust and hair, remembering to vacuum under the cushions and in between seams. Afterward, mist the couch with a water-based upholstery cleaner. Using a clean, dry white cloth, gently scrub the fabric in a circular motion until the upholstery is mostly dry, applying more pressure where needed to break up dried-on stains.

You can purchase an upholstery cleaner, or make your own by mixing 1/4 cup vinegar, 3/4 cup warm water, 1 tablespoon of dish soap, and a few drops of your favorite essential oil for a fresh scent (optional).

Spot cleaning: Fill a spray bottle with rubbing alcohol and saturate the stained area. Use a clean cloth to blot and scrub the area and lift the stain. Allow damp spots to dry completely; setting overhead fans to high or pointing a box fan at the stain will expedite the process. Once dry, use a fresh towel to scrub the area in a swirling motion and restore the texture of the fibers.

modern leather couch in stylish living room

Leather

You will need:

  • Vacuum with soft brush attachment
  • White vinegar
  • Commercial leather cleaner (optional)
  • All-purpose mixing bowl/bucket
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Clean, dry towel

General cleaning: Vacuum the couch all over, paying special attention to crevices and seams, to remove the top layer of dust and dirt. Use a soft brush attachment, as the stiff bristles of an upholstery attachment may scratch the leather. Next, mix together equal parts white vinegar and water in a bowl, adding a few drops of leather cleaner if desired.

Dip a microfiber cloth in the solution and ring it out so the cloth is damp, not wet. Be careful not to oversaturate the leather. Wipe down the surface of the sofa from top to bottom, rinsing the cloth in the vinegar mixture when necessary. When finished, dry the couch using a clean towel.

Spot cleaning: Removing stains from leather upholstery can be tricky, and severe stains will need to be treated professionally. First, try the following methods for treating leather stains at home:

  • Grease stains: Blot—don’t rub—the area with a soft, dry cloth to absorb as much grease as you can. Sprinkle baking soda, talcum powder, or cornstarch on the area and allow to sit for a few hours, then brush away with a soft-bristled brush and repeat.
  • Ink stains: Apply rubbing alcohol to the area using a cotton swab, then dab with a clean towel to dry. (Do not use a blow dryer, as this will dehydrate the leather.) Minimal ink stains can sometimes be wiped away with eucalyptus oil.
  • Dark colored stains: Mix together equal parts lemon juice and cream of tartar and gently rub the paste into the stain. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes and repeat. Finally, wipe down the area with a lightly damp sponge.

Conclusion

Regular cleanings are the best way to keep your favorite pieces looking fresh and new. Most professionals recommend a deep cleaning twice a year, but heavily used furniture may require more frequent attention. To test the cleanliness of your furniture, simply run a white cloth over the surface of the fabric. If it comes away dirty, it’s time for a good cleaning.

Remember:

  • Always check the tags for the upholstery code to determine the safest method for cleaning your furniture.
  • To avoid damaging the fabric, test a cleaner on an inconspicuous spot first before applying it to the entire couch.
  • Severe stains are best handed by professional cleaning services.