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How to clean upholstery yourself: the definitive step-by-step guide

Is your sofa looking sorry for itself? Got a chair in need of some love? Get them looking as good as new with these simple steps.


By Cleanipedia Team

If you don’t know how to clean upholstery yourself, it can feel like a daunting task. Upholstered pieces of furniture are often among the most expensive items of furniture in our houses, so it’s not surprising most people are worried about damaging them.

Well, fear not. We’ve put together this step-by-step guide, as well as plenty of tips for specialist fabrics, to help you deep clean your upholstery like a pro. So whether you want to know what’s the best cleaner for upholstery or what to do with a leather sofa, you’re in the right place.

You will need:

  • Microfibre cloths
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Water
  • Washing up liquid
  • White vinegar
  • Specialist dry cleaning solution or rubbing alcohol (only required for certain fabrics)
  • Bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) or a fabric sanitising spray

How to clean upholstery at home in 8 simple steps

Perhaps you want to know how to clean sofa upholstery at home, or maybe it’s that comfy armchair that’s in need of some attention. Whatever upholstery you’re tackling, this step-by-step guide will help you banish stains and breathe new life into it.

  1. Vacuum the upholstery

    First things first, it’s time to remove any surface crumbs, dust and dirt that have accumulated. Use your vacuum’s upholstery attachment to go over the entire piece of furniture. 

    If you’re working on a sofa or chair, check if the cushions are removable. If they are, take them off and vacuum the fabric underneath, going as far under the back and arms as your vacuum can reach. Then, use the crevice tool to go along the seams, around any buttons and along the trim.

  2. Check the label

    As long as you haven’t removed it, your upholstery’s care label should tell you what’s safe to use for cleaning it. When you check it, look out for the following codes:

    W means water-based cleaners, such as washing up liquid or vinegar, are safe to use.

    W/S means that either water- or solvent-based cleaners (see below) are safe.

    S means only solvent-based cleaning chemicals should be used. For instance, rubbing alcohol, clear alcohols, and dry-cleaning solvents.

    X means do nothing more than vacuum or brush the fabric. You’ll need to call in professional cleaners to do anything more.

    Tip: For fabrics like velvet and leather, see our section on specialist fabrics below.

  3. Test your cleaner

    As long as the label suggests you’re safe to continue, select the cleaner that’s correct for your upholstery, then test it in an inconspicuous area. This will ensure you don’t end up damaging the fabric anywhere obvious.

    Tip: For W or W/S labelled upholstery, we recommend using white vinegar to spot clean, followed by washing up liquid mixed with water, so make sure to test both. For S labelled upholstery, use a specialist cleaner or rubbing alcohol

  4. Take off any removable covers

    Some sofa and chair cushions have removable covers, and if yours do, now’s the time to remove them. Check to see if they have labels – some covers are machine washable, which means that after you’ve spot cleaned any stains (see step 5), you can pop them in the washing machine with a mild laundry detergent like Persil Non-Bio.

  5. Tackle stains

    Once you’ve selected your stain remover (either white vinegar or a solvent-based cleaner), you can tackle any obvious stains.

    If you’ve bought a specialist cleaning product, use it according to the packaging instructions. 

    Otherwise, pour your cleaner of choice onto a strong microfibre cloth and apply it to the stain in a dabbing motion, working from the outside in. Don’t rub the stain as this could work it further into the fabric. Don’t apply too much stain remover as you don’t want to saturate the fabric. Delicacy is key.

    (Once stains are treated, you can pop any removable, washable covers in the washing machine.)

    Tip: See our section below on tricky stains for tips to remove everything from chocolate to permanent marker.

  6. Wipe over the surface

    (This only applies to W or W/S labelled upholstery.) If you’ve used vinegar to treat stains, you’ll want to give everything a wipe down to remove the vinegar smell. 

    Mix a small amount of washing up liquid with water and use a microfibre cloth to gently wipe your upholstery with the solution. You only want to use a very small amount of water – don’t saturate the material.

  7. Leave to dry

    Now it’s a waiting game, while you let your sofa, chairs or other upholstery dry. It’s always best to do this naturally. Open windows to speed up the drying process and see off any lingering cleaning smells.

  8. Freshen up

    Once your upholstery is clean and dry, you can kill any remaining germs and odours on water-safe upholstery with a fabric sanitising spray. Or alternatively, you can use bicarbonate of soda (or baking soda to US readers) – see our instructions for this in the next section.

And there you have it – your upholstery is officially clean. Take a look at our tips a little further on for ideas on how to keep it that way.

How concerned are you about disinfecting while cleaning?

How to clean upholstery with baking soda

Bicarbonate of soda (or baking soda to folks in the US) is great for lots of different cleaning jobs. And that includes removing grime, dirt and unpleasant smells from upholstery.

As with any cleaner you use on upholstery, you’ll need to test the fabric first in an inconspicuous area, but luckily bicarbonate of soda is safe for use on most types of upholstery (except the most delicate fabrics).

To freshen up your upholstery with bicarbonate of soda, just follow these simple steps:

  • Vacuum up any crumbs, dust and other debris (as in step 1 of the main guide above).

  • Sprinkle the upholstery liberally with bicarbonate of soda and let it sit for 20 to 30 minutes.

  • Use the brush attachment to vacuum up the bicarbonate of soda.

It really couldn’t be simpler!

How to clean specialist fabrics and unusual upholstery

If you have a velvet sofa or a leather chair, you’ll (rightly) feel extra cautious about applying cleaners to those gorgeous fabrics. So what’s the best approach? And what about upholstery like car seats – do you need to clean that differently? Read on to find out...

How to clean a velvet sofa

The truth is, many velvet sofas will require professional cleaning. The best place to start is always your sofa’s care label. But for more tips, read our guide on cleaning and caring for your velvet sofa.

How to clean leather upholstery

Leather furnishings need plenty of TLC over the course of their lifetime to ensure they always look their best. Read our guide on how to clean leather sofas and remove stains from leather furniture for a whole host of tips to keep yours in top condition.

How to clean car seats

Different types of car seats will require slightly different cleaning treatments to suit the fabrics they’re made from. Your first step should be to consult the vehicle manual to see if the manufacturer gives any cleaning or maintenance advice. Then you can take a look at our step-by-step instructions for getting your car seats back to their best.

Tackling tricky stains on upholstery

There are stains and then there are the scary stains – the ones that you worry will never come out. But don’t panic just yet, we’ve got tips for tackling a whole host of different stains, from chocolate to permanent marker…

Chocolate stains

The key to removing chocolate stains is speed, as chocolate contains a high amount of fat that keeps working away to ruin your clothing and carpets. To find out the best way to rid your upholstery of chocolate stains, simply follow the instructions in the upholstery section of our guide to getting rid of chocolate stains.

Red wine stains

There are several ways to remove red wine stains from your upholstery. But as with chocolate, the main thing is to act fast. As long as your furniture’s care label gives you the go ahead (see step 2 in our guide above), white vinegar and bicarbonate of soda can help you tackle red wine.

First, to remove red wine stains from your upholstery, pour bicarbonate of soda over the stain and coat with some vinegar. Then wait a few minutes for it to soak in (it will bubble up quite a lot – this means it’s working). Finally, remove the mixture with a damp cloth. Repeat these steps until the red wine is removed.

(We’ve also got a guide for removing red wine from your carpet – just in case your sofa or chair wasn’t the only victim.)

Permanent marker stains

Despite its name, it’s actually possible to remove ‘permanent’ marker stains from upholstery. How you do this will depend on the type of fabric (and of course the care label for your sofa). But for the best tips on solving your permanent marker woes, take a look at the upholstery section in our comprehensive guide to removing permanent marker stains.

Tea stains

Spilled tea on your sofa or the arm of your chair? Let’s face it, who hasn’t? Luckily, as long as your upholstery’s label gives you the OK to clean it (see step 2 in our guide above) you should soon be saying goodbye to any tea stain. Act fast to soak up what you can with a clean cloth or paper towels (blot, don’t rub), then follow the instructions in the upholstery section of our guide to removing tea stains.

How to keep upholstery looking better for longer

Looking after your upholstery on a regular basis means you won’t need to deep clean it often. Here’s how to prevent dirt and grime build-up:

Clean up surface stains as soon as possible

Fresh stains are always easier to treat than old ones, so make sure you treat any stain as fast as you can.

Vacuum your sofas and chairs at least once a week

To keep dust and dirt to a minimum and prevent grime from becoming ground in with constant use, regular vacuuming is key.

Wash removable covers

If any parts of the sofa or chair are removable, make sure to wash them regularly. Top tip: Replace covers while they are still slightly damp so they can dry around the shape of the sofa.

Time to think about reupholstering?

Sometimes cleaning just isn’t going to cut it anymore and you need to give your upholstered furniture a whole new lease of life. If so, it’s time to take a look at our DIY guide to reupholstering your furniture.

Originally published