How to clean a sofa

Melanie Whitehouse / 20 April 2016

Find out how to clean your sofa to remove dirt and stains and refresh your upholstery's colour.



Over time, a sofa will gather dirt and stains from spills. You’ll find crisps in the cracks, stains on the arms and - if you’re lucky - a few stray coins down the back. However, a fabric sofa can be fiddly to clean. As well as all the nooks and crannies, there are cleaning codes that apply to the different types of fabric used.

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Identify your upholstery

Begin your clean by locating the label, tag, or sticker that indicates its fabric cleaning code. On a sofa, this can usually be found under the seat cushions. This is what the upholstery cleaning symbols mean:

  • W means it should be cleaned using a water-based detergent with a steam vacuum.
  • WS or SW means you can use either a water-based detergent or a dry-cleaning detergent.
  • S means it should only be dry cleaned.
  • O means the material is organic, and should be washed using cold water.
  • X means to either light vacuum and bristle-brush alone, or to use a professional service.Washing with water or detergents could damage the fabric.

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How to clean

Always spot test a cleaning material in an inconspicuous place before starting on a full clean over a large area. Allow it to dry thoroughly, and look for signs of shrinkage, discolouration, water marks, or fading/colour run.

If you’re in any doubt as to whether your sofa should be cleaned at home, ask a professional cleaner. Get them to perform a spot test, too. Some fabrics are not receptive to cleaning, in which case you maybe better off buying a new sofa.

Start your clean by removing all the sofa cushions, leaving the base exposed.

Then get the vacuum cleaner out. First use the upholstery attachment on your vacuum cleaner for the cushions, fabric and base; then change it for the long nozzle and stick that right down the crevices between the cushions and the framework. You’ll be amazing how much muck you find!

Use a stiff-bristled brush to remove any particularly dusty or dirty areas and break up any encrusted stains. Be careful you don’t rub too hard and damage the weave of the fabric.

Even a pet-friendly vacuum cleaner won’t remove fine pet hair. Use a lint roller for this, working in a grid-like formation across the sofa, then up and down it, to remove fur. Donning a rubber glove and wiping it across the surface is also effective.

If your sofa has wooden arms or a wooden frames and/or feet, then give them a wipe with a clean, damp cloth and all-purpose cleaner.

If your upholstery is washable, put it in the washing machine following manufacturer’s instructions. Wash cushions inside out to avoid fading.

If you’re washing the entire base cover, you may find it easier to go to the local laundrette and use one of their big machines.

Dry and iron according to manufacturer’s instructions – you don’t want to shrink the cover.

To clean fixed fabric, it’s best to use a steam cleaner - the water vapour will deodorise and sanitise your sofa without the use of chemicals. The high-temperature steam also loosens and dissolves surface dirt, brightening the fabric's colours. Vacuum first, and use the cleaning head recommended by the manufacturer. Leave to air dry.

If you decide to clean fixed covers yourself, buy a specialist upholstery shampoo and follow instructions.

You can also buy a proprietary dry cleaner in a can. Do ventilate the room, though, as these solvents are strong – and don’t forget to spot test before you start.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.