How to clean upholstery: cleaning sofas, chairs and headboards

Sofas, armchairs, dining chairs, cushion covers, bed throws, headboards... they all need a regular refresh to keep them looking like new. Use our guide to find out how to clean upholstery quickly and efficiently

Heal's traditional small sofa
(Image credit: Heal's)

Cleaning upholstery isn't something you'll have to tackle often. It's one of those jobs that you might spend a rainy Saturday afternoon on – but it's really useful to know how to clean upholstery for those one-off spills that every home suffers. So, we bring you a comprehensive step-by-step guide, covering everything from cleaning sofas and armchairs, headboards and dining chairs.

Once your upholstery is spotless, check out all our cleaning how tos and hacks; and don't miss our sourcebook of the top 50 must-have cleaning products for your home.

Jenny and Anthony Kakoudakis combine colour, heirloom pieces and mid-century style in a home reminiscent of a Parisian hotel

(Image credit: malcolm menzies)

How to clean upholstery

When we talk about cleaning upholstery, we're thinking any fixed or loose fabric covers. The rules for each are pretty much the same for each piece of furniture, whether a chair or a headboard, but we would always advise that you check the manufacturer's care label before you start, and if you're unsure, always do a spot test in an unseen part of the furniture (the back of a sofa, for example) to ensure any steps you take won't cause damage.

This particularly applies to velvet and silk. If in doubt, call in a professional cleaner. 

1. Vacuum upholstery to remove dust and debris

How often?

We'd do this once a week because, if you keep your upholstery dust- and grime-free, it won't get ground in by the family's backsides and it'll look cleaner for longer. And always do it before you're attempting to clean upholstery with one of the methods below.

What's the technique?

Yup, there's actually a proper way to tackle this to minimise your workload. 

First remove any loose throw cushions, take them outside and give them a gentle bashing to knock out the dust. Then vacuum all the visible parts of the sofa seat and back cushions with a slow sweeping movement, using the upholstery attachment on fabric sofas, and the brush attachment on leather sofas to avoid scratching them. 

Remove the vacuumed sofa back and seat cushions, put them face down on to a clean floor and vacuum their undersides. Next, vacuum the visible parts of the sofa itself with the upholstery attachment. Then swap to the crevice tool to get down into the corners of the sofa. 

What to use?

Our advice? A handheld vacuum cleaner is a handy tool for that weekly clean, but if you have vets, a vacuum that's designed for picking up pet hair will be worth its weight in gold. Our buyer's guides below will be helpful if you're in the market for a new one.

Best handheld vacuums
Need to keep a handy vacuum cleaner nearby for those constant spills? Our best handheld vacuums are just the ticket. 

Best vacuum cleaners for pets and pet hair
Find a vacuum cleaner that can cope with a moulting cat or dog (as much as we love them...).

living room with dark interior scheme and mustard yellow chesterfield sofa by rockett st george

(Image credit: Rockett St. George)

2. How to clean upholstery of stains

If your upholstery still has its label or a sticker attached to the underside, check it first before using any cleaning products. Then, once you've vacuumed up any removable debris, try these easy spot stain removal methods. Always dab and never rub hard when cleaning upholstery since it can push the dirt deeper and distort the fabric. For cleaning leather sofas and chairs (and handbags, too) see our dedicated guide.

Use baby wipes to spot clean upholstery

Choose the gentlest baby wipes you can find and carefully dab at whatever's found its way on to your upholstery. This should work for baby sick, chocolate and grimy fingerprints. 

Use upholstery wipes to clean upholstery 

No baby wipes handy? Stock up on upholstery wipes to always have an emergency upholstery stain treatment on hand. Again, wipe gently and pick one that suits your upholstery's material. 

Use upholstery cleaners to tackle bigger stains and marks

If wipes just aren't cutting it, you might need a stronger solution to keep in your store cupboard. Find the best upholstery cleaners in our buyer's guide to suit your needs.

How to remove blood, urine, red wine and vomit stains from upholstery

Sorry, we had to go there. If you've got kids, pets or enjoy a glass of wine on the sofa on a Friday night, you'll need to know how to effectively get rid of these stains. Hop to our dedicated guides to find out how: 

3. How to clean upholstery with laundry detergent

Vacuuming? Done. Then, if it's more about cleaning upholstery than treating spots and stains, one way to do so is to dilute laundry detergent in lukewarm water (liquid detergent is better than powder which needs water at a higher temperature to dissolve and can leave smudges and light spots behind). 

Then, simply use a clean, microfibre cloth (every home should have some) and gently wipe over the upholstery. Leave to dry before sitting on or touching the upholstery again.

4. How to clean upholstery with vinegar

Vacuumed it? Great. Now mix half a cup warm water with an equal amount of white vinegar. Dampen a microfibre cloth with the solution and blot at stains. 

Next, mix a mild washing up liquid into some warm water and blot again with a clean cloth. Use clean water and another clean cloth to rinse and remove any soapy residue. Leave to dry. 

Find the best washing up liquids in our buyer's guide.

5. How to clean upholstery in a washing machine

If you can remove your upholstery covers and the care label says you can put them in the washing machine, vacuum first, then go ahead, following the care instructions to the letter. 

Remember that putting them on a wash that's too hot is likely to lead to shrinkage, which means you will have great difficulty getting them back on the furniture. So, if in doubt, choose a delicate, cool wash and don't tumble dry. 

Use this neat drying trick

Remove from the washing machine then gently pull back into shape. Air-dry until almost dry, then replace the upholstery covers while very slightly damp. This will help stretch out any remaining creases. 

Don't put the cushions with the damp covers back on the sofa or armchair just yet; instead, stand them up somewhere they can fully air-dry, and only then replace them and start using them again.

Shadow floral rug by Ted Baker with a red velvet armchair

(Image credit: Ted Baker)

6. How to clean upholstery that smells

From dog odours to cigarette smoke to last night's curry... upholstery is one of the main culprits for absorbing, and then emitting, household smells. And the build up can be quite noticeable, if not to you, then to your guests. So, once every couple of months, here's what to do.

Get the bicarbonate of soda at the ready

Oh yes, it's our favourite cleaning product (sorry, vinegar, you're a close second). Simply sprinkle it liberally over your sofa/chair/headboard and let it sit for at least 15 minutes. You can lightly dampen your upholstery with a spritz of water to get the bicarb to stick to upright surfaces. 

Then just simply vacuum your sofa as above, following that up with all the cleaning tips we've mentioned, too. 

What if your sofa's really stinky?

Blame the dog. Then have another go with the bicarb, this time adding some dry carpet cleaning powder to the mix. Leave it to sit for half an hour or, better still, overnight, then vacuum thoroughly. stery may look good on the outside, but it could still be harbouring a whole host of odours. Sprinkle bicarbonate of soda all over the surface and leave it overnight to let the powder absorb the smells. Vacuum it all off in the morning.

Find out more about how to get rid of household smells of all kinds in our guide. And don't miss our guides to cleaning up after dogs and cats, too.

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