Click Here for a printable version.

Out! Damned Spot!


So, you have a stain on your upholstered fabric? Where do you go from here?

What is a cleaning code?

There are several common fabric cleaning codes. Fortunately, they're easy to remember:


S - Solvent clean (that is "dry-cleaning")

W - Water clean

WS - Water or Solvent clean

X - No liquids, vacuum clean only


Truth is, you can clean about 80% of S-coded fabrics with a water-based cleaning system, if done carefully. The most common tool is water-extractor upholstery cleaner (sort of like a wet-vac with a spray). Dry cleaning machines are 10 times more expensive and are rarer.


What cleaner do I use?

Perhaps more important than the cleaning code is to use what's appropriate for the staining material. You must use a cleaning solution that will clean the staining material. The basic chemical rule is "Likes dissolve likes." There are two broad classes of solvents:

  • Polar solvents (e.g., Water-based). They are called polar because they have a positive side and a negative side on a molecular level. Use water-based cleaners for stains that are water-based:
    • Most foods
    • Body fluids (hair and skin oils, urine, vomit, blood, and feces)
    • General overall soiling from use
    • Some inks.

Various cleaners work by attracting and holding the stain particles, using enzymes to break them down, attacking them with acidity or alkalinity, adding or removing oxygen from the stain, or changing them chemically into something that is easy to remove.


  • Non-polar (e.g., hydrocarbon based). Examples of these are odorless mineral spirits, acetone, AFTA, Goof-Off, Pro-Gel and d-Limonene (citrus-oil-based) cleaners. You can use these sparingly with a Q-tip swab or clean cloth. Use these cleaners for stains that are hydrocarbon or petroleum based:
    • Tar
    • Grease
    • Shoe polish (wax)
    • Candle wax
    • Some inks
    • Lipstick


NOTE: Before using any cleaner, test on an inconspicuous spot for damage or color loss before attacking a stained area. Fabrics with a rubberized backing may be damaged by non-polar solvents. Put a bit of the cleaner on a clean towel or swab and rub and press against the fabric for several minutes and observe any color transfer or discoloration.


For spot stains you should circle the stain with solution and work your way inward to keep the stain from bleeding away.


Don't remove the fabric from cushions when cleaning or you may never get it back on correctly if it shrinks or skews.


What are the most important factors of cleaning?

If you think about any cleaning you do, whether it's your washing machine, your shower, or washing your car, there are four important factors, remembered as TACT.

  • Time - the amount of time that the cleaning solution is in contact with the stain. Usually the more the better.
  • Agitation - a little mechanical agitation, tamping, or rubbing will help break up most stains. Too much can start to abrade the fabric, though.
  • Chemical action - using the right solution and letting the chemicals do the work.
  • Temperature - most chemical reactions double in speed with every 18 degrees F (10 degrees C). You can also help reach the melting or plasticizing point of some of the staining material to aid in its removal.


For almost any stain, if there is debris on the surface scrape it up and dry vacuum before beginning any wet cleaning. Blot up liquid stains with a dry towel as soon as possible.


Where can I find cleaning solutions?

Most carpet cleaning supply houses carry a complete selection of cleaning solutions for upholstery as carpet cleaners often sideline into upholstery cleaning. If you live in a small town, there are mail order firms. Eighty percent of carpet is nylon, and the majority of the rest is olefin, so carpet cleaners don't face the wide variety of fibers available in upholstery.


How do I identify a fabric's fiber?

The best way is if you can determine from the manufacturer. Finished goods are required to list the inside contents of a piece, but not the covering. The best way is to do a fiber id burn test (see ). In this, you observe the flame, odor and ash of burning a fiber. This is not foolproof, though, since many fabrics are combinations of two or more fibers. I also recommend a butane lighter as matches and candles have their own odors.


Fiber id, though, is not necessary if you know the cleaning code and color-fastness properties. It's probably best left to testing labs.


What are some problem fabrics for cleaning?

  • 100% cotton - this fabric "stains easily and cleans with difficulty." In addition, the darker colors such as reds and greens are prone to fading and color-bleed with water. Some color bleed with dry abrasion on a white towel or general use. Consumers have a hard time believing that something as durable as jean material makes a lousy upholstery fabric.
  • Haitian cotton - this is cotton that's minimally processed, usually white or off-white with little brown specs (sort of like vanilla bean ice cream). The problem is, when wet, the lignin in the specs (the woody part of the cotton plant) bleed brown and turn the whole piece into a yellow-brown. Avoid excessive water, dry quickly, and avoid excessively high pH (alkaline). There are special cleaners for water-cleaning Haitian cotton.
  • Olefin - being a petrochemical, it loves petroleum and releases it with difficulty.


What are some problem stains for cleaning?

  • Blood - use hydrogen peroxide. Commercial version is "Stain Magic"
  • Ink - the longer ink sits, the more difficult it is to remove. Most inks are like paint that sets up and the resins and pigments bind. Ink stains also vary by color of ink and manufacturer. Some inks are water-based. Most are solvent based, so use a solvent cleaner or a special ink-removing cleaner.
  • Red food dye, found in red beverages, candy, some tomato products like catsup or spaghetti sauce. Red Relief is an excellent product to use for these, and about the only thing that works.
  • Organic dye stains such as juice or berry stains, blood, mustard, wine, etc. Stain Magic is a very good product for these.
  • Vomit, acne medicine, laundry bleach, etc. Sometimes, these will bleach the dye out of fabric. No cleaner will clean back lost color.
  • Rust - there are a number of specialized rust removing solutions, most of them are acid-based. I've had luck using white vinegar on very fresh rust stains.
  • Animal or vegetable oil (including food stains, hair or body oil) - use an alkaline cleaner to saponify (turn the grease into "soap" like the pioneers made lye soap)


For a reference on specific stains from one of the vendors:


If you are not doing this everyday, here's a guide using ordinary household supplies (the "consumer version") P.O.G = paint, oil, grease cleaner, e.g., a solvent.


This information is provided to help the upholsterer with an occasional staining problem. Use at your own risk and only after testing on inconspicuous areas or scrap fabric. There are too many fabrics, dyes, and cleaners to ensure compatibility without testing. It is collected from a variety of sources.


(Note: I have no interest in CTI or Bane-Clene other than I use many of their products)


Contributed by:

Keith Mealy, Owner/Operator of Guardsman FurniturePro Cincinnati East, a franchisee of Valspar Corporation. Keith does furniture cleaning, repair and refinishing.