Cleaning And Caring For Upholstery

It is surprising how many people forget to pay attention to their upholstered chairs and sofas. Dust settles on and is ground into all fabrics, dulling the colours and wearing the fibres. Upholstered furniture is expensive and will last much longer if cared for.


Leather Probably the most expensive material.

Wool Moquette is a looped-pile fabric usually with the loops uncut; flame resistant wool is treated to resist flaring, burning.

Cotton and linen Used primarily for upholstery and loose covers.

Velvet May be pure cotton, but is more likely to be a blend of acrylic, polyester and cotton. Acrylic may also be woven.

Brocade Usually a blend of viscose and acetate. Old brocade may be silk.

Tapestry A firm woven fabric containing wool and probably polyester.

Tweed Usually wool with a smaller quantity of synthetic such as polyester.

Plastic Usually vinyl, often made to imitate leather.


Regular cleaning Remove all cushions and vacuum, using attachments, or use a good stiff brush. Pay particular

Clean upholstery surfaces and corners regularly with a vacuum cleaner upholstery brush and an upholstery nozzle (below). If dust collects on upholstery it can stain the fabric and break the fibres.

Attention to inner sides and corners where dust may collect; this can be an attraction to mice. After vacuuming or brushing, fluff up the cushions and replace them, making a point of reversing them if possible as this distributes wear. It is also beneficial to occasionally give cushions an airing out-of-doors.

Stains These should be removed as soon as possible. Some furniture with loose covers can be totally cleaned; this can be either by washing or dry cleaning — follow the manufacturer’s instructions. For small spots and stains, you can sometimes use a solvent. Dry-foam upholstery shampoo is also effective. Always test an inconspicuous place first, for colour fastness if using water, or for any possible reactions to chemicals.

Professional cleaning If the covers are removable and the fabric is suitable, you can have the covers dry cleaned by professionals, or you can do it yourself in a coin-operated dry-cleaning machine. Some fabrics must be cleaned by reliable cleaning services, especially pile fabrics such as plush or velvet. These firms will also be able to advise you if you are unsure about the proper cleaning procedure for a particular piece of upholstered furniture.

Leather This can be cleaned, after dusting, by using saddle soap, following the maker’s instructions, or with thick suds made from mild, pure soap and as little water as possible. Wipe the suds off with a damp cloth and polish with a soft, dry cloth. You should keep leather supple by using a good quality furniture cream or hide food on it once or twice a year.

Vinyl Wipe with a damp cloth wrung out in warm, sudsy water; then rinse with a clean damp sponge. Stubborn soil can be removed by further rubbing or scrubbing lightly with a soft-bristled brush.

General maintenance Sharp objects — such as rings, buckles, cats’ claws — can `pluck’ or `snag’ fabric. If there is a loose end, don’t pull it; cut it off. Prolonged sunlight causes fading and rotting of fabric. Close curtains or blinds during sunny periods. Cover furniture with dust sheets when you are on holiday to prevent dust settling.


If upholstery cloth has been torn, the easiest repair for a section that is not under strain is to sew a patch to the inside of the upholstery. Cut a piece of cloth that will overlap about 25mm (lin) all round. Pass it through the tear and position it with the end of a table knife. Use the knife or a tapered piece of wood to push through latex adhesive. Spread it around and press the edges tightly, so that it penetrates woven fabric. If the material is a plastic imitation leather, use an adhesive intended for PVC. Fray the edges of a cloth patch before sticking it down, and round the corners of an imitation leather patch. Lithe plastic patch is thick, thin the edges by sanding underneath.

If the tear or cut tends to pull open there will have to be some stitches as well as a patch. Use stout thread and zig-zag stitches lithe pattern will not show them up too much. Do this over a patch if possible, but in some places it maybe easier to stick the patch on to the outside of the upholstery, although it will then be more obvious. It may be possible to cut a piece for a patch from a turned-in edge of the old fabric or the bottom of the back.


If a button comes away from the surface of upholstery, you should replace the piece of thread or twine which runs through to the back. The buttoning keeps the filling in place, as well as looking attractive.

Put the button on a length of twine and pass this through the eye of a needle long enough to go through the upholstery. At the front, push it through at the point where it was sewn previously, but it will probably be stronger if you bring the needle through at a slightly different place at the back. Thread on a flat button at the back and tie the twine under it with a slip knot. Adjust the tension with the slip knot until the front appearance is correct, then lock the knot and push it into the thickness of the cushion.


Traditional upholstery was stuffed with a variety of things, most of which tended to settle under pressure and become uneven.

By buttoning through, cover and filling can be held. Use a slip knot for adjustments.

Watery uses plastic or rubber foam and any replacement or repair is better done with this. There are moulded rubber pads shaped to suit standard parts, but plastic foam is bought in large pieces which can be cut with a wet carving knife. Thicknesses vary from a few millimetres to 150 mm (6 in) or more.

A dining chair with a lift-out seat may have a plywood base or be a frame with webbing strained across. Webbing is either formed in parallel strips one way only, or is interwoven at right angles. Tacks which hold the covering material can be lifted off with a screwdriver. Strip off the material as well as any inner lining, then the padding. If the chair has a frame and the webbing is sagging, remove this, but note how it is tacked. Buy new webbing and tack one end of each piece to the frame. At the other end, use a strip of wood about 100 mm (4 in) long as a lever to tension the webbing while putting in the first tacks there, then cut off and fold over the end for more tacks.

If you are using a new piece of plastic foam as stuffing, cut it slightly oversize so that it is compressed by the covering. Bevel the underside all round so that the cover is stretched, making the edge of the foam curve downwards. Try with a scrap piece of cloth to get this right.

Start tacking the covering to the frame from the underneath. Do the back and front first, working outwards from the centre. When this is satisfactory do the same at the tapered sides. Pull the covering tight over sharp corners, even out any creases and tack underneath, If the corners of the chair are notched to fit legs, cut into the cloth, but do this no more than is necessary to get the top strained into the hollows.

Imitation leather can go directly over the foam filling. A better effect is obtained for woven cloth covering by using an inner covering of unbleached calico or something similar first. The underside of a webbing seat can be finished with a piece of cloth. Turn its edges in and tack it to the frame. Usually, tacking for this and the top cloth is kept far enough in to clear the recesses into which the seat has to fit. If the new covering material is a very different thickness from the old, check the fit before fixing any material, in case the seat has to be planed down or packed out with cardboard.

Loose chair cushions have their coverings sewn inside-out. However, part of a seam in the most inconspicuous place has to be sewn from the right side, after the pad has been inserted. In some cases there is a zip fastener. If padding has to be replaced and there is no zip, look around the edges of the back of the cushion for a different stitch pattern. There may be hand stitches or the turned-in edges may be drawn together and machine-stitched from the outside. These are the stitches to unpick so that you can take out the old filling and replace it.

Upholstery that is fixed to a wooden framework often has the tacked edges covered with gimp, which is a sort of tape obtainable in a very large number of patterns, possibly with fringes and tassels. It is held with gimp pins, which are fine black nails. Lever these out carefully. If the old filling of hair or fibre has settled, try lifting an edge so a pointed stick can be inserted. Use this to tease out the compressed material and re-arrange it so that it fills up the hollows to give a better shape. In a bad case, more similar material can be pushed in or plastic foam can be put under the old material to lift it.

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