How do I clean my sofa?
August 4, 2021 3:16 AM   Subscribe

I bought my sofa thee years ago. I don't have pets, but I don't use air conditioning very much in the summer, so I sweat. The sofa isn't stained in anyway, but I'm sure it's full of my body oils and dirt. The fabric is not as supple as it once was.

The cover is not removable. It is rated "WS: Spot clean with upholstery shampoo, foam from a mild detergent or mild dry cleaning solvent." The cost of a cleaning in my area is about $100, and the retail price at least 10x that but I bought the sofa for $300 used, so I don't really feel like paying for a cleaning.

I found this for advice. I guess that's it? Vacuum, wipe with white vinegar, and let dry? Would any of the other commercial solutions work better? It feels odd that I'm not removing any of the schmutz that's built up, just stirring it up.

I looked into some upholstery cleaners on the Wirecutter since those machine seem to spit solution out and suck the dirty water back, but as their own review says:

"you don’t need any special hardware to clean most stains, and you may already own all of the individual tools that can combine to mimic most of the action of a portable upholstery cleaner."

So, any advice for me on the project? Get the professionals instead? Or just sprinkle on baking soda or borax, vacuum up, and then wipe down with white vinegar (or a better solution?)
posted by Roy Batty to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Just hire a portable upholstery cleaner for a day. It's quite satisfying to see the dirty water those things collect when you clean carpets or upholstery. Works much better than anything you can achieve with baking soda and the like.
posted by pipeski at 3:43 AM on August 4, 2021 [11 favorites]

A carpet cleaning machine is no different than an upholstery cleaner. Like a Rug Doctor (to rent) or a Bissell Big Green (to buy).

I know because I own the Bissell. You want one with two tanks, as you noted. And a hose with an upholstery attachment, of course. Not sure if the Rug Doctors have those.

There are smaller models for spot cleaning as on Wirecutter, Bissell makes the Little Green, but that might get tedious.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:13 AM on August 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have a suggestion for summertime: Buy an appropriately sized cotton bedspread (a thin bedspread—not a comforter) from a lower-end retailer and drape it over the sofa when you lie or sit on it. I got a neutral colored one from Target (chain store in the USA) when we had aging cats who would occasionally puke on furniture. Many years after the cats' passing, we still use it, especially in the summer. Our sofa has wool upholstery that feels great in winter, but hot and a bit scratchy in summer. The cotton bedspread feels cool and absorbent in the summer, and can be thrown in the washer and dryer easily. Take it off and fold it up when guests arrive to be fancy if you want.
posted by SoberHighland at 6:13 AM on August 4, 2021 [5 favorites]

You can buy inexpensive 'sofa blankets' meant for this, which are sized to drape more controllably than bed-sized dimensions and come in more furniturish textile patterns. A popular shabby-chic alternative to slipcovers in their own right. Lots of choices on Amazon, Overstock, BB&B, etc...

and of course slipcovers are also an option, if we're looking past cleaning the thing somehow. Whether generic (Surefit is the market leader, they make tons of styles) or tailored (call a local upholsterer or seamstress).
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:19 AM on August 4, 2021

Nthing a slipcover. This will not clean the existing sofa, but it will instead be a thing you can much more easily clean going forward. I got one to cover over a much more beat-up sofa (it was bequeathed to me by a couple of neighbors who pitched it as "a great falling-asleep-on-the-couch couch", and then underwent 15 years of cat scratching, spills, and other mayhem after that) and it's so easy to just pull it off a couple times a year, throw it in the laundry, and then put it back on.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:04 AM on August 4, 2021

I'm so glad you asked this, I've been looking into this too for my beloved $100 couch! I definitely don't want a slipcover so I've been casually investigating cleaning machines. I put a craigslist alert up for "upholstery cleaner" to see if I can get a used one for cheap. I saw one older model called a "steam cleaner" but when I looked it up all the reviews said you had to heat the water separately first and then you have to rush through cleaning before the water cools. So I guess a model that heats the water for you is something to look for if you're going to try to find a cheap used one. I'll be watching this thread!
posted by ghostbikes at 7:28 AM on August 4, 2021

Steam cleaners are just that; they're mostly for relaxing fabric and getting rid of odors. As with clothes. The steam goes into the air, it isn't recovered and anything that can't be steamed away is left behind. I have a Steam Buggy, its fine for what it does but I tried it for these purposes and it was inadequate.

This calls for a powered cleaning machine (aka a shampooer) with a solution tank and discharge tank, and that dispenses cleaning solution under pressure and recovers it with a vacuum.

I don't recall if the Bissell I have is self-heating; the tank is large and thick enough that the solution stays hot for as long as it takes to empty it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:24 AM on August 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

The big problem is making sure you get any moisture out of the thing, and whether you are willing to live with the results of failure. The results of failure are discolouration and mildew. Mildew would mean needing a new couch.

To prevent mildew you need to use some kind of a solvent dissolved in the water you use to wash the sofa that will continue to discourage the growth of mildew until the moisture is all gone. Normally you rinse this kind of solvent out because it tastes bad on dishes and can discolour things a bit and shorten the longevity of the fabric, but in this case the disadvantages of not rinsing our outweighed by the advantages. A suitable solvent is easy - an ideal one is a dish detergent which is labeled as being anti bacterial.

Alternatively you could try using one of those enzymatic cleaners meant for animal odors, like Nature's Miracle. Human stink is, after all animal odor.

If I were doing this with dish detergent I'd use about three times as much of it in the water as I would when washing dishes, to ensure there would be some detergent residue left in the couch fibres after it was done. I'd use another dry rag (or paper towel if you have to) to remove moisture after applying it. If I were to use the enzyme cleaner (diluted according to instructions) I would not saturate and let dry; I'd use the same technique as with the dish detergent, which essentially would be to wipe with a damp cloth so the surface was moist and then wipe with a soft, very absorbent dry cloth to remove as much moisture as possible afterwards. I would work in sections, first one arm, then one seat, then another, then one back section and so on, not dampening the whole couch and only then trying to dry it. You don't want to give it time for the moisture to penetrate before you start drying it. Any scrubbing would be during the first stage with the wet rag, not the dry rags. Old cotton t-shirts make good dry rags. So do old towels.

One thing that is important is that I would make sure to start this project when the weather was about to go into a three or four day dry spell, not humid weather and I would train two circulating fans on my couch afterwards. The best time of all to do this is in winter when the central heating comes on and everything has gotten hopelessly dry and you can give yourself electric shocks from shuffling your feet on the carpet.

I would not use water to clean the areas where my body hadn't been on the surface. Brushing will clean the areas that you have not been sitting or leaning on. You will probably want to brush the areas you have just cleaned and dried if your couch has pile - Pile is fibres that stand up, like velvet or fake fur. Washing and drying fabric with pile will mess up the way it lies. If there is not pile on your couch be careful with brushing or you may raise a nap from the weave by brushing too firmly. You want to use a very soft bristled brush, such as a natural bristle brush used to polish shoes or to finish long hair, or one that removes lint. If you haven't got that, simply use a cloth to brush it. You could probably use a dustpan brush if you used it very gently.

I might use both the detergent and enzyme cleaner, about a month apart and do the job twice if it stood up well to whatever I used the first time.

I wouldn't be one hundred percent confident this would work. Your couch may look rather more used after you are finished, or it may look a whole lot better. That depends on how it looks now, how dirty it is, and what it is made out of.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:30 AM on August 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Honestly, $100 for someone to come in and do it seems like a bargain. Especially if you're looking at renting a machine for probably $40. I wouldn't think of it in terms of what the sofa originally cost you - that's irrelevant. What's the value of a clean soft sofa to you? Do you want to put in the labor to clean it, or do you just want it done?
posted by hydra77 at 9:07 AM on August 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

I use a shop vac to remove the cleaning solution I apply with a 1gal pump spayer, .Fabuloso (aldehyde) or Dr Bronners and water,sometimes use cheap club soda as a final rinse..
posted by hortense at 9:29 AM on August 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I saw a rec here on metafilter years ago to use vodka to clean fabrics, and I've been doing it ever since. I buy cheap vodka, decant it into a spray bottle that has a good mist setting, and then go to town. Cuts through both human sweat and dog stank. I get my couch, my chairs, all of my dogs' cushions, basically anything I can't throw in the washer easily gets vodka sprayed. It's a lifesaver. (Edit to add: you just spray it down and then let it air dry.)

It's also great for jackets you don't want to wash too often. You know that pervasive sesame oil smell you get to your clothes after being in a Benihana type place? Spritz the garment down with vodka and boom, smell is gone.
posted by phunniemee at 9:38 AM on August 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Once you've cleaned it with a carpet/ upholstery shampooer, which is the right answer, set a fan on it to help it dry thoroughly and quickly. I use a throw on my couch because I eat and drink on it, had a dog, will have another dog. Easy to throw in the washer. If the cushions are not attached, they may have zippers; you can wash on the delicate cycle, line dry. They will wear out faster. It's beyond me why upholstered furniture is so stupid hard to clean. If I didn't really love my couch, I'd get Ikea & 2 slipcovers.
posted by theora55 at 9:43 AM on August 4, 2021

I vote get someone to come clean it. The commercial machines are MUCH better- especially at removing moisture.

I just cleaned a small chair with my bissel and it took at least an hour and was exhausting. I would never do a sofa myself.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:39 PM on August 4, 2021

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