Technically, you can only really wash sofas that have loose covers. If you can unzip the seat cushions but nothing else –you can’t remove the piece that goes over the back and arms –then you have a fixed-covers sofa that isn’t strictly washable. The zips on the cushions are there simply so you can replace a seat cover when it gets worn.
However, I think these zip-on covers present a cleaning opportunity that’s too good to waste. On both cotton and damask sofas I’ve always adopted a now-and-again approach to machine-washing the cushion covers, without any problems. But, if you want to follow my lead, you probably don’t have any washing guidelines for your cushions, so you will have to determine for yourself whether the material is colourfast, and nonshrinking, and so on, and wash them at your own risk. To stack the odds in your favour, wet a small, hidden area of the fabric (the underside of a cushion is ideal), then blot it with a white paper towel. There should be no colour transfer. To investigate for shrinkage, inspect your test patch when it dries to see whether it still lies totally flat. Any buckling indicates that the material may shrink in water.
Sadly, the potential for sofa fabric to shrink is huge. Most, but not all, loose covers are pre-washed (and many say so on the care label). If they aren’t, however, shrinkage can be substantial. Unless covers are roomy, you may want to consider dry cleaning covers that aren’t pre-washed, if the care labels allows this. Be aware that repeated washing of just the cushions may make them paler than the rest of the sofa. On the other hand, not washing your sofa at all generally leads to the seats becoming darker, as they attract the most grime. The best solution is to wash the cushion covers just often enough to keep them from looking grimy but not often enough to make them noticeably different from the back and arms.
For those couch covers that you do wash, follow the care instructions as to machine or hand washing. If you’re washing coverings on your own initiative, use a low-temperature setting or hand wash. Partially dry them on the clothes line or in the dryer on low heat, but don’t allow them to dry completely. Instead, put covers back onto the sofa when they’re still slightly damp. This way, if you need to stretch them back to fit, you can do so easily. If you absolutely have to iron them, do so after they’re back on the couch with the iron on the cool setting.
If you have a washable couch with fixed covers, use a water extraction carpet cleaner or spot clean stains as needed.
It is vital not to get sofas or chairs too wet. Fabrics such as cotton and linen are washable, yes, but they’re often stretched across a wood or a wood-chip frame. If water seeps down below the surface of the fabric, mould may form deep inside the sofa because it never gets the chance to dry out. To prevent the fabric from getting too wet, concentrate on getting the cleaning solution, rather than the water, into it. Mix up upholstery shampoo as instructed on the package, then use only the foam to clean. Scoop up the bubbles and work these into the fabric with a soft brush. Rinse by using a slightly damp towel. Then take off the excess moisture by blotting dry towels over the sofa. Finally, turn up the temperature in the room to aid drying.
Published in: Do-It-Yourself