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Keys to Upholstery Cleaning
To clean any surface, including leather and fabric, we must first understand the basic fundamentals of cleaning. If any of these fundamentals are neglected or misused, the quality of the cleaning job will greatly diminish. The fatigue of the technician, as well as potential damage, will also likely increase.

Dry Soil Removal

Often neglected and yet critical to a complete and satisfactory cleaning job, dry vacuuming should be done first. The majority of the soils in any fabric are insoluble, particulate matter that is critical to remove before the fabric is exposed to either water or solvent-based cleaning solutions. Regardless of the vacuum suction of the cleaning extractor, these units cannot (and are not designed to) remove embedded, gritty, insoluble soils during water or solvent extraction processes.

Soil Suspension

This step loosens as much soil as safely possible from the surface of the fibers, primarily during the preconditioning process, but some suspension also occurs during the extraction process. Soil suspension involves four fundamentals:

Time. Refers to dwell time. The months or years between cleanings leave fabrics with built-up soils that cannot be completely removed if the cleaning agents in the preconditioner are not given several minutes of dwell time. The exact amount of dwell time varies with the level of soil and the cleaning method being used. On sensitive colors, as with natural fiber jacquards, or natural cottons that may easily brown, dwell time should be limited.

Agitation. This step aids in the distribution of preconditioning agents throughout the fabric. Use a horsehair brush, natural sponge, or even a mechanical scrubbing device, but do so with care, as some delicate fibers and constructions are easily damaged with harsh mechanical action.

Chemical action. The process where the chemical used in cleaning (detergents, solvents, etc.) acts on soils by suspension, emulsification, etc., to begin to loosen soils - most of it happens during the preconditioning step.

Temperature. When water-based solutions are heated, the surface tension of the water decreases, causing more rapid penetration and cleaning. Heat aids in cleaning not only by lowering the surface tension of water, but also by melting waxes, fats and greases. This change makes many of these substances easier to remove with less need for high concentrations of solvents and detergents in the cleaning solution. The surfactants used in cleaning formulations work better when used in hot water. Enzymes and some bleaching and reducing agents must be heated to specific temperature ranges to work efficiently. Simply stated, hot water cleans better, allows for the use of safer cleaning agents (and less of them) and dries faster!

With each cleaning method, these principles are used in different ways or to varying degrees. However, to achieve maximum cleaning results, you must increase the use of one or more of these fundamentals if you decrease the use of any one of them.


Extraction, the “removal” step, occurs after suspension has been accomplished. Once suspended, the soils now need to be removed from the fabric. While extraction is sometimes called the “rinsing” step, in hot water extraction all methods have a soil extraction or removal step. Hot water extraction, when safe, does remove the most suspended soils, however.


Slow drying is one of the leading causes of cleaning-related damage (bleeding, browning, shrinkage). Improper technique, over-wetting fabrics, malfunctioning equipment, carelessness, absorbent fabrics or environmental factors (air temperature and humidity) can all contribute to slow drying. Regardless of fault, fabric problems and customer complaints will result if drying is too slow.

Air movement from carpet dryers and proper home ventilation and humidity control will ensure reasonably fast drying (the BSR/IICRC S300 Standard for Professional Upholstery Cleaning recommends drying time not exceed 6 hours). Cleaning technicians must be aware that humid weather and common absorbent, natural fibers will extend drying time, and appropriate measures should be taken to speed the drying.
Adapted from Complete Guide to Restorative Drying published by Restoration Science Academy. The Guide is a collection of all ASD classroom course materials, including water damage restoration, fire and smoke restoration, odor control, microbial remediation, trauma scene cleanup, upholstery and fabric cleaning, and carpet cleaning. Authors: Gary Funari, Gary Loiben and William Weigand. Technical Review: Mitchell Byrom, Mark Cornelius, Mike Kerner and David Oakes.