How to Clean Dining Room Chair Upholstery

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Upholstered dining chairs are magnets for spills, crumbs and stains -- dirt and smudges that look terrible, weaken the fabric and padding, and provide a breeding ground for bacteria. Regular cleaning restores the bright, clean appeal of chair seats or slipcovers, and emergency spill mop-ups prevent permanent damage and costly bills for replacing ruined upholstery. But don't let the cure for that cabernet splash or chocolate pudding dribble become worse than the original catastrophe. Match fabric, spill and cleaner to restore the chairs to near-pristine status.

Time Is NOT on Your Side

The sooner you tackle the problem, the higher your chance for success. The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute says any stain on upholstery that hasn't been there for more than two months can probably be removed. Your efforts are more likely to be rewarded for a mark that is a day old than for a spill a couple of weeks old. And some stains "bloom" over time. A liquid, such as soda with sugar in it, might be mopped up quickly, but, without more extensive rinsing and removal, time or body heat will cause the sugar syrup to react with oxygen to caramelize and turn the spot a lovely shade of brown.

Check Your Codes

The fabric or the chair may provide a hint for safe cleaning with a standard code that specifies which cleaning agents are recommended for that upholstery. Here's the key:

  • W: Water-based cleaners are OK. Those might be gentle detergents mixed with water, a spray-on foam or a pre-mixed mild cleaner. Less is more; don't soak your furniture, and always test an inconspicuous spot before working on the high-profile spill.

  • S: Dry-cleaning solvents that work without water are appropriate for this fabric. Open the windows. Solvents emit unhealthy fumes.

  • WS: Use solvents, water-based cleaners or upholstery shampoo on this material safely.

  • X: Call a pro. This fabric does not react well to DIY cleaning approaches. It's OK to vacuum the upholstery.

For the Love of Linen

Linen is elegant. Linen is long-wearing. Linen is natural and sustainable. Linen stains like crazy when your toddler dumps his grape juice on it. Remove the child immediately -- cheerfully if possible -- and mop up all you can with a clean rag or towel. Press another clean cloth, which you've soaked in plain water and wrung out to damp, on the spill repeatedly, rinsing the cloth often and getting up as much as you can. This not only slows the absorption of the stain by the fibers but pulls the moisture out of the padding where it will do eventual damage if not removed. In general, linen not marked "Dry Clean Only" will respond to gentle dabbing with a sponge or cloth moistened with dilute mild detergent or clear glycerin. Dab, don't rub, to reduce the risk of damaging linen fibers. Once the upholstery is clean, consider applying a stain guard so your chairs will survive his childhood.

Aftermath of a Toast

Post-dinner party, your chairs display the wine menu with drops, spills and splotches -- pale or glaring but destined to wreak eventual havoc. Club soda is your cleanup accomplice. A big spill gets mopped up and dealt with on the spot, but stealth spills respond to club soda the morning after as well. Draw any remaining moisture up with a dry clean cloth. Then soak a cloth or sponge in club soda and press and dab at the stain lightly and repeatedly to loosen and lift it from the fabric.

General Grubbiness

Day-to-day wear deposits a layer of grime on your dining chair upholstery that likely consists of juice, grease, oil, crumbs, contact dye, dust and nameless dirt. It may do nothing more than dull the fabric, but why settle for shabby -- and germy -- when simple maintenance will extend the life of your embroidered damask, nubby cotton or plaid synthetic seat covers? Vacuum the upholstery to remove loose particles. Check for fabric cleaning instructions before wiping down upholstery with a damp sponge or clean cloth. Solutions for various types of soiling include:

  • Combine 2 cups of warm water and a squirt of mild liquid detergent for dust and air pollution film and light cleaning; wipe or dab with damp sponge and finish with a wipe-down using clean sponge and clear water. Don't soak fabric.

  • Dab at any protein stains with an enzymatic cleaner designed to break down proteins such as those in milk, cheese, ice cream and eggs. Common enzymatic cleaners are marketed to clean baby clothes and diapers. Never apply heat to this type of stain because it sets the proteins. And be really careful with wool or silk -- they are proteins and can be damaged by protein-eating cleaners.

  • Try a combination of equal parts white vinegar, tepid water and very mild liquid detergent on a clean cloth to lightly blot tannin stains. Tannins, from berries, alcohol, coffee, tea and fruit juice, act like dyes. The solution lifts them away, and you finish the job by blotting clean with plain water.

  • Mix baking soda with a little warm water to make a paste to apply to grease marks from salad dressings, butter, mayonnaise or random Drench fries. Let the paste dry, brush it off, and then vacuum. 
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