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Know Your Fabric - Effectively Cleaning Upholstered Furniture

Written by  Sara Thurston

Fabric Samples

With more contract cleaners now cleaning carpets for their clients, it should come as no surprise that they are also asked to clean upholstery and partitions as well. Cleaning upholstery can be a bit more complicated than cleaning carpets because, among other things, there are more types of fabrics used to cover chairs and sofas. While one of the most common types of carpeting that contractors will find in commercial office space is likely to be nylon, when it comes to upholstery, the fabric could be nylon, cotton, special types of cotton, polyester and other synthetics, leather, or a combination of two or more of these materials.

Before cleaning any upholstered furniture, partitions, or other fabric-covered items, the first thing that must be done is to identify exactly what the fabric is made of. This is very important because it helps determine how the fabric should be cleaned, what cleaning agents should be used—and possibly even more important, what cleaning agents should not be used.

The type of fabric can also indicate the type of soils present, according to Scott Warrington, technical advisor for Interlink Supply/Bridgestone Systems. “Polyester and olefin are oleophilic, or have an affinity or attraction for oily soil. Thus solvents or other methods of emulsifying oils will play an important role,” says Warrington.

As to fabric identification, Bob Abrams, a carpet care expert and product manager for Nilfisk-Advance commercial business, which makes the U.S. Products line of professional carpet extractors, notes that, “A solid first step is to simply ask the client if they know [what the fabric is]. They may very well have information on the product—even an invoice—which will provide this information.”

If the client is not able to answer the question, check the manufacturer’s tag on the furniture. While the tag’s main focus is to list the “stuffing” and related materials used to make the furniture, it may also indicate the fabric type. If you still are not able to find the answer, you may have to do a fabric burn test.

Conducting a Fabric Burn Test
Over a sink, light a flame over a small piece of fabric. If it is a natural fabric, such as wool or cotton, it will not shrink from the flame or begin to fuse. It will likely smell a bit like burning newspaper, and the ash left behind will be gray and light. Natural fibers also leave a light, powdery ash. If it is a synthetic fabric, it will likely curl up as it burns. It will smell more like burning hair than paper, and the odors released range from light to fairly difficult to tolerate. Synthetics may also melt and leave a bead that feels like melted plastic. In either case, once the fabric has burned, be sure and douse it with water and rinse out the sink area.

“While the common fiber and fiber combinations most often used in today’s upholstered furniture are cotton, rayon, polyester, or a combination thereof,” says Abrams, “always know what type of fabric you have been asked to clean before proceeding.”

However, cleaning contractors are advised that it is not always possible to know what specific fibers are involved, especially if the fabric is a blend of fibers. In such cases, Warrington says that it is still important to know if the fabric is made from mostly synthetic fibers, natural material (cotton or rayon), and/or what the fabric’s primary fiber is.

Check the Condition of the Furniture
We are not ready to start cleaning just yet. Simply knowing the type of fabric that was used in an upholstered item is not enough. There are several other steps that should be taken to make sure the item is cleaned properly, safely, effectively, and your work meets the customer’s satisfaction.

Remember the last time you rented a car? Usually right before you are handed the keys, you walked around the car with the rental agency representative looking for marks and dings. Well, according to Abrams, when you clean upholstered furniture for a client, it’s also a good idea to inspect the item first.

Before cleaning any upholstered furniture, partitions, or other fabriccovered items, the first thing that must be done is to identify exactly what the fabric is made of.

“If possible, grab a tablet and walk around the item to be cleaned with the client to get a complete overview of its current condition,” says Abrams.

“If you did a walk-around and have it marked down ahead of time, then it’s clear the damage was done before the chair was cleaned,” adds Abrams.

Additionally, Abrams notes that sometimes soiling can hide damage. Just as a dirty car may hide some dings, it can also hide problems when cleaning upholstery. “It is also important that the inspection be thorough to avoid over-looking any hidden pre-existing conditions such as fading or heavy wear.”

A few other items BSCs should note before cleaning any upholstery include:

• Water rings, stains (permanent discoloration), or rips or tears under cushions

• If there are buttons, are they frayed or rusted? Are they firmly attached?

• Wear on arms, conditions of zippers, brittleness of the fabric (if brittle or stiff, it can be more prone to damage when cleaned)

• Color loss or fading due to, for instance, sun exposure

• Overall condition of the furniture

Determine the Type of Soiling
Just as with carpeting, most upholstery will collect and trap different soils, and as they build up, the fabric will begin to darken or discolor. “In most cases, this type of soiling can be removed using a hot-water portable carpet extractor (one with a built-in heating element) at a low psi setting,” according to Abrams. “Select a portable [carpet extractor] with variable psi, using a low setting to protect upholstered furniture and a higher setting for cleaning carpet.”

However, when it comes to soiling, the big concern is grease, oil, blood, ink, or other soils that may have found their way onto the upholstery. These may require the use of special solvents or spotters in order to be removed.

Set Up a Workstation
When cleaning upholstered furniture, it is very important to have all your tools and equipment at hand before beginning the job. This includes spotters and solvents, as previously mentioned, should they be needed. Another step that carpet cleaning technicians who frequently clean carpets often skip is to place a drop cloth under the chair or sofa being cleaned. This protects the floor or surface below. “Also, if possible, try to elevate the item to be cleaned by lifting it on a sawhorse or [placing it on a] sturdy table,” says Abrams. “This makes it easier to clean, there is less bending, and it helps ensure all fabric areas are treated.”

Cleaning Flow Chart

Select the Cleaning Process
As Abrams mentioned earlier, most types of upholstery can be cleaned effectively using a portable carpet extractor with a heating element and adjustable psi, along with an upholstery tool. However, this may not be true with all fabrics, which is why you must know what type of fabric you are working on before beginning. For instance, some cotton fabrics are best cleaned using a fast-dry shampoo. Or if it has been determined that the upholstery is Haitian or Tahitian cotton, then cleaning agent specially formulated for these types of fabrics are necessary. Using an extractor or moist cleaning method may actually damage the fabric.

The final step before cleaning any upholstered item is to read the label instructions on all detergents and solvents that will be used in the process. Even if you are familiar with the product, a refresher on the proper use and dilution of the product as well as any use and safety warnings can help prevent any damage to the upholstery and ensure your customer is happy with the results.

Sara Thurston has held several positions with Nilfsk-Advance, makers of professional cleaning equipment and manufacturers of the U.S. Products line of portable extractors. She now serves as communications manager for the company. She can be reached at www.usproducts.com


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