Before you whip out the cleaners, you’ll need to understand the code on your sofa’s tag. Here’s our guide to good-as-new upholstery.

The Secrets of Cleaning Upholstery, Decoded

Oops, an unexpected beheading in Game of Thrones had you flinging your cereal bowl into the air and onto the couch (we’ve all been there). Before you wet the stain with your tears and list the sofa on Craigslist, try cleaning the spill—and any others you’ve been ignoring—with one of these methods.

Routine Cleaning

When was the last time you vacuumed your sofa? Sure, you brushed away the cereal crumbs after your last Netflix binge, but are you sure you got everything? Any particles left behind, no matter how small, eventually get ground into the fabric, making your sofa look dingy and maybe even creating a stain seemingly out of thin air.

There’s an easy solution: a quick swipe with the hose or upholstery attachment of your vacuum cleaner. Do this once a week (or, ok, twice a month) on all your upholstered pieces and you’ll notice fewer mystery spots immediately.

Right after a Spill

Don’t panic—most mishaps are easily erased with water and clear dish soap. Here’s what to do:

  1. Remove any particles with a vacuum.
  2. Mix water with a drop of clear dish soap. (2 cups water to 1 drop dish soap is a good starting place. Add a little more soap as needed.)
  3. Test this solution on an inconspicuous spot of the fabric (try underneath where the fabric is stapled to the frame).
  4. If all is good, blot the spot with a white or light-colored cloth dipped in the soap and water solution. Never rub the spot; it just grinds the stain deeper into the fabric and can damage more delicate fabrics.
  5. “Rinse” the area with a white or light-colored cloth dipped in plain water.
  6. Blot dry with a dry towel.

You may need to do this more than once to completely remove the stain. If the stain remains after drying, try the same method using diluted vodka or vinegar. (Don’t worry, the smell will go away as the spot dries.)

Stubborn or Old Stains

Try the method above on old stains, but if they survive that gauntlet, it’s time to bring in more firepower in the form of upholstery cleaning solvents. There are many available on the market from gentle water-based ones (we like nontoxic, petroleum-free Folex) to dry cleaning solvents.

Before going in with the spray bottle, look for the cleaning code on your upholstered furniture. It should be on a tag either on seat cushions or under the furniture. Here’s what the symbols mean:

W: Use a water-based detergent (like clear dish soap and water, or Folex).

S: Use a water-free solvent, often called a dry-clean solvent (like the Chemspec or KleenRite lines). Follow the instructions to the letter for best results—and for your own safety. These are potent chemicals.

WS: Use either a water-based cleaner or dry-clean solvent, depending on the stain.

X: Don’t touch! Let a professional upholstery cleaner handle this one.

Good to Know

Wine spills aren’t the end of the world if you act before the wine has a chance to sink into the fibers. To clean a wine spill, blot all excess wine away immediately. (Don’t rub!) Wet the area with club soda to dilute the wine and help lift it out of the fibers, then blot again. Repeat as necessary. If the stain remains, wash with the clear dish soap solution described above.

Grease needs special treatment. The key is to absorb the oil, then remove it. Sprinkle the stain with cornstarch and let it sit for about 30 minutes. Vacuum the cornstarch and check the spot. If it’s not totally removed, repeat with more cornstarch until it is. Don’t attempt to wash or rub the area—both will drive the grease deeper into the upholstery.

Finally, tufted furniture can be a magnet for dust and mystery dirt. Blast dimples clean with a can of compressed air, followed by a quick vacuum with the upholstery attachment.