Upholstery cleaning problems and solutions


Your phone rings, you answer it, and the customer whose sofa you cleaned earlier in the day says: “I’d like you to come and look the sofa that you just cleaned for me, because ____________________________ (complete the sentence with any of the following:)

  • “it looks funny.”
  • “it turned brown.”
  • “the colors ran.”
  • “there are rings and circles near the edges.”
  • “it shrank.”

Your heart sinks and you contemplate changing your phone number and address immediately.

Hopefully, this has only happened to you in a nightmare and not in real life.

Should it occur, though, all is not lost.

Here are a few suggestions on how you might correct such cleaning related problems, if such an incident happens to you.

This condition occurs when cellulose fiber fabrics are over wet, dry slowly, and especially when cleaned with an alkaline cleaning agent.

Raw or Haitian cotton fabrics may have especially severe browning problems because of the amount of vegetable and foreign matter that is allowed to remain in the fabric.

Browning removal methods

  1. Rinse the fabric with an acidic fabric rinse agent and speed dry with airmovers. Fabrics that have very mild browning, which will often look yellow, will often be corrected by this method.
  2. Re-clean the fabric with a formulated “Haitian cotton” shampoo or detergent. This method will work on more severely browned fabrics, and depending on the extent of the browning, may take a few treatments for complete browning removal. However, multiple cleanings may result in texture distortion and stiffening of the fabric from residues.
  3. Shampoo the fabric with a neutral or slightly acidic upholstery cleaning shampoo (not a Haitian cotton shampoo) boosted with a non-chlorine oxidizing booster. Follow with an acidic rinse and speed drying. This method works quickly and well, but may over whiten “natural colored cotton” fabrics.

Because of the need to try these methods multiple times, or in sequence, it’s best to perform this corrective procedure at your own location.

Absorbent powders used for spots that wick back are also useful for isolated areas that continue to brown during the drying process, as they absorb browning as readily as they absorb soils and spills that wick back.

Browning is not always 100 percent correctable, so it is best to avoid causing the problem, and never guarantee that you can fix a pre-existing browning problem.

In most cases, “if you’ve bled it, you’ve bought it!”

However, in small, localized areas of bleeding you might be able to correct bleeding enough to satisfy an understanding customer.

Bleeding correction
Hydrogen peroxide or chlorine bleach may be applied with the tip of a cotton swab and lightly blotted on the discolored area.

The concentration of either bleaching agent should be started weak and then increased as needed.

If chlorine bleach is required to remove the staining, you will also need to neutralize the bleach afterward.

Caution: Both bleaching agents may cause additional color damage, and may also weaken the fabric.

There are times when the bled area may be re-cleaned, and either packed with an absorbent powder to absorb the unstable dye, or subjected to high pressure air with an air compressor to force the dye back into the fabrics backing.

In cases of extensive color bleeding, these procedures are rarely practical.

Shrinkage is not nearly the problem that it was a few decades ago, but it still occurs on occasion in the skirts of furniture, especially furniture made from rayon or rayon/cotton blends.

Shrinkage correction
Shrinkage in skirts is often corrected with the use of a hand steamer, such as is used by drapery installers to remove wrinkles.

Apply steam to the affected areas, and tug gently on the skirts until they return to shape.

Cushions may be steamed and then stretched back to shape by placing the cushion over a “saw horse” or similar structure and pushing and pulling on the material until it returns to its original shape.

Water marks
Water marks — also known as “rings” or “circling” — may be caused by residual materials from spills or soil that remains after improper spotting; such water marks will usually be removed by cleaning the fabric.

Water marks caused by sizing are quite another matter.

Sizing is used to create enough stiffness to fabric to give it body, or to prevent puckering during seaming.

This otherwise clear product will migrate and dry to a brown ring whenever areas of the fabric dry unevenly after spotting and cleaning.

Water marks are most often seen on platforms, or around welt cords (also known as piping).

Water mark correction
Water marks are difficult to correct.

The easiest correction procedure is to apply distilled water evenly to the affected surface.

Distilled water wets the fabric evenly and dissolved the sizing and other impurities in the fabric, which allows the fabric to dry evenly and, in many cases, the water marks disappear.

If the distilled water does not work, you can use the shampoo and oxidizing agent method of correcting browning outlined above.

Another option, especially for synthetic fibers, is to apply a strong acid treatment to the water mark.

Iron content in some water mark stains will respond to this.

An industry trainer and consultant, Jim Pemberton is president of Pemberton’s Cleaning & Restoration Supplies and West Penn Cleaning Company, McKeesport, PA. He has more than 30 years of experience in the cleaning and restoration industry. You are invited to visit the Pemberton website at www.ecleanadvisor.com, or e-mail Jim at [email protected].

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