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Cleaning Your Car's Upholstery

Cleaning Automotive Fabric Upholstery

Fabric is the most difficult upholstery to detail.  Unlike vinyl and leather, fabric upholstery easily soils and stains.  You should expect to spend 2 to 3 hours detailing a sedan with fabric upholstery, a little less time for a truck or two-seater.

There are two basic types of fabric upholstery cleaners:

  • Spray-On/Wipe-Off Cleaner (foaming or non-foaming) – These cleaners penetrate and lift dirt and stains to the surface where you can wipe them away.
  • Shampoo – A sudsy soap solution that requires agitation with a brush or sponge and rinsing.

For quick spot cleaning, I recommend the spray-on/wipe-off type of cleaner.  These cleaners are strong and get deep into the soil or stain to thoroughly clean.  However, for a complete cleaning, I prefer good old soap and water.  Before using any product on your car's fabric upholstery, test for color fading by cleaning a small, inconspicuous area.  Do not use the product if it adversely changes your fabric's color or texture.

Rinsing is the key to shampooing your car's upholstery.  If you don’t rinse, the dirt and soap remain in the upholstery.  Rinse water must be removed with a wet-dry vacuum, extractor or plenty of clean towels.  Use a shop wet-dry vacuum, a coin-op car wash vacuum or a carpet wet-dry machine rented from your local grocery store.  Make sure you have the vacuum before you get started.  Follow these easy steps:

  • Vacuum the upholstery thoroughly.
  • Spray spots and heavily soiled areas with a good spot remover, and allow the cleaner a few minutes to work.  I use 303 Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner
  • Fill a bucket with 2 gallons of warm water.
  • Lightly spray a section of upholstery (no more than 2 square feet at a time) with your upholstery cleaner.  Use an upholstery scrub brush and a sponge in a circular motion to agitate the upholstery.  Dip your brush in water to keep it wet, but apply as little water as possible.
  • Wipe away the suds with a sponge or a damp detailing towel.
  • Empty your bucket of soapy water and refill with clean warm water.
  • Rinse the upholstery with clean water by wiping with a damp terry cloth towel or sponge.  Rinse the soap from your towel or sponge often and wring it out.  Use as little water as possible, but rinse thoroughly.
  • Vacuum your upholstery to extract the remaining rinse water and dirt.
  • If you're not working on a warm, sunny day, use a hair dryer to complete the drying process.  Be careful not to scorch the fabric by holding the dryer too close.
  • Allow the fabric to dry overnight before using the vehicle.  If possible, keep your windows open slightly to allow the moisture to escape.

To keep your fabric upholstery looking factory fresh for many years, consider using a fabric protectant, such as 303 High Tech Fabric Guard.   It blocks the sun's damaging rays and repels water, oil, grease and dirt.  Use a fabric guard only on new or just-cleaned upholstery.  Your upholstery must be dry.   Simply spray it on (two light coats is better than one) and let it dry.