How to Clean Cloth Car Seats Like a Pro

When it comes to cleaning cloth seats as well as any other cloth, fabric or upholstery inside your car, the process is actually quite easy and simple.  It helps to use quality tools and products and of course the key ingredient is you and your focused attention to the task at hand.  

Besides these things, the most important thing I can share when it comes to cleaning cloth seats is try to work with a foaming upholstery cleaner and after all the cleaning is done, place a small fan inside the car for an hour or two as the moving air will ensure all the water and other liquids are fully evaporated out of the fibers, foam and other materials behind the surface of the cloth, fabric and upholstery so you can avoid any mold and mildew issues. 

Supplies needed

Vacuum with carpet cleaning brush and crevice tool

Optional tools

  • Carpet and upholstery extractor
  • Steam cleaning machine

First steps

Remove floor mats

When I clean a car interior, the first thing I do is remove the floor mats and wash them while I’m washing the car.  There are two general categories of floor mats, rubber floor mats and carpet floor mats.  In the case of rubber floor mats, you clean them with any all-purpose cleaner and a brush and then dry them with a utility microfiber towel or just let them air dry.  

In the case of carpet floor mats, if they are really dirty, as in filled with coffee stains, ground in dirt or oily grime, then instead of cleaning them I simply order new replacements and save a lot of time.  Plus, in most cases, new replacement carpet floor mats are not that expensive.  If they are just slightly dirty, then I place them on a table and clean them the same way I clean the cloth seats.  

If they are super dirty and replacement is not an option, then I will hand or machine scrub them and the power rinse them with my water sprayer or a pressure washer.   The key thing about wet-washing carpet floor mats is getting them dry and the best way to do this is to hang them vertically so the excess water can drain out via gravity overnight.

Remove all large clutter and debris from inside the car

If you’re cleaning the seats inside your car or a customer car, normally this is because you’re cleaning the entire interior.  After removing the floor mats the next thing I do is remove any garbage or debris like candy wrappers, soda cups or cans, hamburger wrappers that go lost under the seats, old french-fries, etc.

Blow out the inside of the car

Before I vacuum, I will blow out the entire car interior using whatever tool I have that blows air.  Lucky for me I own a number of air tools including, an electric leaf blower, a handheld air blower, a shop-vac with an option to attach the hose so that it blows air instead of sucks air, etc. 

I will open all the doors, trunk lid or hatchback and then blow out the entire car.  This means blowing out under the seats, the compartments in the sides of the doors, the map pockets on the back of the seats, the dash, all the vents, everything.  I basically try to blow-out as much dirt, debris, and dust as possible and then vacuum. 

Once you have finished all these normal first steps, now it’s time to tackle cleaning the seats.  Follow these steps in the order they are shared, and your cloth seats will look better than new.

  

Step-by-step – how to clean your car’s cloth seats like a professional detailer

 

Step 1:  Thoroughly vacuum the seats

This is very important BUT no one ever accurately tells you why?  So let me be the first.  The reason you want to vacuum first is to remove dirt via LIFTING IT UP via extraction – this obviously gets the dirt out of the weave of the cloth.

If you don’t remove the loose dirt and dust first – the exact opposite thing happens when you apply the carpet and upholstery cleaner.  Any carpet and upholstery cleaner product is at its core a LIQUID.  When you spray the liquid onto the fabric, the next thing that happens is GRAVITY does its thing and MOVES DOWNWARD (into the foam cushion under the cloth top), and as the liquid cleaner is moving downward it’s going to take all the dirt and dust you didn’t remove with it. 

Inner, foam cushion core

Under the cloth surface is a soft, comfortable foam cushion and this is what makes it nice for you and me to sit on the seat and drive to our destination.  But the problem is, for most of us, we cannot remove the cloth outside of the seat so any liquids and dirt that penetrate past the cloth will soak into the foam cushion and be trapped there.  

The liquids will eventually evaporate but the dirt you could have removed by vacuuming FIRST will be there forever.  This is why professional detailers ALWAYS vacuum first.  It’s much easier to lift the dirt out of the weave of the cloth, fabric, and upholstery than it is to try to extract this same dirt out of the foam cushion core.  Make sense?

Extremely dirty cloth seats

I’ve cleaned trucks that belong to farmers in my life, actually my friend Bob, who is a Dairy Farmer, and both the inside and the outside of his trucks get covered in dirt and mud.  If you ever have to clean the cloth seat in a farmer’s truck like Bob’s, then one of the things that helped me was to WHACK the cloth seats using some kind of blunt instrument to break-up any crusty dirt and mud so it can be vacuumed out.  

For this I’ve used the back of a Fender Well Brush, as these usually have a long handle, but the back of this handle and the head of the brush is smooth plastic – so you cannot hurt anything.  I’ve also used a small wooden baseball bat that works just as well.  The idea being to break-up any dried, crusty dirt or caked-on mud so the vacuum can extract it out of the cloth. 

Crevice tool

Most vacuums come with a variety of attachments that will fit onto the end of the vacuum hose to enable you to be more efficient at cleaning different types or designs of surfaces.  Such is the crevice tool, this is a long, thin rubber rectangular shaped attachment that fits in-between tight areas so you can vacuum and clean these areas.  For example, the space or crevice between the face of the seat and the back of the seat.  The crevice tool also enables you to clean in-between the side of the seat and the center console where your seat belt receptacle is located.

Brush tools

The vacuum brush tool is simply a brush that fits on the end of the vacuum hose and this enables you to agitate the fibers of cloth, carpet, and upholstery to loosen and then extract out dirt and other debris. 

Step 2:  Apply the cloth, carpet and upholstery cleaner to the seat and agitate with a brush.

My strong recommendation, especially if you’re new to cleaning cloth seats, is to use a foaming aerosol carpet and upholstery cleaner like 3D Carpet & Upholstery Cleaner.

Why?

Because with a foaming aerosol cloth cleaner, because foam is basically millions of tiny air bubbles encapsulated by the liquid cleaner, the cleaner STAYS ON THE SURFACE where you want it.  A liquid carpet and upholstery cleaner tends to penetrate past the cloth surface and then soaks into the foam cushion under the cloth.  This is important because you want the cleaner on the top surface not under the cloth soaking into the foam cushion core.  With a foaming aerosol cleaner, the cleaner covers the surface where you can now agitate it with a brush for optimum cleaning performance.

Technique tip

It’s usually the face of a cloth seat that is the dirtiest, as this is where food and drink spills, plus any other substances like sweat, body oils from the skin on the backs of your legs, etc., accumulate.  For extremely dirty seats, divide the face of the seat into quarters or sections using the natural design characteristics of the seat as a guide and then only work one section at a time.

You want to move quickly when agitating the foam cleaner so that you’re working the foam while it’s on the surface.  If you spray the entire seat at one time as you’re cleaning one area of the seat (with the foam on the surface), the foam on the rest of the face of the seat will be dissipating and then seeping into the cloth and then into the foam cushion.  So, for really dirty seats, divide the face portion into smaller, more manageable sections and work these sections one at a time.

Spot Treatment Cleaning – Pre-Treat isolated stains

If there are more pronounced stains in the seat, for example a coffee spill, then you can spot treat this area first with a Stain & Spot Eliminator or Spot Pretreat Cleaner and then clean the rest of the seat.  To spot treat a localized stain, simply spray the stained area of cloth or fabric with your carpet, cloth and upholstery cleaner and allow the cleaner to penetrate and work on the stain for a few minutes.

Do not over treat or over saturate the cloth with the cleaner because all that’s going to happen is the cleaner is going to seep deep into the underlying foam cushion and you’ll never get it out.  Instead, just spray the stained area with a normal amount of cleaner and allow some time to pass so the cleaner can do its job and breakdown, dissolve and loosen the offending stain so you can remove it via the blotting technique.  

Step 3: Using clean microfiber or cotton towels, press and blot the seat to remove the cleaner.

Again, you want to work quickly so you can absorb or blot-out as much of the liquid cleaner as possible with a clean microfiber towel, while the majority of the liquids are still on the surface and/or inside the cloth material.  The longer you wait the greater the chance gravity will do its thing and the liquids, plus any dirt, stains, spills, etc., the cloth and upholstery cleaner has loosened will be dragged downward with it.

Blotting Technique

I find cotton hand towels work best but you can use any cloth towel like a microfiber towel as long as it’s clean and dry.  Fold the towel in half, place the towel onto the seat or a section of the seat and press the towel into the cloth and wait a few seconds.  When you do this, there’s a physical action taking place called capillary action.  Capillary action is where the liquids in one material move or transfer into a different material.  

Takes a few seconds

This is why if you were to watch a seasoned professional blot-dry cloth seats, you would see them press the dry towel into a section of the cloth seat and wait for 20 to 30 seconds and the while still pressing the cloth into the seat – move the cloth over the seat just a little at a time.  This pressing of the dry cloth over the wet cloth acts to extract the liquid and the moving acts to further blot-out or extract liquid simply via a squeegee effect. 

The movement of the liquid out of the cloth seat and into your drying towel takes some time, thus if you simply press a towel against the seat and move it over the surface quickly, all you’re going to do is remove the liquid cleaner off the top surface but not out of the cloth or foam cushion itself.

Make sense?

It’s like the old saying, sometimes you have to go slow in order to go fast.  By slowing down and having a little bit of patience combined with some old-fashioned elbow grease, (elbow grease in this case is pressing the dry cloth against the wet cloth), you can remove the majority of the carpet, cloth, and upholstery cleaner along with all the dirt and soil it has loosened and emulsified.

  

Step 4: Place a fan or air mover inside the car and force air-dry the interior for about an hour.

After you have finished scrubbing and blotting the cloth seats as best as you can, next you want to further dry the cloth using a fan or air mover. 

The trick to speed drying a car interior is to place a fan or air-mover onto the floor of the car and then run the fan for at least an hour on the high-speed setting. 

Professional Technique Tip

Roll the windows down about 1 inch and then close the doors.  The reason you want to put the windows down about an inch is because the fan or air-mover is going to create a natural air current that is unique to the design of the car interior.  

What’s going to happen is the air is going to find the path of least resistance to flow through the car, under the seats, around all the various sections and components, and eventually flush out of the cracks or opening at the top of the window glass in the doors.  At the same time, via one of the other doors, fresh air is going to flow into the car interior compartment. 

The air flushing out of the car is moist with the liquid cleaner and the air flushing into the car is dry or dryer and this effect acts to fully evaporate any moisture in the seats, in the cloth even in the foam cushions, leaving behind a fully dry interior. 

Note that as a part of closing the doors you’ll need to run the power cord or an extension cord through one of the windows that is opened about an inch.  If you don’t run the power cord through an open window, when you close the door, you’ll pinch the power cord (or extension cord) and damage the electrical wires inside the cord. 

Finishing touches

After the cloth seats have completely dried, here are a few optional detailing steps you can perform. 


Option 1:  Apply a fabric protectant

A quality fabric protectant will repel dirt and stains to keep the cloth surfaces inside a car cleaner, longer.

Option 2: Apply an odor eliminator.

3D offers both a spray-on odor eliminator called 3D Odor X and what is known in the professional car detailing industry as an odor bomb, 3D Odor Eliminator.  

The difference is with Odor X you simply spray this product onto the surface of any fabric, cloth or upholstery and let it dry.  

With the Odor Eliminator, you can use it like the spray-on odor eliminator by spraying short bursts of spray onto cloth surfaces or for total odor elimination to an interior compartment, place the can inside the car on a clean microfiber towel on the center console, the eat or the floor, and then press the spray nozzle tab downward until it click and locks into the ON position and allow the can to completely expend all the odor eliminating fog inside the car interior.  

Option 3: Apply an air freshener.

There are a lot of air fresheners and odor eliminators on the market today and 3D offers unique products in this category because of how safe they are for humans and pets. 

Now that the cloth, fabric, and upholstery inside the car is clean and dry, this is the perfect time to use one or even both of these products. 

Air Fresheners

A professional grade air freshener will give the inside of your car a beautiful fresh scent and in most cases, you can choose from a number of different scent options.  For example, 3D offers air fresheners where the scent is derived from all natural ingredients.  For example, the scent used to create Chillin Cherry Air Fragrance Freshener is derived from real cherries!  

You can use any of 3D’s non-toxic, air fresheners by themselves or after first using an odor eliminator.  For more information on all the human and pet-friendly air fresheners, click any of the scents below that interest you. 

 

Optional methods for cleaning cloth seats

The methods shared above can be used by anyone because all you need are basic tools and products.  For extremely dirty and soiled seats or if you’re detailing cars professionally, below are two tools that can assist you.

Hot water Carpet and Upholstery Extractor

Allow me to remove all the mystery around how this tool works.  It’s really quite simple.  First, you still have to do the steps I shared above, that is you want to pre-treat the dirty and soiled cloth with a quality carpet and upholstery cleaner, preferably a foam aerosol product.  Then agitate the cleaner over the cloth using a brush.

What’s different?  Now instead of blotting out the cleaner and any dirt and soil it has loosened you use the hot water extractor to remove the cleaner and any excess water.

How a hot water extractor works

The simplest explanation as to how an extractor works is this, the extractor forces water out the end of a wand, into the cloth surface and then immediately extracts it out via the same wand using vacuum suction pressure. 

There are two types of extractors, there are extractors with built-in water heaters, which will heat-up clean water to temperatures above 200 degrees.  There are also extractors that do not have a built-in water heater but if you have access to running hot water you can fill the clean water tank with hot water.  The key important thing is that hot water does a better job of cleaning than cold water. 

The way any extractor works is the extractor has a water pump that feeds, or forces water out the end of a hand-held cleaning wand and also an air vacuum pump run by an electric motor that provides suction out of the same wand. 

Wet passes followed by dry passes

To extract a cloth seat, you start by making what are called wet passes.  A wet pass is when you press the flat portion at the head of the wand over the cloth seat in usually a series of straight-line passes.  The best carpet, cloth and upholstery extractors have a CLEAR wand head so you can visually see the dirty water being extracted out of the cloth. 

You make wet passes over the cloth seat until the water being extracted goes from dirty water to clean, clear water and this is how you know you have removed all the cleaner plus all the dirt, stains and soiling in the cloth seat.  

Next you turn the water supply off and make only dry passes until you no longer see any water or liquids being extracted out of the cloth material and passing through the clear window on the wand.

Clear wands vs solid wands

Hot or cold-water carpet and upholstery extractors are available at different price points and like most things in life, the more you pay the more you get for your hard-earned money.  Most of the low-end extractors have a solid wand made from either plastic or metal.  With this type of wand there is no clear plastic panel or window on the top side of the wand so you cannot see the color of the liquids being extracted. 

With higher-end models, they either come with a wand with a clear plastic window on the top side of the wand or the manufacturer of the extractor machine offers as an option, a wand with the clear window.  

Without the clear window you can never truly know if you’ve removed all the dirt, stains, and soiling.  You have to guess.  If your budget allows, I highly recommend purchasing an extractor that comes with or has as an option, a wand with a clear plastic window so you can see the color of the water being extracted.  This is the only accurate way to know if the section you’re making wet and dry passes over is clean and dry or if you need to make more passes.

Benefit to an extractor

One of the benefits to an extractor is the ability to mix a carpet and upholstery cleaner into the clean water tank.  This is especially helpful when using hot water.  Why?  Think about it… if your hands are dirty, the best and most efficient way to get them clean is with warm water and soap.  Warm or hot water helps to clean the dirt off your hands, especially oily dirt.  

Cold water doesn’t work very well.  By adding a carpet and upholstery cleaner to the clean water tank like 3D Extractor Shampoo you can work faster and work more efficiently than working by hand or working with only water in your extractor. 

The key important factor when choosing an extractor shampoo is to pick one that offers low foaming.  A non-foaming formula is important because as the water is extracted, via the vacuum – the turbulence created will not cause the water plus the extractor shampoo to turn to foam.  The reason this is important is because if you have foam in the dirty water tank it can get sucked through the vacuum motor and cause damage or premature failure to the motor.  This is why you want a non-foaming product.  

Steam Cleaning Machine

A steam cleaning machine works very differently than an extractor.  Where an extractor injects water INTO the cloth, fabric or upholstery and then immediately extracts the water and any dirt with it, steam cleaning machines only clean the surface.  There is some blotting action that can take place if you press the head of the steam wand against the cloth surface, but this does require the correct steam wand with a clean towel wrapped around the head.  Then as this towel becomes dirty you must stop and remove it and then replace it with a clean, dry towel.

The more common way people use a steam cleaning machine to clean cloth seats is to use a tip on the end of the steam cleaner wand that emits a large cloud of hot steam and then hold the tip of the wand next to the cloth and allow the steam to penetrate into the cloth.

The hot steam will heat the cloth and any dirt, stains or soiling to loosen and emulsify these contaminants and they YOU with your HAND rub the surface of the cloth seat with a clean towel and blot or extract out the dirt, stains, and soiling.

Using a steam cleaner is kind of like cleaning cloth seats by hand as shared at the beginning of this article, only you can use it instead of a dedicated carpet and upholstery cleaner or in combination with a carpet and upholstery cleaner.  The key aspect both styles of cleaning have in common is at some point you have to wipe, rub, and blot the surface you’re cleaning with a clean, dry towel.

You get what you pay for

When it comes to investing in a steam cleaning machine, like mentioned previously, you get what you pay for and the more you spend the more bang for your buck you get.  The key things to look for in a steam cleaner are, 

1: Heating tubes on the OUTSIDE of the water tank.

With this type of steam cleaner, you can use any clean water source including tap-water.  When the heating tubes are on the inside of the water tank, you must use distilled water, or you will void the warranty.  If you use tap water in a steam machine where the heating tubes are inside the boiler tank, the minerals in the water will build-up on the heat tubes and cause premature failure of the heating tubes.  If you send the steam machine in for repair or warranty, the technician that disassembles the steam machine will see that you used tap water, and the warranty will be void.

2: Metal construction

Most entry level steam machines use plastic bodies and can break easily.  An all-steel construction, be it steel, aluminum, or more common, stainless steel, will cost more but these units are built like tanks and will take years of use and abuse without breaking.

3: Pro quality wand attachments.

I’ve used a number of different brands of steam cleaning machines over the years and the thing that really makes or breaks a steam cleaning machine is the quality of the attachments.  The better the attachments the more you’ll be able to take advantage of the steam for cleaning.  The worse the attachments, and the less able you are to clean using steam.  Yes, it’s that simple.

The above are the three main things to look for, besides that customer service and warranty are important and range greatly among manufacturers.  

Summary

Cleaning cloth seats is actually very simple if you follow the steps I outlined in the first part of this article.  Cleaning cloth seats is as simple or as complicated as you want to make it and my experience is, making this type of work more and more complicated never really gets you better and better results.  

The best thing to do is KISS or Keep it Simple Simon and you can easily get your car’s cloth seats clean and then put the car back into service.

If your lifestyle leads to getting cloth seats dirty fast – then look into getting some vinyl seat covers.  Vinyl seat covers are relatively cheap, with good quality vinyl seat covers costing around $50.00 at most auto parts stores.  

Then as they become dirty and stained, they are fast and easy to wipe clean with any quality vinyl cleaner.  Or, simply replace them as they wear-out.  Not only does this mean you won’t have to clean your car’s cloth seats, it also preserves the appearance of the cloth to protect your auto investment.  This means it will be easier to trade your car in or sell it moving into the future.

If you have any questions about cleaning cloth seats in your car, truck or suv, please feel free to reach out and contact me and I’ll do my best to see you through to success. 

Sincerely,

Mike Phillips

mike.phillips@3dproducts.com