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The Best Methods for Cleaning Throw Pillows

Throw pillows are accent pieces that get quite a lot of use—and you may not be cleaning them as often as you should. Here’s how to wash and spot-treat these décor staples, so they are as good as new.

Throw pillows on couch in living room at home iStock

Few home accessories are as fun and effortless as throw pillows. They are one of the easiest and most affordable ways to give your home a quick update. And there are countless colors, patterns, and textures to choose from to revamp anything from a sofa, loveseat, or chair to a bed or even a bench.

Caring for cushions is one of those chores that are sometimes overlooked. But throw pillows likely get a lot of use and can accumulate the dirt, dust, and stains that come with a busy household. Fortunately, they can be cleaned—some even machine washed. Use this guide to freshen up your prettiest pillows and pick up some tips for keeping them cleaner longer.

The Best Ways to Clean Your Throw Pillows

Machine-washing, washing by hand, spot-treating, and dry cleaning are the main ways of restoring the good looks and fresh feel of your favorite throw pillows. While the correct method will depend on the material and construction of the pillow, the state and extent of the dirt and stains are also factors. That’s why it’s vital to treat spills and marks as soon as you see them, so they don’t have a chance to set in. Beyond that, maintenance cleaning a few times a year ought to keep decorative pillows looking great.

Nowadays, most accent pillows come as two pieces—an insert and a removable cover—allowing easier care. But no matter which cleaning approach you take, begin by testing a small area to ensure that it’s safe to proceed: Add a bit of water and mild detergent (or other appropriate cleaning solution, such as a wool-specific detergent or upholstery cleaner) to a clean white towel or rag, then dab the pillow in an inconspicuous area for 30 seconds.

Check the towel for dye transfer and the pillow for fading, and if you don’t see any signs of color change, you are good to go.

It’s important to take into consideration the fabric of your pillow cover before you start. You’ll learn more specific info about cleaning various fabrics later in this guide, but here are the basic how-to’s for each of the methods:

Machine washing

Always take a gentle approach and use the delicate cycle, the appropriate water temperature for the fabric, and a minimal amount of mild detergent.

Do a small load of similar fabrics and like-colored pieces rather than tossing pillow covers in with regular laundry. Once clean, covers can be machine-dried or air-dried, depending on the fabric. If in doubt, opt to air-dry it in a well-ventilated area (avoiding direct sunlight) and use a cool iron to eliminate any wrinkles. When completely dry, replace the cover on the insert.

Hand washing

When you’re unsure of the cover’s fabric content or whether the piece can stand up to warm or hot water temperatures, or the rigors of an appliance’s agitator and spin cycle, it’s safest to hand-wash pillow covers. Start by spot treating (see below) any stains or marks with the appropriate cleaner.

Then fill a basin with cool water, a small amount of mild detergent (or specialty detergent, such as one formulated for wool), and submerge pillow covers. Let soak for several minutes, then swish and carefully work out any remaining dirt with your fingers. Rinse well, being careful to avoid squeezing or wringing, and let air dry.

Spot treating

As a general rule: The finer the fabric, the less you want to submerge the entire cover, which is where spot treating comes in. Everyday dirt (from your dog’s paw or child’s shoe, for instance) may be vacuumed away, using the upholstery attachment with minimal pressure.

Oily stains may respond to simply applying baking soda to the spot for several hours, then vacuuming it up. For common water-based spills, such as milk, soak up excess liquid with a clean cloth or towel, moisten a soft sponge with water and mild soap, blot the area, and gently dab the offending stain in circular motions. Rinse any remaining soap using a different clean sponge or towel dampened with water. To speed up the drying process, hit the wet spot with a blow dryer on the cool setting.

Dry cleaning

Most dry cleaners will accept your high-end decorative pillows, and they have professional-grade products for the toughest stains. This is particularly true if pillows have embellishments, such as beading, appliques, or embroidery—attempting to spot-clean such delicate details could damage them.

That said, tests performed by the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute found that store-bought cleaning products, such as Dryel, worked well on water-based stains, but were not as effective on oil-based stains.

Know Your Pillow Fabrics

The key to success with any of the above-mentioned methods is knowing what you’re dealing with, to clean and dry without damage or shrinkage. Fabric content and cleaning directions are usually cited on an online vendor’s description page, and they may be printed on a care tag, sewn onto the seam or piping on the outside of a pillow, or inside a removable cover.

Still, a check of eight different throw pillows in this writer’s living room resulted in no care tags whatsoever, so folks may have to use their best judgment to determine what throw pillows are made of. Likely fabrics include:

  • Acrylic, a soft, lightweight, yet durable synthetic, is generally cold-water machine washable. Line dry or use the “air fluff” (no heat) setting in the machine.
  • Polyester, another popular, inexpensive, durable synthetic, can usually be tossed in a cold-water machine cycle. Tumble dry on low heat.
  • Cotton, a natural fiber that’s breathable, comfortable, and durable, is usually safe in a warm-water machine wash. Tumble dry on low heat to avoid shrinking.
  • Linen, a high-end natural option, can warp and wrinkle if washed, so spot treating or dry cleaning is best. Lay flat on a towel to dry, as clothespins can leave bumps on linen.
  • Satin, woven from various fibers and boasting softness and sheen, can typically stand up to a cold-water machine wash. Because satin may be woven from a variety of different fibers, it’s safest to line dry or tumble on low.
  • Silk, a natural choice that looks and feels finer than satin, is also more fragile. It may hold up in a hand wash in cold water, with mild soap, albeit with no scrubbing or wringing. Instead gently press out excess water and let air dry. Heat is likely to shrink or damage silk, so lay flat on a towel to dry.
  • Velvet is a lush and plush weave that may be made from natural materials (such as silk) or synthetics. If the fiber content is unknown, take the cautious route and spot clean. However, if the entire pillow is dirty, velvet might do well in a cold-water hand wash. Lay flat on a towel to dry so clothespins won’t mar fabric
  • Velour—whether made of cotton or synthetic—is more forgiving than velvet and usually fine in a cold-water machine wash; tumble dry on low or no heat.
  • Wool is a warm natural fiber, and occasionally pillows made of this fabric may be embellished with needlepoint or embroidery. While wool is fairly stain-resistant, it can still get dirty. In this case, spot treating, or dry cleaning may be best. If you opt to hand wash it, soak it in cool water with a minimal amount of detergent made specifically for wool and lay flat to dry.

Tips for Cleaning Pillow Inserts

Though pillow inserts are less likely to get soiled or stained, they can collect dust that filters through the cover’s fabric. So it’s a good idea to vacuum inserts on both sides or shake them vigorously outdoors to freshen them up.

Most inserts are made of polyester, so if a major spill should soak through the cover, feel free to toss the insert into a cold- or warm-water, gentle-cycle wash, using minimal detergent. Tumble-dry on low heat, using dryer balls to restore the insert’s fluffiness and shape. Be sure the insert is thoroughly dry before zipping it back in the cover.

However, if your throw pillow inserts are made of foam or memory foam, it’s best to spot-treat spills with cold water and a small amount of detergent since the insert could be damaged in a machine’s spin cycle. Also, avoid squeezing, wringing, or otherwise manipulating the foam while wet. Let foam air-dry completely in a well-ventilated area before returning it to the cover.

The trickiest pillow-cleaning problem occurs when the cover is not removable, which is sometimes the case with vintage or handmade pieces. To tackle this issue, start by gently vacuuming the pillow on both sides using an upholstery attachment; this should suck up a good amount of surface dirt, hair, and other debris. Then pretreat stains or marks with the spot-treating method described in the first section of this guide. Even if you must “spot-treat” the pillow’s entire surface, avoid fully submerging one of these pillows in water, since a wet-in-the-center insert is likely to invite mildew.

How to Keep Throw Pillows Fresh

  • Choose machine-washable pillow covers for high-use rooms, and especially if you have kids or pets.
  • Reserve higher-quality pillows for less-trafficked areas—say, the living room, as opposed to the den or an adult bedroom where snacking is prohibited.
  • Tackle any spills as soon as you notice them so dirt and stains won’t set into the fabric as you sit against the pillows.
  • Include throw pillows in your regular vacuuming routine. You could also give them a good shake outside to release trapped dust, hair, and surface dirt.