Cleaning & Maintaining Alcantara & Suede Interiors: A Guide

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How to clean, detail, and maintain alcantara, micro-suede, and suede interiors.

Stains Happen!

Your beautiful automobile is graced with suede or Alcantara fabrics and you follow all the current guidelines to care for your car’s interior.

But still, somehow, it happens:

The suede or Alcantara gets dirty or stained.

As the anger and frustration boil, you consider banishing the culprit to The Wall. Till you realize, the real concern is ousting that evil blot from your beautiful interior. And besides, how do you banish a toddler or pet to a fictional place in Game of Thrones?

Then you feel that awful pain in your stomach as the real question becomes clear:

Can I clean suede or Alcantara fabric myself and make it look like new?

Well, put those antacid tablets away, because surprisingly the answer is:

Yes! You can.

Normal Use and Care

Let’s first get some mandatory business out of the way before we dive into the more elaborate world of stain removal.

It seems obvious, but routine maintenance does need to be addressed as part of caring for your interior fabrics. Regular cleaning of suede and Alcantara is recommended and involves:

  • Soft brush (i.e. boar or horse hair detail brush)
  • Clean white terry cloth
  • Vacuum cleaner

Dust with the brush or cloth and avoid rubbing or scrubbing motions with both suede and Alcantara, which can crush the nap and destroy the unique textured appearance of the fabric.

Alternatively, vacuum with an upholstery nozzle (make sure there are no burrs to snag the fabric).

After dusting or vacuuming the fabric, you can then use a slightly damp white cotton cloth and gently wipe the surfaces. Spritz the cleaning cloth with a spray bottle filled with water. That’s all you need. Do NOT spray or wet the fabric. And again, do not press or scrub. Also, avoid using tinted or printed cloths as pigment and ink can transfer to your precious car fabrics.

There are times when it’s important to know if you have real leather suede or Alcantara / synthetic micro-suede, and steam cleaning is one of those times. Do NOT steam clean Alcantara. However, steam is used by some on suede, but caution should be used.

After you have done your cleaning, let the surface dry completely before use as wet suede or Alcantara is easily stained, matted, and damaged.

Stain Removal

Now back to the unfortunate stain scenario.

As with most disasters, the faster you spring into action, the better. The Alcantara website notes, “Act immediately (within 30 minutes) and begin treating the stain from the outside edge into the center in order to avoid the stain spreading.”

So you want to jump on that mess immediately, but how do you clean a stain from a fabric like suede and Alcantara, and not damage that beautiful texture and feel?

Well it is easier than you think and the steps include:

  1. Remove loose and excess debris
  2. Select a cleaner
  3. Lather the stain
  4. “Lift” with a dry cloth
  5. Vacuum/Dry

1. Remove Loose or Excess Debris

To begin, you must remove excess and loose debris before you can remove the stain. Work in small areas and move from the outside into the center to avoid spreading the stain. Cloths, sponges, paper towels and a vacuum cleaner can be used.

For thicker materials like ice cream,  ketchup, or yogurt, you can use a plastic spoon, credit card or plastic scraper.

Be gentle and guard against damaging the fragile texture driving the stain deeper. And make sure all of the excess substance is removed before proceeding.

2. Select a Fabric Cleaner

A good rule to follow is that if you are using a cleaner for the first time, even if the label states it is safe for suede or Alcantara, do a small test in inconspicuous place.

Make sure the cleaner will not stain or damage your fabric before applying to those highly visible areas!

And with that said, the first question should not be about what cleaner to buy. It should be:

What type of stain am I cleaning?

Spraying a cleaner on an alacantara back seat inside a car.You may inquire:

What? Why ask this first?

Good question and the answer is simple. A specific stain may best be cleaned with a particular cleaner. The cleaner should be “matched” to the stain being cleaned.

And to start, stains can be divided into water soluble and NOT water soluble. So the first thing to determine is if the stain can be cleaned using just water.

My Stain is Water Soluble:

If the stain is water soluble, apply water as your cleaner by spritzing your cloth or detailing brush with a spray bottle. Only use enough water to make the brush or cloth damp, not wet.

Simple, right?

Well hold on a moment, this is a general guideline that may have to be tweaked depending on the type of stain you are cleaning.

At this point, I can hear the moaning and the complaints that this is getting complicated. But pleased be assured it is not that difficult.

To help keep things simple, some of the more common water soluble stains you will encounter, and the necessary tweaks, are:

Fruit juice, jams and jelly, syrup, ketchup, mayonnaise, indelible pencil, cocoa, chocolate, pastry cream or chocolate, ice-cream, mustard: use lukewarm water.

Blood, egg, excrement, urine, or any protein based substance: use COLD water; avoid warm or hot water because these substances clot and coagulate with heat.

Liquors, alcoholic beverages, wine, beer, coke and tea: first try lukewarm water, and if the stain persists, treat with lemon juice followed by lukewarm water.

Vinegar, hair gel, tomato sauce, coffee: treat with lemon juice followed by lukewarm water.

Now, on careful reading (and I know you all read this section carefully) you noticed lemon juice crept into our conversation.

There are varying opinions on using lemon on suede, so use care if you have real suede, it is a little more susceptible to staining from lemon juice than Alcantara. And if you do need to use things like lemon juice, did you remember the recommendation about doing a test panel first?

Good!

But why lump lemon juice in with water?

The answer lies in the chemistry of how stains dissolve.

OK, I know using the word chemistry can teleport people back to high school and glaze their eyes over. But a little thing called pH is our friend here, so it is worth mentioning.

Some stains are more soluble in water that is acidic (i.e. a pH lower than 7). And even those who failed high school chemistry can tell you that lemon juice is acidic (pH of 2).

By using the lemon juice in conjunction with clean water, which has a neutral pH of 7, you create a solution that is a weak acid, allowing the water to dissolve materials that are not normally soluble in neutral water. And because lemon is considered to be a “natural” product, it is often lumped in as part of a water based cleaning and not listed as a “cleaner.”

My Stain is Not Water Soluble:

The thought of lipstick, foundation, mascara, eye shadow, perfume, shoe polish, grease, oil, grass or similar stains on your fine fabric interior is enough to make you break out in hives. And these are insidious stains that are NOT water soluble. Plus, there are times when a water soluble blemish simply refuses to come out.

So now what?

This when you need to break out the cleaning products.

Apply a small amount of cleaner to your brush or cleaning cloth, not directly to the fabric. Some do give a spritz to the fabric on tough stains, but this should be avoided unless absolutely required. You want to keep the fabric as dry as possible while removing your stain.

But which cleaning product?

That question rivals the Coke vs. Pepsi debate. Anyone who Googles “automotive suede or Alcantara cleaners” will quickly discover there is strong opinion out there on which cleaner should be used, but little consensus.

But let’s see if we can break this down.

A good rule of thumb is to use a product made specifically for suede or Alcantara. There are many available and they range widely in price (one Alcantara product from Swissvax is $165 per bottle!). The products recommended on the Alcantara manufacturer’s website are Perrone AerospaceJames, and Fenicecs.

There are also a number of other Alcantara cleaners appearing on the market like Sonax Extreme Upholstery and Alcantara Cleaner.

Suede cleaners are also sold such as Lincoln E-Z Cleaner.

And some prefer to use common house hold items like ethyl rubbing alcohol.

Repetition can be tedious, yes I know, but it needs to be repeated. Do a test panel with any cleaner you have not used before in an inconspicuous spot.

Also, when using a commercial cleaning product, read the label. No one likes reading the labels, but instructions do vary depending on the type of cleaner (and can change without notice).

Special Consideration: There is one unique, common “stain” that needs special mention: chewing gum. The cleaners mentioned to this point will not work and just pulling it off is, well…forget it was even mentioned.

Thankfully, special cleaners are available for gum.

Or, you can place a plastic bag filled with ice on top of the gum, and when the gum hardens, remove the brittle pieces followed by cleaning with ethyl alcohol. If the ice takes too long for you, use a can of compressed air instead to freeze the gum faster (make sure it is just air with NO oil in the can!).

3. Lather

Once you have you cleaner, and determine the tweaks to your procedure, apply the cleaner (or water) to your detail brush or clean white cloth. Do not over saturate or get the brush or cloth wet. Then, lightly brush or wipe the surface to lather the stain.

Lathering alcantara micro-suede with a soft detailing brush.

A soft detail brush works well to bring up a lather when using a foaming cleaner. Think of a shaving brush lathering shaving soap. This lathering action helps to lift the stain. Your lathering brush should be a clean boar or horse hair detail brush.

Soft is the key to protect the nap of your fabric.

For cleaning and lathering, a clean, white, cotton terry cloth is also a great choice. Make sure there is no printing or color on your cleaning cloth as the ink or pigment can transfer to your fabrics.

And if you resort to using a microfiber cloth, avoid inexpensive ones that you pick up at the local thrift store and use a quality microfiber cloth. If you don’t know what quality microfiber is check out my article on the different types and grades of microfiber.

A couple of warnings:

  • Do not press or grind the fabric as you lather or you may damage (e.g. mat or crush) the nap and force the stain deeper into the fabric.
  • Spray water or your selected cleaner on the detail brush or cloth. Spray the fabric as a last resort. The goal should be to use as little cleaner as possible while cleaning the stain.

4. “Lift” with Dry Cloth

Using a dry cloth, scoop or gently wipe the lathered area to lift the foam along with with the dirt and grime. Do not press, grind, or rub or you risk damage to the fabric texture. This is the reason you may find many odd words to describe this step like scoop, dab, and lift.

You need to lift the stain without being aggressive.

Also, for this step a dry microfiber cloth may have better “grabbing” power to help lift the lather and grab the dirt. And as stated once already, do not use an inexpensive microfiber product, use a quality microfiber cloth.

5. Vaccum/Dry

Using the upholstery tool on your vacuum, gently vacuum the surface to finish the cleaning operation and help the fabric dry. This step also makes the fibers (a.k.a. the nap) stand up like it did when the fabric was new.

Quick tip:

The upholstery nozzle of a vacuum can damage your fabric.

Inspect the nozzle for burrs or rough spots that can grab the fabric. Sand the nozzle tip, or any parts that touch the fabric, with two or three thousand grit sandpaper to remove imperfections to provide a snag free tool.

Your fabrics will thank you.

Also, drying is grouped with this step, but the surface may still be damp after you vacuum. So, let the surface dry completely before putting back into use.

Optional: Stripe or Pattern Your Alcantara for Fun

For the perfectionist out there, and that is probably most of you, there is one more step you can do after your routine cleaning and stain removal.

Striped design on alcantara seat in a car interior.Using your detailing brush or upholstery attachment on the vacuum, lightly stripe the fabric by gently rubbing in lines alternating in direction to give it that high-end, finished look.

For the creative types out there, you can make any pattern you like. Get crazy and share some photos with us!

In Summary

So DIY cleaning of suede and Alcantara is possible. To reiterate the key steps:

Regular cleaning (dusting and vacuuming) is recommended.

If the unthinkable happens, time is not your friend. Clean the stain as soon as possible.

The basic procedure is:

  • Remove excess debris.
  • Pick your cleaner with care. The type of stain is important to know and will help you decide on the type of cleaner and tools you may want to use. Also, if you do use a commercial cleaner, lemon, or alcohol, a test spot should be done in an inconspicuous area first (especially if you have real suede).
  • Apply the cleaner to the brush or cloth, not the fabric.
  • Gently lather the spot.
  • Keep the fabric as dry as possible while cleaning.
  • Avoid scrubbing, pressing, or aggressive motions that can damage the nap and drive the stain deeper.
  • “Lift” the lather and dirt gently with a dry cloth.
  • Vacuum with upholstery nozzle to finish and dry.
  • Let the surface dry completely before use.
  • Stripe or pattern with detailing brush for that high-end look.

There you have it.

It’s fairly easy to maintain and clean your suede or Alcantara, but as with most things in life, the details are important. Thanks for reading and happy detailing!

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