Stain Removal Techniques

There are two basic approaches to removing spots and stains. You can use a stain-removal agent that interacts with the stain chemically, or you can physically loosen or remove the stain from the surface. Many stubborn stains require both chemical and physical treatment. In this chapter, we discuss eight physical stain-removal techniques: brushing, flushing, freezing, presoaking, pretreating, scraping, sponging, and tamping.

Which technique to use in treating a particular spot or stain depends upon both the nature of the stain and the type of surface stained. For example, a stain may be wet or dry, semisolid or hardened. On a very delicate surface, you may not be able to use such techniques as scraping and tamping. A stain may be flushed more easily from a loosely woven fabric than from one that is tightly woven; but a tightly woven fabric can withstand a treatment such as tamping more successfully.


Follow these directions carefully to assure successful stain removal without harm to the stained article. Note that whenever you use absorbent pads (when you flush or sponge a stain) you should check the pad frequently and change it as soon as any of the stain is deposited. This will prevent reapplication of the stain to the treated article. Remember, too, that to avoid fabric damage you should never apply heavy pressure when using techniques such as brushing, tamping, or scraping.


Brushing is used to remove dried stains and spots. Some spots, such as those formed of dried mud, may be completely removed by brushing. In treating other types of dry stains (for example, face powder), brushing is just the first step in treating the stain. In treating some stains, brushing may be one of the last steps, as when you want to remove an absorbent or a dried stain-removing paste from a surface.

Use a small, stiff-bristled brush for this technique. A toothbrush works well on small stains. When working on a fabric, stretch the piece on a firm, clean working surface. Hold a clean sheet of paper next to the stain (on walls, hold the paper beneath the stain) so that you can brush the staining material onto the paper. Use a gentle motion to brush the stain up off the surface and onto the paper. It may help to blow softly on the spot as you brush.


Flushing is used to remove loosened staining materials and any residue from the stain-removal agent. This is an important step in the process, for if any chemicals are left in the material, they may cause additional staining or they may damage the treated article.

When flushing a stain, especially one on a nonwashable fabric, you need to control the flow of water carefully. To apply a measured amount of flushing liquid, use a device such as an eyedropper or plant mister, or a plastic trigger spray bottle that can be adjusted to spray a fine stream. Before you begin the treatment, place a clean absorbent pad beneath the spot, then slowly and carefully apply the recommended stain remover to the stain. If you decide to use a mister, place the tip against the stained area and depress the plunger or pump the trigger slowly. In this way, you can force out a thin stream of fluid without wetting a large area. You must work slowly; do not apply the liquid faster than the pad beneath can absorb it and do not spread the stain. Replace the absorbent pad frequently so that the deposited staining material does not restain the fabric.

Stains on area rugs may be flushed following the directions above. In fact, any rug under which you can place an absorbent pad can be treated by flushing. If, however, your rug is too large to lift or if the stain is on tacked-down rugs or carpeting, you may have to sponge the stain-removal agent onto the spot instead. Then sponge with clear water to remove chemical residues. Remember, the pad or cloth used for sponging must be changed frequently.

If you are treating a washable fabric and directions call for flushing with water, you may rinse the stained article. To rinse out a stain, dip the article up and down repeatedly in a container of warm water. Change the rinse water frequently.


Pretreating is used to ease the removal of small stains, especially those that are oily or greasy. Stubborn soil, such as the ground-in dirt on collars, cuffs, and socks, is easier to remove after it's been pretreated. When you are pretreating a stain, you apply the stain-removing agent directly to the stained area. To pretreat a stain, you may use a liquid detergent, a soil-and-stain-removing pretreat spray, bar soap, or a pretreating paste made of powdered detergent (do not use one that contains bleach) and water.

Liquid detergent and pretreating sprays should be applied directly onto the dry stain. If you are using bar soap or have prepared a paste of powdered or granular detergent and water, dampen the fabric slightly before applying the pretreating agent. After its application, rub the pretreater into the stain gently, then wash the item as you normally do.

To use pretreating sprays successfully, you should keep a few points in mind. Pretest the spray by applying it to an inconspicuous part of the garment before using it on the stain. Most of these sprays are perfectly safe on all washable fabrics, but some contain an oxygen-type bleach ingredient that could harm some dyes. Apply the product according to package directions, wait 5 minutes, and then rinse the pretest area carefully. If no color change is apparent, you can safely treat the stain. After using one of these sprays, it is essential that you wash the treated article thoroughly to remove both the rest of the stain and any residue from the pretreat spray. Allowing the residue to set may cause a new stain.

Learn about more techniques to get rid of stubborn and unsightly stains and spots in the next section.


More Stain Removal Techniques

Learn the stain removal techniques for presoaking, scraping, freezing, sponging, and tamping.


Presoaking is a useful and effective treatment for washable articles that are grayed, yellowed, or heavily stained. You can presoak laundry in the washer or in a sink or tub. Use warm water. Sort the soiled items before presoaking; noncolorfast items should be soaked separately or with similar colors and for only a short time.


How long you should presoak stained articles depends upon the stain and the fiber. For most stains, 30 minutes should be adequate. Noncolorfast items should be soaked only briefly. Heavily stained items or stains that have set for a long time may require overnight soaking.

You may want to add bleach, laundry detergent, or an enzyme presoak product to the soaking water. However, avoid using enzyme products on silk or wool, and do not use chlorine bleach and an enzyme product at the same time. Whenever you add anything to the water used for presoaking, make sure that the item is then thoroughly rinsed before you launder it. There should not be any residue from the presoak product left in the item when it is washed.


Scraping can be used to lift off excess semisold staining material and to loosen caked-on stains. Removal of as much of such material as possible makes it easier for the stain-removing agent to reach the surface, and although scraping may not remove a stain completely, it is often a necessary step before applying a stain remover.

Do not use an absorbent pad beneath an item you are going to scrape. For your scraping tool use a dull knife, spoon, or spatula. Don't press hard, but move the edge of your scraping tool back and forth across the stain in short strokes. Be gentle to avoid damaging the stained surface. To remove some stains you must add liquid as you scrape, working the liquid into the stain as you remove excess material.


Some staining substances, such as candle wax and gum, can be hardened by the application of cold so that they are easier to remove. Work fast when treating a spill that is still semisolid. You may be able to limit the area stained by quickly hardening the staining material. To freeze a stain, hold one or more ice cubes against it. If the stained item is not washable, place the ice in a plastic bag. If the stained item is portable and the stain is large, you may put the article into a plastic bag and place it in the freezer. Take the item out when the staining material solidifies.

After the stain has solidified, it can usually be gently lifted or scraped from the surface. Any residue may require further stain-removal treatment.


Sponging is one of the most frequently used methods of applying many stain-removing agents, including water. Sponging is another technique in which clean absorbent pads are used. The stained item should be laid on a pad, stainside down, if possible. You may have to sponge stains on carpets without any absorbent pad beneath, in which case you must be especially careful to wet the carpet as little as possible.

Use another clean pad or a clean sponge to apply the stain-removing agent. Dampen this pad with the agent specified in the stain-removal directions and sponge the stain gently. Use light strokes and work outward from the center of the stain. Try to keep your sponging strokes as close to the stain as possible. Use only enough stain remover to dampen the sponge and move in an irregular pattern. By following these directions, you are less likely to cause rings to form.

Check the pad beneath the stain at frequent intervals and examine the sponging pad as well. Change the pad as soon as any stain is deposited on it. In this way, the staining agent will not be reapplied to the fabric.

Certain fabrics, including acetate, triacetate, and rayon, are more likely than others to develop rings when treated with this technique. So, when sponging stains on these fabrics, you must be even more careful. Barely wet the sponge with stain remover and touch the fabric lightly so that the stain remover is absorbed as slowly as possible. Limit your strokes to the immediate stained area to keep the moistened area as small as possible and avoid spreading the stain. After the stain is removed, dry the fabric as quickly as possible. Blot the treated area gently between clean, dry absorbent pads; then allow it to dry. Unless you have used only water as the stain-removal agent, do not use heat in drying.


Tamping is a stain-removal technique that is effective on durable, tightly woven fabrics, but it may damage more delicate materials. When stain-removal directions call for tamping, the only tool you need is a small brush (a soft-bristled toothbrush is usually fine). Place the stained article on the work surface; there's no need for an absorbent pad. Hold the brush 2 or 3 inches above the stain and bring it down directly on the stain repeatedly in light strokes. You are using too much pressure if the bristles bend. Try to hit the stained area squarely with the tips of the bristles. You are more likely to damage the fabric if you hit it with the side of the brush. To avoid harming the fabric, stop tamping as soon as the spot is removed. Tightly woven fabrics of high-twist yarn are able to withstand more tamping than loosely woven fabrics of slight-or moderate-twist yarn.

Each of these various methods have a different purpose but the same desired outcome. Use one or a combination of these as directions specify.

©Publications International, Ltd.