Tips for Properly Cleaning and Maintaining Canvas Fabrics

Before you can understand how to clean and maintain canvas fabrics, it’s helpful to know what canvas is. It’s a heavy-duty fabric that’s usually made of cotton with a plain weave. It can be left in its natural state for drop cloths and making clothing or pillows. It can be treated for water resistance or with fire-retardant materials for use as sails, tents, and protective canvas shelters on campsites.

As there are different types of canvas, it’s important to understand how to clean and maintain each one. The longevity of canvas fabrics and tarps depends on how well you care for them. If you put a fire-retardant canvas tarp in a commercial washer and dryer, you’ll destroy the protective coating. The next time that tarp is exposed to sparks at a campfire, it could easily go up in flames.

Why is it important to clean and maintain canvas fabrics? If they’re allowed to get dirty or get folded and stored when they’re still wet, mold and mildew may lead to deterioration. At that point, your canvas is useless. You waste money replacing canvas too frequently. It also leads to unnecessary waste in landfills.

How to Clean Canvas Fabrics

No matter which canvas material you have, be sure to follow these general cleaning tips. Once the tarp or fabric is no longer being used, clean it in preparation for storage. Complete these steps for routine canvas cleaning.

Routine Cleaning Steps:

  1. Brush off all loose dirt, grass, leaves, and other debris.
  2. Shake the tarp or fabric out to remove anything the brush missed.
  3. Lay the tarp flat on clean ground or a blue plastic tarp to provide a clean surface.
  4. Rinse the canvas off with a hose. 
  5. Scrub the canvas fabric with a soft brush and a solution of dish soap and water.
  6. Rinse the fabric to remove all soap residue.
  7. Hang it to completely dry on a clean clothesline.

If you have an untreated canvas that is used as a drop cloth or to cover furnishings during renovations, you can put the canvas drop cloth in the washing machine and dry it in the dryer. Do not use a washer for any treated canvas tarps or fabrics.

You have a patio sofa or sectional with water-resistant canvas cushions, so how do you clean them? Most of the above steps work well, but you could also use a vacuum and upholstery brush attachment to clean cushions between uses.  Spot cleaning is essential for removing stains and spills.

Spot Cleaning Steps:

Suppose there’s a stain or you’re noticing mold and mildew. In that case, you need to clean those areas. Sofa and sectional cushions for outdoor furniture often require spot cleaning over washing everything with a hose and scrub brush. For spot cleaning, follow these steps.

  1. Blot up any liquid or paint spills with a clean cloth or paper towel.
  2. Make a mixture of two cups of water, a tablespoon of dish soap, and one cup of distilled white vinegar, or use a product specifically designed for spot cleaning canvas fabric. If you’re cleaning mold and mildew, use a 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide instead.
  3. Spray that product on the spot and use a brush to break up the particles. 
  4. Blot away as much of the cleaner and stain as possible.
  5. Rinse with cold water and check that the spill or mold/mildew spots are removed. If not, repeat those steps until it is.
  6. Hang it on a clothesline or over a deck rail and allow it to air dry.

Don’t be discouraged if it takes several sessions to get a stain fully out. Some stains are tougher than others. An oil-based stain is easier to remove if you add Dawn’s original dish soap to the cleaning solution. Mold and mildew respond better to bleach or hydrogen peroxide, but grass stains are easier to remove if you use vinegar. Tweak your cleaner to match your needs.

Now that your canvas fabric is clean and dry, you can store them. It’s best to store canvas tarps, camping supply covers, etc. in a plastic storage container to keep mice from damaging anything.

If the canvas fabric covers outdoor cushions and patio furniture, use the spot cleaning method and allow it to air dry. Store furniture in waterproof patio furniture covers and store cushions and pillows in oversized plastic bins for the winter.

Reapply Water-Resistant and Fire-Retardant Canvas

If the canvas you have is treated, you have to be very careful when washing it as that will remove the protection. Apply a waterproofing agent each year. Canvak is one option that you can brush on or spray onto canvas tarps and tents, but Star Brite is also recommended.

You also want to reapply a fire-retardant agent to ensure your canvas tarp is protected from bursting into flames near a campfire. For a recommended fire-retardant spray, try DRI-ONE or No-Burn. Follow the package directions to ensure you apply it properly. 

Use Your Canvas Tarp and Fabric Correctly

If you’re not using a tarp or canvas fabric following its recommended use, the canvas material won’t last. You could also cause damage to things stored below the tarp. 

For example, a canvas tarp that’s been treated with an oil and wax coating to create the water-resistant qualify is not intended as a vehicle cover. The coating could damage your vehicle’s finish. It’s also not going to be helpful to cover your horses’ hay as the coating could get into the hay they eat. 

You also can’t rely on untreated canvas to keep your hay bales dry. Water is going to go right through it. Plus, the exposure to rain, snow, and ice all winter will wear out an untreated canvas tarp.

If your outdoor patio furniture is exposed to consistent downpours and soaking rain, you may want to consider covering it with a waterproof Ironhorse or vinyl tarp between storms. Canvas isn’t waterproof, it’s water resistant and not meant to be exposed to constant moisture.  

Purchase Quality Canvas Tarps From a Trusted Supplier

At Chicago Canvas & Supply, you can purchase colored canvas, duck cloth, economy canvas, extra-wide canvas, and primed canvas in cut sizes, by the yard (5-yard minimum), or ask us about custom sizes. All are made in the U.S. and are easy to care for if you follow our tips. As long as you keep it clean and dry, most tarps will last several decades. Again, it comes down to the use and how well you care for it.

Talk to our experts about the different canvas tarps and fabrics we offer. While canvas is versatile for many indoor and outdoor applications, it’s not always the best choice. Our tarp specialists at Chicago Canvas are happy to help you decide the best tarp for your specific needs, so you’ll end up with the right fabric or tarp for your intended use.