Caring for Fine Fabrics On Board

19 February 2009 By Rubi McGrory

Working as professional yacht crew has interesting side effects. Interior staff, in particular, gain a new way of looking at the world. Instead of stepping onboard a yacht and being awestruck by its design and opulence, the professional stew glances around to see how much of her working day will be spent taking care of the various fabrics and upholstery.

Those luxurious sheens and naps come at a price: stew muscle.

Since most stews don’t get the chance to weigh in on what fabrics are most appropriate on board a yacht during the design phase, and the designers never have to worry about keeping those fabrics clean, there is generally a disconnect between what works best and what looks best.

Bill Killian of Blue Bend Custom Interiors ( will always try to steer his clients toward manmade fabric, such as Ultra Leather, Ultra Suede and Sunbrella. “These aren’t the naugahydes of past decades; textile technology has come a long way. You can’t tell the difference [between natural and man-made], and the fabricated ones are so much easier to keep clean.” Killian recommends that if clients want to include silks, brocades and other specialty fabrics in the décor, they restrict their use to accent pieces like throw pillows, which are easier to clean or replace.

Ultra Suede can be machine-washed gently, if necessary, and air dried. “I have even been able to take Sharpie out of Ultra Suede with rubbing alcohol,” Killian says. He notes the only stain he has not been able to get out of Ultra Suede is candle wax, which is so hot it simply fuses with the fibers.

No matter what materials you have on board, if you are spot-cleaning, Killian recommends you start with warm water and a small amount of mild soap (like Ivory), and don’t use very much. Rub gently with the grain of the fabric. “Think of it as though you were applying stain on wood,” he says. If you rub too hard, you run the risk of going beyond removing the stain and making a light spot on the fabric from friction.

“Never, ever use a brush,” he warns. “Just your finger is enough. Don’t argue with me, I have remade a lot of cushions because of this.”

If you're cleaning upholstery, think about the filling beneath the fabric. If you over-saturate the spot, the only place for the water to go is into the foam/batting inside. This will spread the water, and possibly the stain, as well as leaving the area damp and thus susceptible to mold or mildew.

If you have a red wine stain in a cushion or pillow, Killian has a quick and easy solution. After slipping off the case, he stretches the fabric with the stain over the opening of a clean, empty coffee can and places it under a faucet of warm running water until the stain is released from the fiber.

Real leather is a bit more difficult to work with. Killian recommends having a leather-cleaning kit on board, and “feeding” your leather on a regular basis. Depending on the environment, you should moisturize the leather once or twice a year with a lanolin-based product. This keeps it supple, as exposure to salt air dries leather out, making it susceptible to cracking and to holding stains.

Research has turned up another solution to maintaining the delicate fabrics on board: For an all-white interior, one 98-foot (30m) yacht charges a US $5,000 additional deposit for guests consuming of red wine on board. This covers the yacht in the event the stain cannot be removed and the item must be replaced.

Do you have any sure-fire stain-removal tips for fine fabric? What about stories about the stain that wouldn’t budge?