Your best plan is not getting the plush in a condition such that it needs cleaning, but since you're already looking for cleaning information I guess it's too late for that. So in the future keep your stuffe away from whatever soiled it this time -- or vice versa. Information here applies only to stuffed animals or plush toys made with a fabric covering of fake fur. The faux fur may be synthetic materials (usually polyester, acrylic or modacrylic) or natural materials (usually wool, wool/cotton, mohair, or alpaca). Objects with a real fur or leather covering would need different treatment.
From making soft sculptures and selling stuffed animals we have had a bit of experience with cleaning, and more from having a house full of plush (about 200, not counting our own handmade stuffed animals in storage or under construction). But most of our cleaning experience came when we were buying and re-selling "previously loved" toys. Quite a few of the recycled animals we sold required various amounts of cleaning and repair after they were rescued from the flea market, garage sale or thrift store. Possibly Candy's greatest cleaning success was salvaging a bag full of soiled unicorns from Southern California.
Note: Stuffe & Nonsense is not responsible for any damage to your toys that may occur from following cleaning suggestions listed here! Any cleaning products you plan to use will probably have a similar disclaimer on their container.
These steps aren't really "cleaning" -- rather basic maintenance. But it's good to know about basic maintenance, and any more serious cleaning ends with preening. So we're going to start here anyway.
The basic tools for plush care are a hair brush and a damp cloth. An old terry washcloth is perfect for the damp cloth. Wet the cloth and wring it out well; we're talking damp here, not wet. Get a hair brush to be used only on the plush. Synthetic fur does not need to pick up hair care products transferred from a brush used by people. Brushes with metal bristles, intended for pet care, can work very well on plush but can tear up the backing fabric if not used carefully. You want a brush with well-spaced stiff plastic bristles for most uses.
A vacuum cleaner and a lint roller are additional options for dusting.
Rub the surface of the plush lightly with the damp cloth to clean off dust, pet hair, food crumbs or whatever else has gotten onto the fur. Use the hair brush to straighten and arrange the nap of the plush, fluff flattened fur or smooth ruffled fur. For long fur, use the brush gently to separate snarls. Remember that any hair pulled out with the brush probably will not grow back, so brush gently. The brush will also lift out dust or debris buried in the fur. Give the surface another swipe with the damp cloth after brushing to remove anything the brush lifted.
A lint roller can be used instead of a damp cloth. The lint roller works especially well on pet hair. In our house there are four cats and a dog as well as lots of plush, and plushes that are near cat walkways have to get lint-rolled fairly often.
Pay attention to the style of fur you're working with! Don't brush out a plush surface that is supposed to look felted, tangled or woolly. Stick to lint rollers or vacuums for such material.
If your plush has accumulated a LOT of dust, you can use a vacuum cleaner on it. First, detach the carpet sweeper. No matter what the vacuum's manufacturer says about short-pile or long-pile adjustments you do NOT want to use that on your plush toy! A dusting brush attachment is good if you've got one, or just use the end of the vacuum hose if you're very deft. Preen with a hair brush and follow behind the brush with the vacuum. If there are costume or accessory parts on the plush, be sure not to suck them into the vacuum.
You can minimize later cleanup woes by promptly handling any spills that get on a plush surface. If something liquid lands on a stuffed animal, do not try to wipe it off. Wiping motions will just force the liquid down into the fur more. Instead, do what an actual wet critter would do: shake. Vigorously shake off as much of the liquid as possible. You may want to do the shaking over a towel or a tile floor or outside, but do the shaking as quickly as possible so the liquid does not get a chance to soak in. Blot any remaining dampness by dabbing the surface with paper towels or a dry sponge. Dab, don't wipe! No sense spreading the stain around.
Once the spot is just damp, dilute the spill by dabbing with a wet sponge. Then blot with cloth or paper towels. Repeat several times to remove as much of the spilled material as possible.
... is the only kind of cleaning you ought to be doing on plush.
For surface cleaning you'll want to use an upholstery cleaner or a mild detergent in water. We've had good success with the Woolite products, both detergent and upholstery cleaner. (Other people have told us that Woolite is terrible and horrible and should never be used on anything. Your Mileage May Vary) If you have very hard water you may want to use bottled water to clean with. Spot-cleaning products or alcohol may also be used for surface cleaning, but test such solvents very carefully.
Before using any cleanser on a plush, test for compatility on an inconspicuous spot. An "inconspicuous" spot is generally a spot that is underneath when the toy sits in its normal posture. Since you just want a "spot" test, put a bit of your cleanser on a small applicator like a Q-Tip and wet the test spot. Wait until the test spot dries. Brush off any dried cleanser residue and examine the test spot. Is it still the same color? Especially look for a ring of lighter or darker discoloration around the test area. Pull the fur in the test spot and be sure it's not falling out. If you see any problems with the test area, you'll need to pick a different cleaning product or live with whatever it was you wanted to clean out.
Remove costuming or accessories before any serious cleaning exercises. These are usually tacked on with a few stitches of heavy thread. Use pointed scissors or a seam ripper to snip the fastening threads. Make a note or take a photo so after cleaning you can tack the accessory back on where it was. Sometimes ribbons or other decorations are just tied on and can untie easily.
After a successful test, use your selected cleansing product to clean the plush. Have enough cleaner to clean the whole toy. Once you take the step of using a cleaner or detergent, you will generally need to clean the whole object rather than just a problem spot. Especially with older toys, one clean patch will usually look different than the rest of the animal. Even with a tested cleaner, proceed with caution. A cleaner that is fine for the base material may damage nose or paw-pad fabric, or affect air-brushed details.
Use just enough cleanser to thoroughly wet the plush and the backing material, avoid letting much soak through to the stuffing. A sponge is generally the best applicator, and gives you good control over the amount of cleanser applied to the plush. A plush soaked with cleaner looks about as glamorous as a dog or a cat getting a bath, but at least it won't claw your face off or shake soapy water all over everything.
After cleaning, let the plush dry completely, then use dusting and preening techniques to clean out the cleanser residue. Vacuuming can be a great aid now if you used upholstery cleaner. Replace any removed accessories or decorations.
All cautions aside, it is possible to wash many plush toys. But it's much safer to stick to surface cleaning. Washing should be a last resort because there is risk of damage. We have washed quite a few stuffed animals and have mostly had good results, but we have also thrown out a few items. One large sheep took on a most un-natural shape; after washing it was not at all sheepshape and had to be sent off to the rendering plant.
Check a few things first to see if the plush is a reasonable candidate for washing. Read the tag on the item for possible information on construction and materials.
As a general rule, the more expensive the plush, the less likely it is safe to wash. If you've got a soiled item that looks like a washing candidate, put it in a cloth bag -- a pillowcase is excellent -- tie the bag closed and toss it in for washing. The plush (and the bag) must fit loosely inside the washing machine. Use a bag of some reasonably sturdy woven fabric, not a mesh bag like those intended for washing hosiery. The goal here is to protect the surface of the fake fur so you don't get any split ends or felting or other physical damage from the washing process. You can put more than one plush per bag, as long as they all fit loosely in the bag.
By "wash" we mean cold water wash and cold water rinse with mild detergent on a gentle cycle. If you don't have access to a good washing machine with a gentle cycle, stick to surface cleaning. Laundromat washers seldom have a "gentle" cycle, even if they do have a button labelled that way. If at all possible use a front-loading machine, especially for large plush. For detergent, we've had good results with Woolite. Don't even think about bleach, nor fabric softener.
After washing, take the still-tied bag out of the washer. If the toy was safe to wash, it's usually safe to dry, too. Air drying is OK, but puts you at risk of getting mildew started inside the stuffing. Still in its protective bag, put it in a clothes dryer for a cycle on a gentle, low-temperature setting. Two cycles may be necessary to dry larger plushes thoroughly, or when you are washing more than one item at a time.
Tags on a stuffed animal usually have information about materials and construction, and may even have specific care suggestions. Look for a cloth tag sewn into a seam. There may also be something useful on the drop tags. Here are samples of information from tags found on some plush toys on a shelf near my computer.
All new material
Outer: 100% polyester
Inner: Polyester fibre
...To prevent product migration do not wash by hand or machine...
That line about "product migration" makes it sound like it might fly South for the winter if it's washed. But the caution is actually that the polyester fibre stuffing can rearrange itself during washing, changing the shape of the stuffed object dramatically. In terms of materials, this item is a good candidate for washing. The caution that the stuffing may get pushed out of shape by washing does not mean that it will, but it is a risk to consider.
NEW MATERIAL POLYESTER/CELLULOSE FIBERS
WASHABLE: Wash surface with mild soap and water
When dry, brush lightly - DO NOT DRYCLEAN
"Dry" cleaning in fact involves immersion in various solvents and is not usually a good option for plush toys.
mild suds - cold water - air dry - brush gently
Content: polyester fibers, metal stiffener
Because of the metal stiffener this object would not be a good candidate for washing.
Covering: 55% wool/ 45% cotton
Stuffing: 100% polyester
Since the covering is 55% wool it would be risky to wash this object.
Stuffe & Nonsense
Washing would not be recommended for most Stuffe & Nonsense handmade stuffed animals. We use a lot of wool, mohair or alpaca plush that would not tolerate washing well. And though we generally use polyester fiber for stuffing, we often stuff very hard so shape changes and drying would be a problem.