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The truth about dry cleaning

This service piece was first published years ago in the Washington Post magazine as “Coming Clean About Cleaning: A Practical Guide to Preserving Your Wardrobe.” The general principles still apply, and I update occasionally, as new information comes to light. Copyright (c) Pat McNees.

See also:

General principles
A fabric-by-fabric guide
Caring for leather and suede
Chemical dependence: Some truths about dry cleaning
When to wash a garment
When to dry-clean a garment
Tips about stain removal and other frequently asked questions about fabric and carpet care (Other resources)

How to get rid of red wine stains
How to get greasy stains out of washable fabrics
How to preserve your wedding gown
Must I dry clean polyester suits?
How to get body oils out of a polyester shirt

General principles

Okay, you bit the bullet and forked over the equivalent of a car down payment to buy a new jacket. The saleswoman purrs that it's a "classic," a real example of "investment dressing."

"You'll wear it forever," she promises.

But what about the first time you spill a spritzer on it? Or it comes back from the cleaners looking like half its former self?

There are ways to keep your investment looking good. Here are some general tips your mother may never have taught you, plus a fabric-by-fabric guide.

Never rub a stain, particularly on silk or rayon.

First, blot the stained area, being careful not to damage the fabric or spread the stain. If it's a solid spill, carefully remove the excess with a dull knife. Then launder the garment or have it dry-cleaned within a week. Age, heat and light can set stains, making them more difficult to remove. Tell the dry cleaner what you spilled, when it spilled, and what you did about it, if anything.

Before trying to remove a spot at home, test the water or cleaning solvent on an unexposed seam to make sure it won't cause permanent color loss. Blot, don't rub, the spot remover, working from the outside to the inside of the stain.

Tell your dry cleaner about any spots, including invisible spills — particularly those from alcoholic beverages, fruit juice, and soft drinks. Invisible sugar stains cause the most problems for dry cleaners, says Norman Oehlke of the International Fabricare Institute. Drink stains can caramelize and turn brown from the heat of the dryer unless the area is flushed with warm water or steam before dry cleaning. Age and exposure to light (even a light left on in a closet) can also create these brown spots.

For similar reasons, don't press stained or dirty clothes, and protect your garments from prolonged exposure to direct sunlight or artificial light. Keep white fabrics out of the sun. The days of using sunlight as a natural whitener are over; many modern fabrics contain fluorescent brighteners that often decompose to ugly colors on exposure to light.

Use antiperspirants and deodorants with care. Sweat can damage your clothes, but so can sweat prevention. To protect them from antiperspirants and deodorants, apply a moderate amount after you bathe or shower and let it dry well. Underarm shields are particularly recommended for silks, which perspiration can destroy by causing a color change and leaving underarm rings. Antiperspirants weaken underarm fibers in cellulose fabrics, especially all-cotton shirts.

No wire hangers! Jackets keep their shape better on heavy wood hangers. For other clothes, use thick plastic hangers. Ideally skirts and pants should be hung by the waist, not over bars, and not attached with safety pins to a wire hanger.

Don't store dry-cleaned clothes in their plastic bags. Clothes need to breathe, and while the plastic may keep your clothes dust-free, it also traps solvent fumes. To protect your clothes from dust, cut the plastic off at armpit level, leaving shoulders protected.

Send both pieces of an ensemble to the dry cleaner — even if only one piece actually needs cleaning — so that any color changes will affect both pieces evenly.

Attack oil or grease stains before you launder. Laundering alone won't get rid of oil or grease stains unless you treat them first with concentrated liquid detergent or a prewash spray (such as Shout or Spray 'n Wash) or soak them in enzyme cleaners, which break down the oil and grease. Liquid detergents generally do a better job than powders.

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Appropriate clothing care depends on the type of fabric and the methods of dyeing, manufacturing and construction. Here's what experts in the field recommend:

SILK. It's tempting to wipe away a stain by rubbing silk with a wet cloth. But you should never rub silk when wet because it "chafes," which can damage and discolor the fibers. Blot any spills, let the silk dry, then launder it or have it dry-cleaned as soon as possible.

Labels in silks indicate if they should be washed or dry-cleaned. "Washable" silk blouses are specially treated and should not be dry-cleaned. Silk labeled "dry-clean only" can sometimes be washed, but you assume full risk if anything goes wrong. Silk will shrink a little. It also water-spots, so don't use steam to press a silk blouse. Some people dry-clean silk garments for a year or two and then begin hand-washing them in mild soap and water.

"My wife washes her own silks," says textile professor Ira Block, "but that's because she knows what she's doing. If you have 100 percent silk, with no interfacing or lining or embroidery or trimmings, and you want to hand-wash it, you can probably do that the rest of your life with no harm at all."

Not everyone — even an expert — is that adventurous, though. Polly Willman, the costume conservator in charge of the First Ladies' gowns at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, has her own silk blouses dry-cleaned. She believes dry cleaning doesn't interfere as much with the texture or body of a garment.

RAYON. Rayon (a man-made fiber) is also a problem, says the International Fabricare Institute's Norman Oehlke. "You can't tell in advance if rayon will water-spot, unless you spit on it. Water spots and water-soluble stains like coffee, perspiration, food, or beverages will not come out in dry cleaning -- and if you wash rayon, it will often shrink if it is not resin-treated."

There are washable rayons, but if a rayon garment says dry-clean only, obey. The dyes and sizing in imported rayons are often supersensitive to moisture.

COTTON. Cotton is generally machine washable unless the care label indicates otherwise. Avoid extreme temperatures in washing or drying.

LINEN. Check the care label, as dry cleaning is often recommended. When machine washing is recommended, use pure soap or a gentle detergent. If bleaching is necessary, use an oxygen-type bleach (chlorine may cause yellowing). Iron damp.

WOOL. Most wool clothing should be dry-cleaned unless it comes with a label indicating that it can be washed by machine. Wool scorches with too hot an iron. Wool should be pressed on the wrong side (particularly wool gabardine) or ironed on the right side with a dark cloth between the iron and material. To protect wool from moth larvae, be sure wool garments are clean when you store them. (The jury's still out on whether mothballs and natural moth repellents really work.)

POLYESTER. Polyester is easy to clean but tends to absorb and hold grease and oily stains. Dry-cleaning solvents often can remove those stains even if laundering fails to — so long as you don't iron the garment first, or let the stain age. (See Q&A below about whether you MUST dry-clean polyester suits.)

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. Preventive maintenance is the key here. As soon as you buy a garment, spray it with a leather protector (do not use a silicone-based treatment such as Scotchguard, which blocks the skin's pores). Non-silicone protectors help repel dirt and water and will not change the color of the garment. Vakko, a leather and suede clothing manufacturer, recommends Vectra, available at Georgetown Leather Design stores.

Brush suede occasionally with a suede brush to restore the nap. On smooth leathers, use a leather conditioner to restore natural oils. Georgetown Leather Design and Tannery West stores both sell their own brands.

Here are some tips to help with day-to-day maintenance of suede and leather:

Keep a scarf or shirt collar between your neck and the garment collar to protect it from cosmetics and body oils.

Store leather garments on a contoured hanger in a cool, ventilated area. Dry heat dries the skin, and dampness may cause mildew. Leather may be stored in a cloth bag, but not plastic. Avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight. Don't hang suede where it can bleed onto a garment of another color. And avoid buying a light-colored fabric with dark leather or suede trim-cleaning it is next to impossible.

If a leather or suede garment gets wet, let it air-dry away from heat.

For makeup and surface spots on suede, most leather garment stores sell an eraser-type block that rubs off superficial spots without damaging skins (Vakko recommends Tana Nubuck Block). For oil or food spots, says Vakko, rub cornstarch or cornmeal with a dry paper towel in a circular motion directly on the suede. Let it sit overnight, then brush with a suede brush. This remedy usually works with one application. If need be, rub the soft end of an emery board in small circular motions around the remaining spot.

If your garment becomes wrinkled, first put it on a hanger and gently try to pull out the wrinkles, being careful not to stretch the skins. If this doesn't work, you may press the garment with a dry iron on its lowest setting. Place brown paper over the leather and keep the iron moving. Press one panel at a time.

Ram (3008 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-521-5600) is the best-known leather care specialist in the Capital area. Some local retailers recommend Arrow Fabricare Services in Kansas City, Mo. (1-800-54ARROW). But there are some leather experts who believe you should NEVER have a leather or suede garment cleaned -- even professionally.

"We don't recommend leather cleaning because even with a reputable leather-cleaning firm, the chemicals are harsh," says Carolyn Gebron of Georgetown Leather Design. "They remove natural oils from the skin, which can change the color, shrink the garment or make it feel stiffer or drier. There is no way you can avoid this."

Mark Peters of Tannery West explains that dry-cleaning chemicals actually lift off the dye with which the manufacturer covers the skin's natural imperfections. "If you have a terrible stain like oil, and dry cleaning is the only hope, try it — but it may lighten every area except where the stain is."

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CHEMICAL DEPENDENCE — Some Truths About Dry Cleaning

CARING FOR CLOTHES CAN EVENTUALLY cost as much as buying them did in the first place, particularly if they must be dry-cleaned. And these days almost everything seems to be labeled DRY-CLEAN ONLY. Is there some magic associated with this chemical process? Or can many of these instructions be ignored?

We decided to ask the experts.

Dry cleaning is a misnomer. The silk blouse you take to the cleaners is completely immersed, but the fluid is a cleaning solvent (usually perchloroethylene) that contains little or no water. A good dry cleaner will pre-treat spots and stains by flushing them with water, steam or spotting agents, and then "wash" the blouse in a large front-loading machine not unlike a home washer. After cleaning, the solvent (and soil) are extracted and the clothes dried in a dryer. Hand irons and small puff irons are used to finish up the details.

But who decides what needs to be dry-cleaned and what doesn't?

Since 1972, the Federal Trade Commission has required that manufacturers of finished garments sold in the United States affix a permanent label giving care instructions. Under this rule, if the consumer follows the care instructions and the garment is made "unsuitable," the manufacturer has to replace or recompense the consumer for it.

This has led some manufacturers to be very brief in their care instructions (known as "underlabeling" in the trade), particularly since 1984, when the rule changed so a manufacturer or importer need list only one method of safe care for the garment. Manufacturers can use what is called alternative labeling (for example, "dry-clean or hand-wash in cold water"). But some people's idea of "hand-wash in cold water" is to throw a silk blouse into a regular load of laundry. So now, many washable items of clothing are labeled "dry-clean only." In truth, sometimes laundering is as good as dry cleaning. Sometimes it's preferable -- if you do it right.

"If the garment has cost you a lot of money and you do it by hand or by yourself and you mess it up, you take the loss," warns Ira Block, professor of textile science in the University of Maryland's Department of Textiles and Consumer Economics. "If you take it to a professional dry cleaner and they mess it up, you at least have a chance of getting some of your money back.
"You can't always decide simply by looking at the garment if it is underlabeled. I have found polyester-knit dresses labeled dry-clean only, for example, that could be thrown in a washing machine and dryer."

Care labeling often does not apply to trim such as buttons, beads or sequins. Call such trim to the attention of the dry cleaner.

Whether you play it safe or gamble, the following information — adapted from one of the fact sheets published by the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service — may take some of the risk out of fabric care.

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When to wash a garment

Wash a garment with water and detergent at home or commercially:

—— Only if fabrics, trims, interfacings and linings can be successfully wet-cleaned; this depends upon the fiber content, finishes, dyes and preshrinking.

—— To best remove sugar-based stains, wine or champagne, coffee, perspiration, flower sap and starch.
Washing by hand is least stressful for delicate fabrics, but thorough rinsing is essential. (See item below about removing red wine stains.)

When to dry-clean a garment

Commercially dry-clean:

—— Most silk, acetate, rayon or wool.

—— If the trims should not be washed.

—— To best remove candle wax, greasy food stains, makeup or body oils.

—— Most garments with trim, interfacing, or lining of a different fabric.

You can find additional information by searching on google for specific problems and “cooperative extension services. The Drycleaning & Laundry Institute has some information on its website and on its Q&A blog

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Comments, and answers to questions, from readers

Tips about stain removal and other frequently asked questions about fabric and carpet care

Stain Buster: Good Housekeeping's A to Z guide to removing smudges, spots, and other spills
Hand-Washing 101 (Katie Campbell, DomestiCity). "Many 'dry clean only' garments are hand-washable if you know the secrets."
Laundry Stains 101 (Katie Campbell, DomestiCity), with its Fabric First Aid chart
Good Housekeeping's Do-it-all cleaning guide
How to Clean and Care for Your Luxury Silk Garments (J. Conboy, Luxist, 10-30-10)
Talking Dirty With the Queen of Clean by Linda Cobb (2nd edition). The money you save following her tips (especially various recipes for combining soda, vinegar, and borax to clean or remove stains) will probably cover the cost of the book.

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How to get rid of red wine stains

• Patty S. posted this on Art Stratsmeyer's old website: Mix nearly equal parts of Dawn, Woolite, or any other liquid soap with household strength hydrogen pyroxide. Use a soap specific to your problem (rug shampoo for carpets, Woolite for sweaters). See also:
Good Housekeeping's Stain Busteradvice on removing red wine stains
How to remove red wine stains from fabric (eHow)
Removing red wine stains from carpeting (Mrs. Clean)
Fuller explanation of removing red wine stains from carpeting (essortment).

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How to get greasy stains out of washable fabrics

Melinda Walters (The Salt Lady, SeafireSalt.com ) writes to say:
"To get greasy stains (such as salad dressing) out of any kind of washable fabric, treat the area with some blue Dawn dish detergent before washing. It's safe for both the fabric and the washer, and it truly "gets grease out of your way" - even in the laundry. This has worked for me even when I didn't catch the stain until the garment came out of the dryer :) It also seems to work well on protein stains, like blood." It was Melinda who referred us to the excellent site Hand-Washing 101 (DomestiCity), which recommends using a very basic soap, such as Lux or Ivory brand soap flakes.

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Preserving your wedding gown

How to preserve your wedding gown

After 'I Do,' Can This Wedding Dress Be Saved? ( Deborah Lynn Blumberg, WSJ, 7-6-11)
Guarding the Gown: Want to preserve your wedding dress for posterity? Chris Martell, Wisconsin State University, quotes practical archivist Sally Jacobs on seven things to ask a dry-cleaning service before you let them touch your wedding dress, in Guarding the Gown (Wisconsin State Journal, 6-28-05). You'll have to answer a few questions before you get to it!
How to Keep Wedding Dresses From Turning Yellow (Chance Henson, ModernMom). Good warnings about what not to do.
How to preserve your wedding dress (Wedding Club, Australia)

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Must I dry clean polyester suits? Two readers report in.

Tabby Wilbanks found this webpage when she googled for answers on how to avoid dry cleaning all the polyester suits she had acquired for a new job, suits that had cost an “arm and a leg.” She braved washing one, to see what happens, and reports: “I washed my suits on gentle in cold water and for the jackets with buttons or embroidery I used laundry bags. I used fluff, no heat, for 20 minutes, then hung them up. They are all fine. None of the buttons were affected it seems and the embroidery is still just as nice. I didn't overload them; in fact, I underloaded a large-load cycle. I used Ivory dish soap since for some reason Woolite is not carried as regular stock at my local Wal-Mart; I was in a hurry and went with an old standby in the Ivory. I was really nervous, but they came out fine. Saved me about 40-60 bucks in drycleaning. I washed 5 suits, plus the extra pants and blouses that go with them. I will let you know if in the next few times anything detrimental comes about. I have only washed them once or twice, I don’t intend to wash them as often as I would T shirts and blue jeans.

Rich Potter) reports in on washing polyester suits

"I work hard and sweat hard in my tailored-in-Shanghai polyester plaid men's suit. Unknown shoulder pads, the suit and lining both appear to be petroleum products like Poly or acrylic or some flavor thereof. I am only educated-guessing about all the fabrics.

"After a few wearings (I'm a professional juggler/physical comedian), I've soaked the thing with sweat, and the acrid fermented stench makes me not want to be around myself.
PROCESS. Part 1: Washing
I placed jacket and pants in the bathtub, flat, and plugged the bathtub. I filled it with an inch or so of cold-to-lukewarm water, enough to cover it. Next, I squirted a bit of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Castile Soap (to taste). I wiggled the suit around a bit and then stepped on it barefoot.
Stompy-stompy-stomp. Then I danced a little jig: doodle-oo, doodle-oo, doodle-oo.

Part 2: Rinsing
"I drained the water from the tub, and from the suit, not wringing, but holding the pieces up for all the water to drain off. Placed 'em back down and did rinse #1 with plain cold water. (wiggle, wiggle, stompy, stompy, doodle-oo).
I rinsed a second time, though I used very little soap, so I doubt it was necessary. It did leave a hint of peppermint, which I didn't mind, considering the prior odors."

Part 3: Drying and results
"I hung the pieces in the garden from two plastic (not metal) hangers, on my wife's hanging tomato planter, and after a couple of hours in the Maryland summer sun, they were pretty much dry.

Result? The suit looks fine, didn't wrinkle (remember I didn't wring it?) Over time, the sun will probably tend to fade the colors. I don't know how much sun that takes though.

This served my purposes, which was not to remove stains (there were none this time) but to remove its use as a consciousness-interrupting olfactory bludgeon. I just did a three-day gig, smelling like roses and butterflies, all the while spewing sweat like a Gulf Coast oil leak."
Thanks for the report, Rich.

How to get body oils out of a polyester shirt

Sally G. wrote: I just bought a polyester blouse that I love. A deep green color. I discovered that apparently I have body oils that the polyester shirt absorbed them like a facial blotting sheet. I don't want to trash the shirt. I already soaked overnight in Oxyclean and washed on delicate - cold water and air dried and the stain is still there. Please tell me if you've been successful in removing this type if stain and How?

I referred Sally to the SF Gate Home Guides referenced above, which says, among other things: "First presented to the American people in 1951, polyester was advertised as a 'miracle' material that you could wear for 68 days straight and still look good. While you probably wouldn't want to test the claim, you can't deny that polyester is durable and wears well. Its synthetic fibers also resist absorbing stains as easily as natural fibers. When stained, it cleans easily. The only exception is oil stains; anything with an oil component will cling to the fibers and require a slightly more intensive treatment." And then it suggests various approaches, adding, "Spot-test any cleaning solution on an inconspicuous area before using."

Sally wrote back: "Thanks Pat! Tried something last night I will report back after the shirt dries and I can check." And two days later she reported success:
"Figured I would let you know the status here:
Round 1 - overnight soak in Oxyclean, wash on delicate, cold water, air dry - very mild improvement.
Round 2- short soak in water with dawn, wash on delicate, warm water, air dry - some improvement.
Round 3 - laid the shirt in my bathtub, drizzled lots of dawn on it, got a soft washcloth and ran under warm water and scrubbed the shirt gently. Added some water to the shirt thereafter so it wouldn't dry out, and let sit for about an hour, then overnight soak in a bucket with hot water. Washed in hot water, air dried. IT WORKED!

Hope that helps any future users. I just know dawn is amazing at removing grease, so figured, why not give it a try. It was my last hope and wasn't too labor intensive.

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Can I wash tissue-silk shirts?
How do I get body oil and other greasey stains out of a fabric?

David Sander of Pittsburgh found two expensive tissue silk shirts on sale for $9. Normally he washes his own silks by machine or hand and presses them himself. “This was fine for a couple of years until I noticed one changing color due to accumulated skin oils,” he writes. “Thanks to your site I have a clear idea of my options without fluff or promotion. The segment on industry underlabeling of washing instructions was very instructive. I've often rejected nice clothing because it was "Dry Clean Only" until that $69 silk shirt went on sale!” He recently washed the two shirts and they both came out fine, with the body oil virtually gone.

"Their conventional pressing was a minor quibble, I press my silk shirts as a kind of art form. I was originally surprised at how much better my new shirts looked at home after being hand pressed from their flat store shape. The shirts get worn about every other week, usually for swing or salsa dancing. I could probably get them totally clean with regular washing but I hesitate to treat them that roughly."

FOR COTTONS, NOT SILK (so far), Dave adds: “I have a hand cleaner I use on typical heavy grease stains. It's Goop or the equivalent heavy cleanser, designed originally to help car mechanics get the black oily engine dirt out from under their fingernails. It can also be used to remove black auto oil, grease, or tar stains. I use this on cotton or other fabrics that have oily black dirt stains. Since Goop is an oil emulsion with detergent, it gets under heavy oils and dilutes them so the dirt can float off. Most water detergents remove the lighter oils, then leave a stain held on by the toughest of oils. Working in some Goop and waiting releases nearly all of these oil-adhered stains. It tends to work well on any oil- or tar-based stain too heavy for regular detergents.

The typical method is to load the stain with the emulsion and let it sit until the stain gets a chance to soften well and then launder the garment normally. Occasionally the emulsion will leave a light oil behind which comes out with the next washing. When Goop is new it's a white emulsion, but on drying out it leaves a clear oil loaded with an oil-based detergent and hand softeners. This is no less effective than the emulsion; just add a bit of water."

"I've not tried Goop on silk though, for fear of possible bad results.”

Thanks, Dave. Will other readers who try this let me know if it worked for them, or not?

Dry cleaning chemicals interacting with "invisible" stains (as from perfume)

A reader's black jacket came back from the dry cleaners with light brown stains on facing left and right sides of the collar (lapel). It turned out that the brown patches resulted from an invisible stain (probably from the scent his partner applies on both sides of her neck) reacting with the dry cleaning chemicals. Had he mentioned the possible invisible stain, the cleaners could have washed the affected area of the garment before using dry-cleaning chemicals. Now that the stains are there, the dry cleaner suggested two remedies: (a) have the collar turned (expensive) or (b) use an indelible marker pen over the affected area (inexpensive). “We’ll try option (b) first as it does not preclude option (a). (It was a favorite jacket of hers.)

It occurs to me, were we highly sartorially motivated, we might apply such perfumes to hidden parts of a garment and then have it dry cleaned without forewarning the cleaner. Better yet, we might dry clean the garment before wearing it at all, to ensure no strange chemicals in the manufacturing process.”

Question What's the best to remove a grass stain from silk that has been sitting for 2 weeks. Kathleen F. wrote that she was working on a project in her chemistry class about how to remove a grass stain from silk that has been sitting for 2 weeks. She asked: "What do you recommend as the best method to remove the stain? What kinds of chemicals can I use to remove the stain?Is soaking the stain in water immediately something I should do? Why is the chlorophyll such a strong dye on fabrics? Does the structural formula of grass and silk play a key role in understanding the stain process and how to remove it? Concluding: If you could get back to me asap that'd be great, but thank you for your time."
Pat's response: Kathleen, you didn't leave an email address, so I couldn't respond. I'm curious to know the answer myself when you finish your project. If you can document where you got your answers, I'll add it to my website. It's not a question I asked when I was interviewing experts for The Truth About Dry Cleaning, a story I wrote for the Washington Post magazine. And I am definitely not an expert on the subject!
-- Pat

The Truth About Dry Cleaning (Pat McNees)