Dry Cleaning: Stain Removal

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If consumers understand the nature of their fabrics, they can hopefully learn to treat them properly both in wearing and in cleaning.  Unfortunately, as human beings, we are prone to spills and stains of all kinds, whether it be a child rubbing his or her dirty hands on us, eating a sloppy-joe that spills on your favorite tie, or getting splashed with a puddle of oily water from a nearby car.  In my work experience at the cleaners, customers frequently bring in their garments when there is a particular stain they want taken out. When cleaners consent to bring in clothes they have obligated themselves to treat the garment professionally and with utmost care (International, “Care”).  The spotters are in charge of careful treatment with chemicals, steam, detergent, and maybe even water to agitate or get rid of spots (IARC, 36).  Lyle further adds that the spotter has a responsibility lies in choosing the chemical that will not only remove the stain, but won’t harm the garment and/or dye as well (Lyle, Focus on Fabrics 2).

Dry cleaners have specialized chemicals, select tools like steam guns and the experience matchless to the average customer because cleaners work with troublesome stains often (Aslett, Don 178-179).  Nevertheless, customers can help their drycleaner to do a much more effective job at stain removal by learning some important tips.  First, it is important that the customer drop-off stained or soiled clothes promptly to thwart stains from setting (Jefferson).  Stains become more difficult to remove, the more time they are given to set.  Additionally, soils and dirt can work similarly to abrasives and wear down the fibers speedily (Skolnik).  If it is difficult to get to the cleaners within a couple of days, Dennis Townsend, owner of a drycleaner suggests dabbing a little bit of cool water on a dye-based stain to keep it loose (Townsel).

Second, don’t just drop off a garment at the drycleaning counter and expect them to notice every stain.  Aslett recommends fastening a note to the garment giving the information of what, where, and the age of the stain (Aslett, Don 179). Townsend advises customers place a pin or piece of tape directly on the stain (Townsend, qtd in Townsel).  At the cleaners where I work, we provide brightly colored tape for customers, and write the stain on a tag to attach to the garment so it can be treated before cleaning.  Third, when customers have a stained garment they should be careful not to apply any heat to it.  Even leaving the garment in the backseat of a heated car, or directly in the sunlight will heat the stain allowing it to set (Townsel).  Ironing stained attire will do the same and force the dirt deeper in (International, “Trouble”).

Despite the materials and experience drycleaners are not miracle workers.  The customer must remember they are liable for the spots that fall upon his or her garment.  It is fine to expect that the clothes will be returned from the cleaners stainless (Lyle, Focus on Fabrics 468), but they need to realize that it is not always possible to remove every spot (International, “Trouble”).  Without additional treatment, drycleaning solvents can remove a substantial amount of impenetrable soils and non-oxidizing fats or oils, but have a harder time cleaning some food, ink, paint, and dye stains (Lyle, Focus on Fabrics 468).  Lyle goes into more depth categorizing soils into three areas: Solvent-Soluble, Water-Soluble, and Insoluble Soil.  Dry cleaning solvent is appropriate to use for dirty clothes with solvent-soluble soils, such as grease and oil.  Water is the effective cleaning agent to dissolve those water-soluble stains such as sugar, most foods and drinks, and perspiration.  Insoluble soils consist of nail polish, rust, ink, paint, and others.  These are stains that won’t come out in either of the first two cleaning procedures, without the help of specialty chemical agents (Lyle, Performance of Textiles 258-259).  This is just another reason why it is important to point out stains to the cleaners, so the spot can be treated appropriately before cleaning or steam pressing the clothes.

So with the tools, chemical agents, and experience, what can’t all stains be successfully removed?  Throughout my research, I have found this is commonly due to three areas, if not more.  The first reason applies directly to what was written before; the stain has already been set with heat.

Secondly, stain removal is determinant much on the age of the stain.  With age, some stains may have gone through a process of oxidation, which makes them extremely difficult to remove.  These stains are a result from most frequently oils or drinks that seem be gone once they have dried.  However, with time or the application of heat a yellow/brown spot may reappear in the same area and this is because of oxidation. (International, “Trouble”).  It is interesting to note that sometimes customers can forget that the stain was even there.  A couple sources refer to these as “invisible” stains.  Certain stains remain unseen even when fresh, particularly with beverages that may spill.  However, when the garment is taken into the cleaners, it will come in contact with much heat, which speeds up the process of caramelizing the sugar.  Occasionally the stain doesn’t even reappear until after three or four cleaning periods.  Unsurprisingly, customers will remark that the spot was not there previously, and that the blame lies with the drycleaner.  However, this is certainly untrue (Lyle, Focus on Fabrics 473). Aslett adds that oils are quick to set and tarnish especially if they are not treated. To prevent oxidation after a spill, blot, but do not rub the spot to pull the substance from the fibers (Aslett, Don 11).

The third reason a stain may not be removed is because spotters may stop attempting to remove it because there is too much risk of damaging the fabric in the process (Lyle, Focus on Fabrics 2).  I had one customer at work who had a paint stain on a pair of denim jeans, and the same paint had spilled on a shirt she had brought in the week before.  When she handed me the jeans, she pointed out the stain, and said quite confidently, “I’m sure you’ll be able to get it out, because they got the same stain out of my shirt last time.”  I had to explain to her that there is no guarantee that the paint would come out of the jeans as well, because of the difference in fabrics.  In cases such as this, where matching stains have fallen on two different garments, customers may be surprised to receive one item back with the stain still there.  If the spotter is good, he or she knows that selecting chemicals doesn’t only apply to what will get a stain out, but what will keep the fabric unharmed as well (Lyle, Focus on Fabrics 2).  Numerous clothes are damaged because of overzealous and impracticable tries to make a garment look ideal again (Mendelson 154).   A professional cleaner will try their best and it’s helpful when customers acknowledge their effort and understand that some stains won’t come out no matter how many times it is redone (Aslett, Don 179).

To be more satisfied with the cleaning results of their clothes at a dry cleaner, customers need to be informed of the process used, and have a basic knowledge of the complexity of fabrics, and especially of stain removal.  When customers properly handle their dirty clothes, the chances of stain setting are significantly reduced.  Furthermore, if  customers don’t know appropriate methods to care for their garments, they can refer to the care label, or ask a local dry cleaner for advice.

Understanding Wools and Silks

Be a better informed dry cleaning customer

Learn more about fabric care label laws

Works Cited

Aslett, Don. Don Aslett’s Stain Buster’s Bible. Pocatello: Marsh Creek Press, 2002.

IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Dry

Cleaning, Some Chlorinated Solvents and Other Industrial Chemicals. Lyon, France: IARC, 1995.

International Fabricare Institute. Trouble Spots. Maryland: IFI, 1989.

Jefferson, Elana A. “Coming Clean.” Denver Post. 1 Feb 2001: F.01

Lyle, Dorothy Siegert.  Focus on Fabrics. Silver Spring: National Institute of

Drycleaning, 1964.

—. Performance of Textiles. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1977.

Mendelson, Cheryl. Laundry; the Home Comforts Book of Caring for Clothes and Linen.

New York: Scribner, 2005.

Skolnik, Lisa. “Dry Clean Only Leaves Room for Interpretation.” Chicago Tribune.

12 Jan 2000: 8.5.

Townsel, Lisa J. “Cleaning Up.” St. Louis Post 7 July 2005: F1.


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