Dry cleaning discussion

Jan and I have been discussing dry cleaning. Neither of us care for it much. While most of our objections are based on environmental and health concerns, it seems that many consumers have also become wary of dry cleaning often (rightly) suspecting that manufacturers who rely on it are avoiding the detailed requirements of comprehensive product testing. In my opinion -the latter is true- but the imposition of the requirement of dry cleaning is further up the ladder than manufacturers due to fabric producers who use dry clean only as an escape hatch to avoid testing their own textiles before they sell them. Naturally, it becomes incumbent upon manufacturers to apply pressure on textile producers to produce quality goods that can be laundered. Anyway, as I said, Jan and I have been talking about dry cleaning and she’s gathered some interesting tidbits on the topic which she’s graciously agreed to share here:

I was surprised at my inability to penetrate very deeply into the mysteries of this industry. One of my big stumbling blocks is a memory I have of a feature about dry cleaning that I heard on NPR back in 1978 or ’79 in which it was reported that the name “dry” cleaning originated with a family owned laundry business with the German surname of “Drye.” Because of anti-German sentiment during the World War (I thought II, but maybe I), they changed the name to “Dry” and it stuck and spread throughout the industry through the phenomenon linguists call “back formation.” I’ve spent hours searching the web to confirm this story without any success. I’ve thought about writing to NPR to request an archive search, but just haven’t done it out of a sense of hopelessness.

The one original thought I’ve had since I started to look into this is to wonder how chemical cleaning got started in the first place. I think I’ve found the answer in a book I first read a few years ago called Crinolines and Crimping Irons: Victorian Clothes, How They Were Cleaned and Cared For by Christina Walkley and Vanda Foster, published in 1978. This is a rather scholarly work by two Victoria and Albert conservationists who meticulously culled and cited 19th century sources (novels, letters, diaries, magazines, etc.) for information on how women cleaned and cared for their clothing and other items of dress in the later 19th century. I read this book with utter fascination and recommend it heartily to anyone interested in textiles and clothing construction and care.

It seems that people started to use solvents to clean their clothes when chemical dyes were first invented because they found these new and wondrous colors to be very unstable in water. They began to use all sorts of mixtures like “gall obtainable at the butcher’s shop” or “one pennyworth of sugar of lead” or “oil of vitriol or sulphuric acid” to wash their dresses (31). Different colored garments were treated with a long list of various remedies for preserving their colors and methods varied as well for different textiles. Great care was taken to keep clothing clean in the first place; body dirt wasn’t much of a problem because of the “huge quantities of underwear worn. A dress worn over a chemise, a camisole and several petticoats, was effectively protected from contact with the body. Vulnerable points such as neck and wrists were safeguarded by detachable collars, cuffs and under sleeves which were removed for frequent washing” (30). They include a long chapter on “washing day” for all these cotton and linen items. Stains and spots were treated with numerous recipes involving the “use of bleaches, solvents or acids of some sort. Many were chemicals which are now considered too dangerous for public use, although easily obtained throughout the nineteenth century” (149). I think this sort of practice easily led to the general acceptance of solvents for cleaning clothes and since the task was laborious, nasty and dangerous, the rise of commercial establishments that would perform this work was greeted with approval and relief.

Throughout the last century, this type of chemical cleaning continued to expand, particularly with the development of synthetic fibers, and to evolve, developing new chemicals that weren’t flammable, such as perc, for instance. Chemical cleaning and the garment industry have become increasingly symbiotic to the point that the one is unthinkable without the other to the detriment, I think, of much of the clothing currently manufactured.

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  1. Liana says:

    There’s a lot of talk about the “new” dry cleaning process using Carbon Dioxide rather than perc. There’s an old-line cleaners here that completely converted to this process several years ago, and there’s no smell at all (since there’s no perc) and the clothes seem to be just as clean.

    I hate dry cleaning anything, and always remember what my husband’s tailor told him. “If you want to ruin this suit, take it to the cleaners.” He recommended airing, brushing, spot-cleaning if necessary, and was always available for pressing, and for help in general.

    The book you quote sounds fascinating.

  2. Jan says:

    Additionally, a number of tailoring websites stress the same admonition: chemical cleaning is much to harsh for wool or other natural fibers. See John LeCarre’s novel _The Tailor of Panama_ for a (fictional) reiteration of this advice. Recall as well in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” after he returns from his debacle in the Illinois cornfield, Roger Thornhill requests the hotel valet to “sponge and press” his suit. [Maybe in 1959 the one hour cleaner had not yet been invented (and all the better for Mr. Thornhill’s suit).] Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock knew something we have since forgotten about the care (and cleaning) of clothing.

  3. Gigi says:

    I have put myself on the wait-list for this book at my local library. It sounds like a fascinating read. I’ve had too many beautiful garments ruined by dry cleaning so I too try to care for as many as I can at home.

  4. Erin says:

    I used to work in a dry-cleaners in high school and I remember there being a trade magazine called “American Dry Cleaner.” Maybe that would be a place to look?

    I was always told that it was called “dry” because there was no water involved, even though perc is certainly wet.

    Sewing for myself is great because I can wash the fabric before I make things and be fairly sure that I can wash them again afterwards.

  5. Lorraine Williams says:

    As far as I can tell the best alternatives to evil, stinky perc dry cleaning are CO2 cleaning and professional wet cleaning.

    There are not a lot of places here in the Bay Area that do either but I am trying to cut a deal with Blue Sky Cleaners in Union City to size several yards of linen, cotton and china silk for me. They do both and one of the owners has first hand experience with just how toxic and undesirable perc is.

    I am not saying CO2 is all that either but it definitely better on several points. I actually found out about this from an environmental engineer and found this site looking for more information specific to dressmaking.

  6. Jamie Terri says:

    Yes, I heard about the CO2 and Wet cleaning in my local cleaning store in San Francisco; I have avoided dry cleaning because I have alergies. Can someone point out which is better wet cleaning or co2?

  7. In 1995 I began work for Madame Paulette in New York City. I was the Project Manager for the development and building of their state of the art production facility. In 1997 I was promoted to Director of Operations, where I began to develop and implement some of the most advanced cleaning and garment care processes in the industry. Given access to some of the most prestigious fashion houses and entertainers in the world, I performed extensive garment testing, analysis, and developed the first ever touring division in the Drycleaning industry.

    Under my tenure Madame Paulette was recognized by New York Magazine in its annual “Best of New York” issue four times. Madame Paulette was bestowed in 2002 with the “Best of the Best of the World” by the Robb Report. Among those and other accolades. I left Madame Paulette in March of 2005 to do exactly what you are looking for. The drycleaners of the world that do not cause the damagedes or issues you list above. In this quest I became associated with the very prestiges Hohenstien Institutes. Together we formalized an independent testing and certification process that only the best drycleaners in the world would attempt. The organization is called America’s Best Cleaners and is the only seal of approval to be recognized by the most elite fashion houses. I am also the in house expert for MR Magazine, http://www.mrketplace.com, and Have been published in The WallStreet Journal, GQ, Instyle, Simple, Cargo, Menswear, and Couture Care. If you are interested in seeing more about this organization or would like a better understanding of what Couture level cleaning is and why it is different go to the contact us page at http://www.americasbestcleaners.com. We have five certified affiliates that use CO2 and we are finding it to be one of the best cleaners for couture apparal. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


  8. Annie says:

    I for one have had it with ALL dry cleaners. I had a featherweight cashmere sweater ruined by one along with several other garments over time. When I unpacked my cashmere sweater, it had three holes in it. I was aghast and upset. I swore off cleaners. I then determined that my suits and shirts needed cleaning. So I sought a new cleaner. They cleaned suits perfectly. I would wash my own sweaters from now on. Then out of sheer laziness I sent them to the cleaners for just one last time…literally. When I picked them up I found dotted embedded fibers in nearly all of them and some sticky fuzz on others. Not only that…they still smelled of fluid or something. They just smelled dirty. Furious and panicky I ended up trying to wash them. Some turned out ok but others had permanent damage. Horrified because I take care of things, particularly my cashmere collection, once well cared for now partially damaged……… Cleaners need rules to abide by and an organization to consistently report to. It’s terrible to have such things happen and they don’t care…they just don’t care.

  9. J J Stermer says:

    PLEASE! If you would like to understand EVERYTHING about “dry cleaning”, from the technology, to the health concerns, to it’s origins, to the failings of the majority of dry cleaners in proper handling & cleaning, and dispelling all these CRAZY NOTIONS and myths pertaining to how the process works, inherent problems, and health concerns, CALL OR E-mail me! I will explain, in layman’s terms, the reasons for the difficulties you and your clothes have encountered- the “nightmares”- your fears, your warranted distrust of a poorly-run industry, the perpetrated, sensationalism of the major media & environmental groups so that possibly a FEW people will become “enlightened” and speak with truth and knowledge when others are fearful and misled even by self-proclaimed “experts” in the trade. Who am I? Someone who has removed “impossible” stains from garments that are worth more than the average person’s CAR!…sometimes more than an entire HOME! Designer clothing belonging to the wealthiest in the world living in Palm Beach, placing their trust in me for 24 years. Dry cleaning, wet cleaning, hand-cleaning and the other tools of the trade are WONDERFUL, when in the right hands. Anyway, if you are curious, feel free to call…no problem, no worries. Your Friend, Jay DAWN13579@gmail.com 561.683.9293 ‘

  10. Matthew says:

    Q: Who invented dry cleaning?

    A: In 1855, Jean Baptiste Jolly, a French dye-works owner, noticed that his table cloth became cleaner after his maid accidentally overturned a kerosene lamp on it. Operating through his dye-works company, Jolly offered a new service and called it “dry cleaning.” Early dry cleaners used a variety of solvents — including gasoline and kerosene — to clean clothes and fabrics.

  11. Anju says:

    Dry cleaning is not only based on chemical products or detergents, their are some Eco friendly dry cleaners who use natural products too to remove stain and clean all kinds of garments and which are safe to wear and use.

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