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Dry Cleaning 101

Clotheskeeping, Special Issue 1998

Agitation in water has been the principal method for cleaning clothes for centuries. A breakthrough development in clotheskeeping occurred in the 1840s, when French tailor Jean-Baptist Jolly discovered that a solvent could remove dirt and grease from fabric, and thereby invented dry cleaning. Wayne Edelman of Meurice Garment Care, one of New York's best cleaners, provides some insight into the dry-cleaning process.

Dry cleaning is not actually dry -- the clothes get wet, just not with water, and cycle through large washing machines. Perchloroethylene, or perc, is the cleaning and degreasing solvent that's been used for decades. Continuous distillation allows cleaners to purify and recycle perc. Properly cleaned clothes have no odor, but dirty perc leaves an unpleasant chemical smell in your clothes.

Wayne uses the newest pressing machines on the market in his finishing department. Heavy items like coats, jackets, and pants go to the tension presser. More delicate items go to the up-air board, which looks like a cross between an ironing board and a balloon. Because the board is filled with air, buttons, pockets, and seams make no imprint as they're being ironed.

Federally mandated clothing labels contain care instructions, but according to Wayne, they're not always reliable. The best dry cleaners also wet clean in some cases, as perc can dissolve some printed designs. The basic rule of thumb for consumers to observe: Any item with a lining, such as a suit or coat, or anything that is not colorfast or likely to shrink should be dry cleaned.

Wayne adapted an upholstery-cleaning machine for elaborate garments. He loads it with solvent or water and soap, then gently sprays and vacuums. He uses it on any garment that cannot withstand agitation.

When picking a cleaner, make sure you get what you ask for. If you ask that your trousers be uncreased, or that your sweaters be folded rather than placed on hangers, make sure they are. You only want to work with a dry cleaner who pays attention to details.