Even the most fastidious among us have trouble avoiding the occasional drip of coffee or splash of marinara. Although clothing stains can be very stubborn, they can almost always be removed if dealt with promptly and properly. Andrea Ross, head of the wardrobe department at CBS Television, shares her expertise on stain removal.
When removing stains, use the gentlest techniques and products possible, working up gradually to stronger methods for stains that resist. Although it may be tempting to dunk a garment into a sink of suds or drown a stain in club soda, Andrea advocates a milder approach. She always has a clean, colorfast towel rolled up behind the cloth to absorb the stain. She uses ice-cold water, which is sprayed onto a towel and dabbed onto the material. Dabbing, not rubbing, is key -- you don't want to end up rubbing the stain into the fabric. Often, if a stain is fresh, this step is the only one necessary.
Martha asks Andrea to tackle a classic problem -- coffee spilled on a white shirt. Since the shirt is washable, Andrea's first step is to flush the stain with cold water. If this doesn't do the trick, she rubs the spot with ice; the rolled towel behind the cloth absorbs the stain as the ice coaxes it out of the fabric. If some of the coffee colors remains, Andrea moves on to white vinegar -- a natural, mild bleach. Just a bit, applied with a cotton swab, is all that is usually needed. At this point, the cloth can be laundered as usual, although it is important not to use hot water, as the heat can set the stain if any color remains.
For organic stains, such as grass or blood, Andrea uses a "digestant" -- a detergent containing enzymes that dissolve the proteins in the stain -- applied with a swab or toothbrush. Wisk Away and Shout are examples of digestants. An important note: Never use a digestant on wool or silk; these fibers contain protein and will be permanently damaged by these cleaners.
With older stains of undetermined origin, the first step is to try scraping the spot with a brush or fingernail. If the stain is caked on, this will remove some of the excess. Next, try dabbing the spot with cold water on a clean white towel. This will give you an idea as to whether the stain will come up and will also let you know if the fabric is colorfast. If no dye from the fabric comes off on the towel, it is probably safe to wash with a mild soap. If the stain doesn't budge, or if the garment is not washable or colorfast, your best choice is to go to a professional cleaner.
For a comprehensive guide to stain removal, see our Stain First Aid Chart.