It was not until the late 19th Century, when Frenchman Jolly Belin noticed that an accidental spill of kerosene cleaned a stained garment, that dry cleaning was invented.
Belin subsequently opened the first dry cleaners in Paris in the 1840s, according to the International Fabricare Institute, a trade group in suburban Washington.
Although today the process is referred to as dry cleaning, liquid solvents are actually used by cleaning plants to rid fabrics of soil and stains. Four fluids are used primarily: petroleum, perchloroethlylene, fluorocarbon and trichloroethane, the Fabric Institute says.
Petroleum is the oldest of currently used cleaning fluids, but perchloroethylene is the most widely used solvent.
These dry cleaning solvents contain no water. They are used to clean clothes in tumbling machines that resemble large commercial dryers. The solvents work by dissolving grease and oils from garments.
Federal law requires that clothes contain a tag detailing a garment’s fiber content. Another tag is usually attached to explain laundering and care procedures for the fabric.
Despite such requirements, some dry cleaners complain that manufacturers aren’t making clothes that hold up as well under washing and dry cleaning. The main culprit, dry cleaning and industry officials say, is poor dyes.
“It’s still a big problem,” said Harold Moskovitz, president of Filoy Cleaners in Beverly Hills. “When manufacturers try to get bright deep colors like blue jeans, the fabric is going to eventually fade.”
A number of factors contribute to dyes fading, experts say.
Clothes can fade from washing, exposure to the sun, oxidation by the air or even because of the dry cleaning process itself.
Moskovitz said dry cleaning actually accelerates the fading process of some white fabrics. The problem is that the special chemicals manufacturers use to get a bright, white sheen, break down under dry cleaning. To avoid the problem, reputable dry cleaners test a small section of the fabric before the entire garment is immersed in cleaning solution.
Even so, some especially volatile dyes can be quirky and not start to fade until hours after exposure to a cleaning agent.
“It used to be you could assume that if the fabric said it was washable it was also safe to dry clean it, but that’s not necessarily true anymore,” Moskovitz said.
In one case cited by the Fabric Care Institute, a leading manufacturer sent to the institute for testing a uniform collection of clothes that nevertheless contained different cleaning instructions for each identical garment.
Further investigation revealed that employees of the garment maker had simply been instructed to put the labels where they looked right.
Although anybody can toss clothes into a dry cleaning machine, dry cleaner operators say the real expertise comes in spot removal.
Coffee and ink stains are among the most difficult to remove, experts say. But consumers can dramatically improve the odds of removing any stains on their clothes by pointing out to the cleaners spots and identifying the substance that caused the spot.
It is especially important, experts say, to point out very light spots, such as alcohol spills, because those often become more visible after dry cleaning if they are not spot treated.
Dry cleaning works best on certain spots such as grease, the Fabricare Institute advises. But in some cases, such as perspiration stains and water marks, spots are best removed with water. In those cases, cleaners can use steamers to remove the spots.