OFF THE CUFF : Cleaning Up After Her Customers

K athy Gomez works in a soiled world, a place of stains and more stains. It's Gomez's customers--every day they air their dirty laundry right in front of her.

Gomez, a 20-year veteran of the cleaning business, is the general manager of Corporate Cleaners in Irvine. In a high-volume store such as hers, thousands of pieces are cleaned and laundered in a week. But, she assures, "everything is accounted for, so we don't lose any items."

Although 90% of the stains Gomez sees do surrender to her chemicals, she admits there are some that she can't remove. In the story that follows, Gomez explains why.

This is another in a series of first-person columns that allow people connected to the fashion industry to talk about their encounters.

Ink spots that have spread in brightly colored silks or rayons are difficult to remove without removing the dye as well. Egg white is also a difficult stain because it acts like a glue, and dried blood is always tough.

But the most difficult stains are the ones customers have tried to work out at home, and, instead of one stain, they now have two because of the stuff they put on it.

To get a stain out, the first thing to do is not to use hair spray or club soda or whatever it is they tell you to use on airplanes or in restaurants. Leave the stain alone and take it to the cleaners as soon as possible. Once you put moisture on it, the stain is set.

We have 20 chemicals to work with to take out a stain. If we know what caused it, we can go to a specific chemical and get it out. If we don't know what caused it, we go through a series of chemicals until we find the right one.

If we see that the dye or the fabric is weak, or if a stain has been there since Year One and has oxidized, we won't try to remove the stain. Removing the stain will pull the dye from the fabric and damage the garment more than it already is.

I've seen tremendous changes in this industry since I started. The most significant change was about 15 years ago when the state declared that cleaners no longer needed to be licensed.

Before that, we needed special training, a year's hands-on experience and the passing of a test on our knowledge of chemicals. Now, it's a free market. Anyone can open a cleaners as long as they can fill out the EPA forms.

Now you see many "dry stores," what we call places where the cleaning isn't done on the premises and where the person taking your garment isn't knowledgeable about how to clean it.

If it's a simple garment, there shouldn't be a problem. But with wedding gowns, formals, some gabardine or something you really care about, dry stores may not accept them because they may not know how to handle these specialty items.

There's a myth that if you don't clean a garment very often, it will last longer. So, if you don't see dirt, you should just get it pressed and not cleaned. But actually pressing is harder on it than cleaning. And moths and silverfish will eat on soiled areas that are invisible to us and create holes. Clean it especially if you're putting it away for a while.

Some say women pay more for a shirt than men. That's not true here. If the shirt doesn't fit our "shirt unit" and it has to be processed by hand or if it has shoulder pads, pleats or appliques and it has to be hand done, then we charge more. But most shirts--men and women's Size 12 or larger--will go on our shirt unit and be charged the same.

There is one thing I think any dry cleaner would love to have, and that is a drive-through store. I worked for a drive-through cleaner in Long Beach years ago. It was a free-standing building, and it was great. People loved it. But now the price of a lease in Orange County makes it unfeasible, so dry cleaners are forced into strip malls where it's impossible to drive through.

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