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What Is Dry Cleaning? All You Need to Know

If there is a list of often misconstrued phrases, then dry cleaning would be on top. Although commonly used, dry cleaning appears to mean different things to different people, especially those who do not have a background in the laundry services industry.

In this article, we explain what is dry cleaning, and hopefully provide all the information you need to know about the practice. 

Whether you are new to the term, an expert in laundry services, or a housewife looking to clean your clothes using this method, we hope that you find the information contained in this article as helpful.

What is Dry Cleaning?

Dry cleaning refers to a cleaning process that utilizes various solvents apart from water to clean fabrics that could otherwise be damaged by water and the rigorous activities involved in hand-washing or using the conventional washing machine, such as wool, leather, silk, and others.

The dry cleaning process helps to retain the qualities of the fabrics being washed and prevents any stretching, shrinkage, and damage to delicate decorations on the material such as buttons, sequins, and lace.

The History of Dry Cleaning

The history of dry cleaning can be traced back to the ancient Romans. According to archaeological findings, there were dry cleaning shops discovered in the ravages of Pompeii, a Roman city that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. 

The dry cleaners back then were known as “Fullers” and they made use of solvents such as lye, ammonia, which is gotten from urine, and a type of clay known as “fuller’s earth,” to remove stains on fabrics. This cleaning method was very effective, especially for materials that could be damaged by hand washing, such as wool.

The use of urine in the dry cleaning process led to the establishment of urine collection taxes. Animal urine was predominantly used by the fullers coupled with urine collected from different public toilets back then.

One popular reference to anything resembling modern dry cleaning methods was the story of a clumsy maid who knocked over a lamp and spilled kerosene on a dirty tablecloth. The chemical quickly evaporated, and it was discovered that the stains on the tablecloth were no longer there. 

Jean Baptiste Jolly of France, who is referred generally as the father of modern dry cleaning, conducted several experiments by immersing some dirty fabrics in a bathtub filled with turpentine, and he noticed that they came out clean once the chemical had dried.

This led him to open the first commercial dry cleaning facility in 1825 dubbed, “Teinturerie Jolly Belin,” in Paris, and he used this same method of dry cleaning.

However, four years before Jolly’s discovery, Thomas Jennings, a U.S. tailor, clothier and inventor in New York, discovered a cleaning process which he called ” dry scouring.”

As a clothier, he was aware of customers’ constant complaints concerning their inability to remove stains from delicate fabrics that can not withstand the rigors of manual washing. 

Jennings then began conducting different experiments with a variety of cleaning solutions and processes. He finally discovered the “dry scouring” method of cleaning fabrics, which proved to be a hit, making him a very successful tailor and dry cleaner in New York.

In 1821, Jennings filed a patent application for his dry cleaning method with the United States Patent Office and became the first African-American to receive a patent in the United States. Sadly, the exact process that Jennings used in dry cleaning is no longer available and can only be found on the pages of history, as his patent was destroyed in a fire outbreak in 1836.

Several other dry cleaners used solvents like gasoline, turpentine, benzene, and kerosene to clean fabrics. However, these solvents are very flammable and often left a lingering unpleasant odor on the fabrics even after the cleaning processes are completed.

The search for alternatives began. Initially, in 1821, Michael Faraday, an English Physicist, and Chemist synthesized Perc. However, it was not until the early 1830s that William Joseph Stoddard, a United States dry cleaner, further developed the chemical that it became widely used in dry cleaning. 

These chlorinated solvents became very popular because they removed stains on the fabrics just as much as the petroleum-based solvents and without any risk of igniting the fabrics. 

However, while Perc is considered a much safer option than most solvents used by various dry cleaners in the past, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States is working to eliminate the use of the solvent in the industry, due to the various health and environmental risks it poses.

Is Dry Cleaning Safe?

People who often dry clean their clothes may experience a handful of the side effects of Perc, such as dizziness, drowsiness, loss of coordination, mild memory loss, visual perception, and blistering of the skin after prolonged contact.

Perc has also been classified as being Carcinogenic to human beings, as it causes a variety of cancer, including esophageal, cervical, bladder, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There are also potential links to cervical and breast cancers, and overtime, the central nervous system, liver, kidneys, and lungs may also be damaged.

Perc can also be dangerous if it is accidentally released into the environment as it’s toxic to plants and animals. Therefore, dry cleaners are encouraged to make use of solvents that are safer and more environmentally friendly.

What Are The Chemicals Used for Dry Cleaning?

In early times, a variety of solvents were used in the dry cleaning process, including turpentine, benzene, gasoline, and several other petroleum-based solvents.

However, the use of these solvents in the dry cleaning process was discontinued because of their possession of qualities that could wreck a lot of havoc, i.e., their flammable nature. This led to several research projects and experiments carried out to develop solvents that are capable of carrying out the cleaning process without being flammable.

In the early 1830s, several years of research and experiments finally paid off when synthetic solvents were discovered. These solvents have been in use since then and are still being used today.

They are Perchloroethylene or Tetrachloroethylene, a chlorinated solvent that is also known as Perc or PCE, and Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane, which is a carbon dioxide cleaning system that utilizes machines to apply the right amount of pressure required to draw liquefied carbon dioxide through dirty clothes to remove any stains. It is also known as Green Earth.

Detergents are also added to the solvents, either before the dry cleaning process or at specific times during the process, to help remove stains on the fabric. The addition of detergents to the solvent helps to bring in moisture that is required to remove water-soluble stains. It also helps, not only in penetrating the fabrics to enable the solvents to remove stains but in suspending the removed stains to prevent them from being reabsorbed.

How to Dry Clean At Home

Taking your clothes to commercial dry cleaners can be very expensive, especially if you have a lot of fabrics with the “dry clean only” instruction. 

However, you have nothing to worry about, as you can dry clean your clothes in the comfort of your own home by following the necessary guidelines.

Before dry cleaning your clothes on your own, it is essential to note that certain fabrics can be best handled by a professional dry cleaner, such as suede, leather, velvet, and fur. Therefore, it will be wise to avoid dry cleaning them on your own and just take them to the dry cleaner to prevent any damage to the fabric.

There are several home dry cleaning kits or modern dry cleaning machines in the market that you can buy to enable you to dry clean your fabrics. These kits come with a manual, be sure to read the manual before proceeding. The dry cleaning kit consists of a stain remover and stain absorbing pads, a dryer activated cloth, and a reusable dryer bag. 

  • The first step is to remove stains on the fabric using the stain remover that is included in the kit. A majority of these stain removers are water-based and can be used in the removal of water-soluble stains. 
  • The next step is to place about 1-4 pieces of fabric inside the dry cleaning bag, together with the dryer activated cloth included in the kit. You are then expected to seal the bag and place it in the dryer for about 15-30 minutes, depending on the dry cleaning kit you use.
  • The dryer activated cloth contains a minimal amount of water, perfume, and an emulsifier. The emulsifier is responsible for dispersing both the water and the scent of the fabrics being cleaned. The heat that is generated by turning on the dryer will further increase the temperature of the solvents in the fabrics.
  • An increase in the temperature will result in a proportional increase in the kinetic energy of the fluids, causing them to move at a more rapid pace. When they have reached a very high temperature, the molecules of the liquids then change to steam.
  • As a result of being in a partially airtight plastic bag, a majority of the vapors can not escape. Therefore, they penetrate the fabrics, causing small amounts of water and perfume to condense on the fabrics, giving it a sweet fragrance. These same vapors are used in the removal of wrinkles from the fabric.
  • Once the dryer cycle is completed, you bring the fabrics out and hang them up to properly inspect the clothes for any wrinkles, which can easily be ironed to stretch it out, loose buttons, and rips, which can be reattached and repaired. 

You also inspect the fabric for any remaining stains, which you can correct by either cleaning them again or taking it to a professional dry cleaner.

The home dry cleaning process is very time-consuming. Also, the possibility of finding remaining stains on a piece of fabric after the strenuous activities involved in cleaning them is quite frustrating.

As opposed to the home dry cleaning kits, commercial dry cleaners immerse your fabrics in a generous amount of solvent that completely strips off any stains, especially grease and oil stains, from the fabric. The commercial dry cleaning process also takes care of stains like sweat and body oils that the fabrics pick up every day, including lints and hairs that often tend to build upon the surface of the fabrics.

However, with home dry cleaning kits, you will avoid exposure to the various solvents used in commercial dry cleaning, such as Perc, which causes several health problems. Therefore, if you are looking for a more environmentally friendly method of dry cleaning or are highly sensitive to harsh chemicals, it is best to stick to home dry cleaning kits.

Notably, these home dry cleaning kits can not overshadow the importance of commercial dry cleaners such as Soji.  They are created to serve as a complement to professional dry cleaning. The decision to make use of these kits is based on your preference and considering their pros and cons will enable you to choose to either make use of them or stick to professional dry cleaners.

The Process of Commercial Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning machines are large and very expensive. Therefore, it is not uncommon for most dry cleaning stores to take the laundry of all their customers to a central cleaning facility to have them dry cleaned.

The commercial dry cleaning process begins with putting tags on each fabric with either paper tags that are stapled or pinned to the fabric or iron-on strips that have a permanent barcode for regular customers. This process of tagging helps to ensure that all the fabrics loaded into the dry cleaning machine are returned to their respective owners.

Next, the fabrics are given a thorough inspection for any rips, missing buttons, and items that have been left in the pockets. If any of these things are discovered, the owner is notified immediately, before the fabrics are cleaned.

After that, various pre-spotting chemicals are added to the fabrics including, protein remover for blood, perspiration and milk stains, tannin remover for tea, red wine, and coffee stains, and many more, to aid the removal of stains. Therefore, it is in your best interest to tell the dry cleaner what caused a specific stain on your fabric to derive maximum benefit.

The fabrics are then loaded into the dry cleaning machines. The machine is a motor-driven washer, extractor, and sometimes, dryer, that consists of a base tank for holding the cleaning solvent, a pump for circulating the solvent through the machine, filters that aid the removal of solid impurities found either in the solvent or on the fabrics and a cylinder or wheel that holds the fabrics being cleaned.

The dry cleaning machine is started once the fabrics are loaded into it. The pump collects solvent that will be sufficient for the cleaning process from the base tank and transports it to the filter where impurities are removed. The filtered solvent now moves to the cylinder. It not only immerses the fabrics but also gently pounds them against the cylinder to remove stains. 

The next circle, which is the extraction circle, rapidly spins the fabrics to remove excess solvent on it, and the solvent travels back to the base tank to repeat the process.

Once the extraction process is completed, the cylinder stops moving, and the fabrics are either dried in the same machine or transferred to a separate drier, depending on whether the machine has an in-built drier or not. 

Next, the fabrics are treated with steam or vacuum to remove any remaining stain. It is then pressed to remove wrinkles that resulted from the spinning process, and buttons are reattached along with some other minor repairs. 

The fabrics are folded and kept in plastic bags to prevent any stains after they have been cleaned. However, it is vital to note that a prolonged stay in the plastic bags can damage the fabrics due to moisture trapped in the plastic bags. So, remember to take out the fabrics immediately you get home.

The entire process generates a great deal of heat, which can be quite damaging to some fabrics. Therefore, the Green dry cleaning process is often preferred as there is no heat involved.

How To Get The Best Results From Your Dry Cleaner

There are certain things you need to do to ensure that your fabrics receive the best treatment from your dry cleaner.

  • Read Labels

You cannot overemphasize the importance of labels. These labels are provided to give you guidelines on how to properly take care of the fabric. Sadly, though, very few people pay attention to these labels, some even tear them out entirely. Paying attention to labels will enable you to note any special care instruction for the fabric and duly inform your dry cleaner.

  • Do Not Remove Stains On Your Own

We are tempted often to remove stains we notice on our fabrics by ourselves, probably by rubbing them or attempting to wash them out casually. 

However, in most cases, we do the opposite of what we have intended to do, pushing the stain, dye, coffee, oil or grease, deeper into the fabric, thus, making the dry cleaning process more difficult. It is advisable that you take stained clothes immediately to the dry cleaner and avoid the urge to wipe out the stains on your own.

  • Point Out Specific Stains To The Dry Cleaner

Once you drop off your fabrics at a dry cleaning store, be sure to point out stains on the fabric and, if possible, what caused those stains. This will enable the dry cleaner to know the exact pre-treatment to give your fabrics during the cleaning process.

  • Don’t Forget To Point Out Special Designs On The Fabric.

Some fabrics come with unique designs and embellishments, including buttons, sequins,  aimed at further increasing the beauty of the fabric. 

However, these designs are very delicate and require special care when they are cleaned. It is imperative to make the dry cleaner aware of them and ask if they can be given special attention or be removed entirely during the cleaning process.

  • Do Not Make Assumptions

A lot of fabrics have been ruined because the owners assumed that the dry cleaner knows it all. However, the error in this thinking is that the dry cleaner handles fabrics that have been brought by countless other people, and something might go wrong during the cleaning process. 

Therefore, you need to talk to your dry cleaner and point out stains, embellishments, and other special care requirements for your fabric beforehand, to ensure that your fabrics are given the best treatment possible.

The Future of Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning ensures that clothes last longer, and giving your clothes to a professional dry cleaner will enable you to get the best results. The dry cleaning business is a lucrative industry, and there are many people in the business.

According to a recent survey report by the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States alone has about 36,000 dry cleaners. There are also thousands of commercial dry cleaners all over the world today. However, this number is fast diminishing due to several reasons.

For one thing, casual clothing is fast becoming a norm among people in the world today. These clothes can be washed either by hand or using the conventional washing machine, thus, eliminating any need for a dry cleaner or dry cleaning machine.

Advancements in science and technology have also made it possible for more durable fabrics to be developed. These fabrics are created in a manner that they can withstand several unfavorable conditions without any damage. Although being expensive, the benefits of buying durable fabrics far outweigh the cost.

Additionally, the vast majority of dry cleaning facilities are family-owned businesses. Once the older generation that has been managing the business retires, the younger generation will no longer be interested in taking over the family business, preferring to search for other white-collar or internet-based jobs.

The health and environmental hazards caused by the solvents used in the dry cleaning process is also another reason why the number of players in the dry cleaning industry is reducing drastically. Carbon dioxide and water-based cleaning solutions are used now as alternatives to Perc in the cleaning of fabrics.

Lastly, the emergence of mobile phone apps like that offered by Soji Cleaners will become more popular with customers, since these persons can now set their dry cleaning preferences and get the job done without lifting a finger.

Final Words

In this article, we have answered questions such as:

What is dry cleaning?

How does dry cleaning work?

We also explained how you can do dry cleaning at home and how the commercial dry cleaning process works. 

Lastly, we considered what the imminent future looks like for the dry cleaning industry, and hope that the detailed information we’ve provided herein will serve anyone who is currently looking for a guide into dry cleaning.


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