Off to the Cleaners? Things to Know before You Go

Keeping those fabulous frocks in A-1 condition requires a bit more than periodic trips to the neighborhood dry cleaner. Before you drop off your next bundle, be sure to take steps to care for your clothes and save yourself a lot of stress and aggravation.

1. Read those labels. The Federal Trade Commission requires that all garments (except suedes and leathers) display at least one safe cleaning method. If you clean a garment by an alternative method (i.e., if you wash a blouse when the label indicates “Dry Clean Only”) and damage occurs, the responsibility is yours.

2. Despite care label recommendations, there is often an element of “buyer beware” with trims, ornaments, beads, sequins and buttons. Leslie DiMaggio, owner of Outlet Discount Cleaners in Salinas, Calif., expresses a common concern among dry cleaners about the stability of such items. “If a button makes the garment, remove it before cleaning.” She also recommends that you ask your cleaner to wrap specialty buttons before cleaning to prevent scratching and chipping.

3. If you sew or have your clothes made, your garment may not have a care label. Be certain all components of a handmade garment can be dry cleaned before dropping it off. Otherwise, washable fabrics may bleed; shrinkage may occur; buttons or trims may disintegrate or bleed; elastic may lose its stretch; iron-on interfacing will disappear, and unfinished seams may ravel.

4. Don’t leave a pile of clothes in the back seat of your car, waiting until you have time to stop at the cleaner. Sunlight and heat in a closed car can cause your garments to fade and will ultimately weaken fabric fibers.

5. Point out stains and tell the dry cleaner what caused the stain. Different stains require different treatments. Also, don’t wait too long before having a stain treated. Time can set stains.

6. Check your pockets. This is normal procedure for the dry cleaning staff, but an oversight can be catastrophic. A piece of hard candy overlooked in a breast pocket can melt and leave a very difficult stain.

7. Take care of your own shoulder pads. If they are loose, they will most likely become detached during dry cleaning and possibly lost forever. If they attach with Velcro, take them out and leave them at home. If they are soft or flimsy, secure them on both sides within their encasements with safety pins. This will prevent them from bunching up or losing their shape during cleaning.

8. Remember to always spray your body – not your clothes – with cologne or perfume. The alcohol in fragrances and other toiletries such as hairspray can leave nasty, yellowish stains that are not visible until after garments are dry cleaned. The worst case scenario is that the toiletries could take out the color altogether.

9. Dry cleaners package finished orders with four garments per plastic bag. To protect the pressing and crispness of your plus-size garments, ask that your dresses and suits be bagged individually or with no more than two items per bag.

10. Make a friend of your dry cleaner. Ask questions. Express your concerns. Professionals like Mark Holloran, owner of two Dryclean $1.99 stores in St. Louis, welcome the opportunity to discuss clothing care with customers. He says, “A little knowledge of prevention and cure goes a long way in protecting your clothing investment.”

11. Multiple piece ensembles or suits should be cleaned at the same time. Occasionally, colors may change slightly during the cleaning process, and cleaning these pieces together will maintain color consistency.

12. Pricing for dry cleaning is all over the board, due primarily to location, competition and marketing strategy. Richard Armstrong, Executive Director of the Indiana Dry Cleaning and Laundry Association and owner of Armstrong Cleaners in Richmond, Ind., sums up the general pricing policies of individual cleaners within the industry. Basically, neither the gender of the wearer nor the size of garments should determine cost. Rather, the cost reflects “the fiber content or the difficulty of finishing a garment.” Items requiring extra time and labor, including “rayon, silk, lined skirts or slacks,” often cost more to clean.

13. Be very careful of garments containing angora or lambs wool. They tend to shrink.

Delve Deeper

Dry Cleaning at Home

Since 1997, several do-it-yourself dry cleaning kits have appeared on store shelves. Proctor & Gamble’s Dryel involves nothing more than tossing a specially treated sheet and your clothes into the provided bag and sticking it into your clothes dryer for 40 minutes or so. But do they really work?

On the up side, these products do a great job of removing odors, such as smoke, and refreshing garments. Because the kit components can be reused numerous times, at-home products can dramatically slash your dry cleaning expenses. While the manufacturers – like professional dry cleaners – do not claim 100% success rates in removing stains, the spotting solutions are effective in many instances. These products are also great to bring along when you’re traveling to a place where you’ll have access to a clothes dryer.

If you’re accustomed to the crisp, ready-to-wear appearance of garments processed by professional dry cleaner, you may be in for a disappointment with at-home products. Bulky garments such as overcoats and sweaters come out of the dryer just fine, but others – like dresses and blouses – may need ironing. And since plus-size clothing takes up more room in the dryer bag, the number of garments you can clean at a time is reduced. Knowledgeable dry cleaners worry that stains may be worsened in home processing since heat can set them.

These relatively low-cost products add a new dimension to clothing care and can work great for in-between cleanings. Remember, though, that they do not replace professional dry cleaning.

Undoing the Damage

You’ve just picked up your clothes from the dry cleaner and discover that the dress you were planning to wear for your romantic interlude tonight is ruined. What to do?

  • Don’t Jump to Conclusions. If your garment is damaged in dry cleaning, it may not have been the dry cleaner’s fault. Most dry cleaners know immediately when something goes awry with a garment and should bring it to your attention. If you discover a problem after you’ve left the store, you should leave the tag on and take it, along with the order ticket, back to the store. If you and the dry cleaner cannot solve the problem together, you can pursue it through your Better Business Bureau or in small claims court.
  • Whoever Caused the Problem is at Fault. Was it negligence on the part of the dry cleaner or a defect in materials or construction on the part of the manufacturer? You must also realize that inadvertently, you may have been responsible. If you are not at fault, the dry cleaner, the retailer or the manufacturer should compensate your for the item.
  • The International Fabricare Institute ( or 800/638-2627) is the industry authority on all facets of dry cleaning. One of their many services includes objective analysis of damaged items to determine cause and possible corrective measures. Dry cleaners who are members of this organization can send garments to be analyzed. If your cleaner is not a member or will not comply, your local Better Business Bureau can submit the item on your behalf for about $25.00.

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