Questions & Answers
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Q. Sometimes my clothes come back smelling like chemicals. Is that okay?
A. No. Dry cleaning uses a chemical solvent (instead of water) that removes dirt and stains without shrinking or damaging fabrics. But the solvent should be filtered throughout the process to remove soil and odors. If there's a chemical smell, that's a sign that your dry cleaner isn't doing a good job.
Q. Is French dry cleaning better?
A. The name is fancier, but the process is exactly the same. The French invented dry cleaning in the 18th century, and as other countries picked up the technology, they referred to it that way.
Q. Some cleaners charge a lot more than others. Does how much I pay make any real difference in how my clothes will be treated?
A. Hate to tell you, but the more money you spend, the better care and service you'll get. Of course, that doesn't mean that every cleaning job requires top-tier treatment. Say you have a basic pantsuit that isn't new, stained or particularly special. Try a discount cleaner, where you'll be charged about $3. He probably won't press it perfectly or remove all spots, but you can count on him for a satisfactory basic job. For items that are messier or more valuable, a mid-level cleaner is good; he'll charge about $10 for a suit but will do a better job of removing stains and pressing. And then there's the top level, the specialty cleaners, whom you can rely on for intricate or very expensive items — say, that beaded pantsuit you splurged on for your anniversary. Service is pricey (starting at $25 for a plain suit and increasing based on the type of fabric and number of details), but some luxury cleaners will even remove beads, crystals and trims before cleaning, then sew them back on afterward, to assure that treasured pieces stay in tip-top shape.
Q. Do greener alternatives work?
A. Some think that using the dry cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (perc) is environmentally unsafe. As a result, more dry cleaners have started using other, more eco-friendly chemicals like hydrocarbon, silicone-based solvent and liquid carbon dioxide. Studies show that these alternatives clean at least as well as perc, at about the same cost to the consumer. If you've never seen a cleaner in your area who offers green service, it's probably because these methods require new, expensive equipment (some of it costing more than twice as much as the standard machines), so not all businesses can make the investment. A green option that's easier for most businesses to offer is wet cleaning, which uses water instead of a chemical solvent on clothes that won't be damaged by the environmentally friendly process. To achieve the thoroughness of dry cleaning, cleaners also use special pretreatments, detergents and additives. Many cleaners now use wet cleaning in addition to the standard method, in part to reduce their use of perc. If you choose a green cleaner, make sure he's certified by the International Fabricare Institute (IFI), the main industry association.
Q. Does same-day service really get the job done?
A. One-day service is fine for clothes without stains. They'll be cleaned, dried and pressed. A good dry cleaner will let you know if the item needs more attention than it can receive in a quick turnaround, but use your own judgment too.
Q. Why do some cleaners charge less money for a man's dress shirt than they do for a woman's blouse?
A. Men's shirts are often constructed in the same simple way, free of ruffles and ornamentation — so they can be pressed on automated equipment, which keeps the cost down. Women's shirts are often more detailed, requiring more expensive hand pressing. But if you're dropping off a basic shirt, ask for the lower price — you should get it. A controversy erupted about 20 years ago over the price discrepancy, and the IFI stated that similar garments should cost the same amount to clean, regardless of who'll be wearing them.
Q. Why don't stains always come out?
A. If stains have set for a week or longer, they're tough to eradicate. High-end cleaners have the best chance of getting them out, along with stubborn stains like wine, tea, coffee and fruit juice.
Q. What should I do if the cleaner damages or loses something?
A. Most cleaners will reimburse you, but they probably won't cough up enough to cover a replacement. That's because they use the IFI's Fair Claims Guide for Consumer Textile Products to calculate the item's current value. This formula factors in the garment's age and condition. So if a shirt had worn-looking cuffs, say, when you took it in, you won't get back top dollar.
Q. My new black pants shrank the first time they went to the cleaner. Isn't this his fault?
A. Probably not. If the piece was really dry cleaned (that is, with standard chemical solvents), it's much more likely that the shrinkage resulted from poor manufacturing. Sometimes, clothing is accidentally overstretched in the factory; later on, the fabric springs back, producing what looks like shrinkage. Unfortunately, there is little you can do to salvage downsized clothes, though sweaters can be reblocked (using steam, the cleaner wets the garment, then stretches and shapes it to its original size). Reblocking due to shrinkage is usually free; if you want a cleaner to block a hand-knitted sweater, he'll probably charge you.
Q. Can I take my leather jacket to the dry cleaner?
A. Only if the cleaner is qualified (ask if he is). Special equipment and skills are needed for treating leather and suede. For example, these materials often fade during cleaning and need to be retinted to restore the color. Stains also require special handling. Perspiration, alcohol and ground-in dirt at hems or on cuffs are especially hard to remove.
Q. Is it worth storing clothes at your dry cleaner?
A. Yes, if you don't have much space or if you own something that needs extra care, like a velvet dress. Many cleaners offer climate-controlled rooms where clothing is boxed or hung so it'll keep its shape and stay insect free. The best part: There's typically no charge if you have the items cleaned first.
Excerpt from "Dry Cleaning Demystified" by Carolyn Forté, Good Housekeeping