Dry cleaning has been to me like what riding in a car must be like to a dog: a magical process without explanation. How do the clothes get so clean using a “dry” process? Is it like dry shampoo?
No. In the process of dry cleaning the clothes get completely wet – just not with water!
Discovery: In 1855 Jean Baptiste Jolly’s maid spilled some kerosene on the tablecloth. The next morning he was surprised to find that the tablecloth was perfectly clean where the kerosene was spilled and wondered if kerosene would be a good cleaning agent. It turned out it was and dry cleaning was born. Dry cleaning is not actually dry. The clothes do get “wet” – just not with water. Early dry cleaning used kerosene or gasoline. Now a chemical called perchlorethylene (referred to as “perc”) is the predominant chemical used in dry cleaning.
Here are the general steps in dry cleaning.
- Someone wears the clothes and gets them dirty – or in my case sometimes they are just wrinkled and I am too lazy to iron them
- The clothes arrive at the dry cleaner and are tagged
- The cleaners pre-treat visible stains
- The clothes are put into big washers in 50-100 pound loads
- The washers actually wash the clothes similar to a regular washing machine in a solution of perc. Hundreds of gallons of perc are sprayed on clothes while in a perforated basket and while being agitated.
- The same machines then extract the perc (via spin cycle) and dry the clothes (the perc is recovered, filtered and reused)
- The cleaners then use specialized pressing boards to press the clothes
- The owners pick up the clothes and wear them and the whole process stars over
Perc can lift dirt from most fabrics without damaging the fibers, causing the clothes to shrink or dyes to fade. According to a technician at the National Dry Cleaning Association: “There are certain fabrics and dyes and garments constructed with adhesives that are water sensitive, and dry cleaning doesn’t permeate the fibers or make them wet with water. Because [perc] doesn’t contain water, it can negotiate sensitive fabrics like wool or silk.”
Did you know that dry cleaning is also one of the hardest things on clothing? I strongly recommend getting a steamer to get out light wrinkling or just having clothes pressed instead of dry cleaned. It will lengthen the life of your clothing!