Good stain removal skills are important to customer satisfaction.

To achieve the best results the cleaner must be prepared to study the subject and develop the knowledge skills and expertise to remove difficult and deep-seated stains on a wide range of fibres and fabrics.

It is essential to have the right equipment and I believe that economising by buying a very basic spotting table is a mistake as stain removal is just as important as the removal of dirt and soiling in the machine.

There are many types of spotting table. In the first instance, the shop layout may require a small, space-efficient table. If space is very limited a spotting cabinet might be suitable choice.

Where space is not a problem I recommend choosing a flat-topped table with a laminate surface, measuring at least 90 x 60cm, for use in the pre-cleaning inspection and for pre-spotting.

For post-spotting the ideal is a full sized table equipped with steam, air, vacuum and a high pressure water spray or sprays.

The most expensive tables are fitted with a glass working surface, which reduces the noise when tamping techniques (tapping stains with a spotting brush) are needed.

Although cold spotting tables are safer in the hands of untrained staff they are not recommended as heat will be needed to assist in removing some stains and also because cotton and linen need considerable time to dry after stain removal.

Removing stains and areas of ingrained soiling should be separated into dirty- or clean-side treatments – the treatment of stains and ingrained soiling before drycleaning, followed by the removal of any stains that remain after drycleaning, usually referred to as pre-spotting and post-spotting.

Many drycleaners rely heavily on pre-spotting. If stains remain after machine cleaning, the garments will be pre-spotted again and re-cleaned without any attempt at post-spotting but I believe that this method is largely responsible for the problems that many drycleaners experience with stain removal.

The risk of fabric damage and/or colour loss is far greater in pre-spotting as it is not possible to test accurately for the conditions that prevail during drycleaning so problems are only noticed when the garment is removed from the machine. Using post-spotting techniques gives cleaners complete control and they can usually detect any signs of a problem developing and stop before it is too late.


The drycleaner is faced with a bewildering variety of spotting chemicals, soaps and detergents. I frequently see spotting areas with 15 – 25 different chemicals, which are primarily designed for pre-spotting, although it is obvious that most of these are rarely used, if ever. These products are expensive and are a waste of money if they deteriorate through lack of use. Some stains such as epoxy resins and indelible inks cannot be removed.

The cleaner should always be aware that it is his responsibility to ensure that the chemicals used will not have any adverse affects.


I recommend equipping the business with a basic three-bottle spotting kit designed for pre-spotting. In addition, cleaners should have a general pre-spotting detergent, a specialist product for the treatment of water-based stains on sensitive fabrics and a metal stain remover.

Metal stain removers are essential for the successful treatment of rust and for other stains including certain garden products such as lawn moss killer but they are potentially dangerous. Cleaners must make sure that the appropriate gloves and eye protection are available and that they are always worn when using these products. If metal stain removers are used in pre-spotting they must be flushed out with water and the fabric must then be dried thoroughly before the textile goes into the machine.

The three-bottle kit will normally have the following products: a protein remover (alkaline) for use on water based stains of an animal origin such as blood, egg and milk; a tannin remover (acidic) for use on water-based stains of a plant origin such as tea, coffee and red wine; a paint remover for use on oil based stains such as paints, tar and ball-point pen marks.

The above specific reagents and the general pre-spotting soap are designed for use on robust garments where there is no risk of colour loss or shrinkage. General pre-spotters are used to treat larger areas of water-based staining/soiling or the ingrained soiling often found round collars cuffs and pockets.

Specialist products are used in a similar way on moisture- or colour- sensitive textiles. Before purchasing chemicals check with the chemical supplier to ensure that the products are compatible with the detergents you are using in the drycleaning machine.


I prefer using pure chemicals for post-spotting as I believe they are certainly cost effective and safer, although specialist post-spotting kits are available. I recommend buying the following pure chemical reagents: a 4 – 5% solution of ammonia (alkaline) for use on water-based stains of an animal origin such as blood, egg and milk; a 10% solution of acetic acid for use on water-based stains of a plant origin such as tea, coffee and red wine.

Bar soap ( such as Fairy Green) should also be provided. This enhances the properties of ammonia. These two reagents used together can treat a wide range of difficult water-based stains.

Do not use bar soap with acetic acid as they neutralise each other.

Identifying stains

The first step in selecting the chemical to treat a stain is to establish the stain type or characteristics. Is it water-based or oil-based?

Identification is based on one of more of these factors – feel, odour colour, appearance and location.

Most stains can be identified by appearance but in some cases such as curry, perfume, ball-point pen and shoe polish considering not only the appearance but also the odour colour and location can usually prove more accurate.

Stains such as curry are known as compound stains because they have both oily/greasy and water soluble components.

Water-based stains usually have a clearly defined edge. In contrast stains with a diffuse edge where there is no clear boundry are often oil-based.

It is important to realise that positive identification is rarely possible. For example, there are numerous types of curry.

Customers may give information about a stain but even this cannot be relied on 100%. The colour and feel of a stain will vary according to the colour and type of fabric.

In the last analysis, identification is a matter of knowledgeable, inspired guesswork.

Getting started

It should be clearly understood that stains are the customer’s responsibility and the cleaner cannot be held liable for failure to remove such marks.

If the customer is dissatisfied with the result, some cleaners may cancel the charge as a good-will gesture but there is no obligation to do so.

Garments and other textiles should be inspected all over and in detail before the cleaning process starts. This inspection should aim not only to find and identify any stains but also to ensure that faults, such as local colour loss, fabric damage or missing buttons, are recorded at the counter.

This detailed inspection is particularly important in the case of high value designer garments. Once a garment/textile has been through the cleaning process it may be very difficult to defend a claim if the item is later found to be damaged.

Garments with heavy or extensive water-based stains may need to be washed or wetcleaned.

This should not be a problem provided the item carries a wash or wetcleaning aftercare label.

If a garment is labelled “dryclean only” or “do not wash”, the problem will need to be discussed with the customer. Where the cleaner considers there is a good chance of a successful result, the customer may wish to have the item washed or wetcleaned at “owner’s risk”.

Paint remover can be used to treat oily/greasy staining on robust garments unless such staining is likely to respond to the drycleaning process. Water-based stains on robust items should be examined to decide whether they are of animal or vegetable origin and then treated with the appropriate chemical.

Only use sufficient chemical to cover the stain and then work gently with a spatula or tamp with a spotting brush. Once the stain has diffused into the fabric it can be left to flush out during drycleaning.

If the origin is in doubt, use the protein remover (red bottle).

If there is a risk of localised colour loss or shrinkage in the machine, remove the stains on the post-spotting table and then thoroughly dry the area before drycleaning. Provided the fabric is properly dried, this is by far the safest option. Many stains can be removed very easily with the high-pressure water spray alone, without any chemicals.

Some stains, particularly paint or blood stains, will require mechanical action to loosen them from the fabric whether they are pre- or post-spotted. Ideally, pre-spotting chemicals should not be left on the fabric for more than 10 minutes before being drycleaned but half hour is a more realistic maximum.

Mechanical action can be applied with a spatula and here method, technique and care are very important as it is so easy to damage textiles.

Spatulas should never be used on delicates such as silk and pre-spotting should also be avoided with such fabrics unless a specialist chemical for sensitives is used.

Where a stained silk requires local mechanical action it should be gently tamped with a soft brush.

Inexperienced cleaners should try to avoid pre-spotting white or very pale fabrics. If this is not possible, pre-spotting chemicals should be applied immediately before putting the garments into the machine.

After cleaning

Post-spotting is always safer than pre-spotting. Provided that the equipment is kept spotlessly clean, 80 – 90% of stains that remain after cleaning can be quickly and easily removed with the high pressure water spray.

The importance of cleanliness cannot be over emphasised. In my experience, many of the problems that cleaners have in post-spotting are caused by the use of non-specialist kit chemicals at this stage as these may leave sticky deposits on the equipment.

The use of pure chemical reagents for post spotting will largely eliminate this problem, although I would recommend that every two or three months the operator removes the top of the table to clean the interior and the wire gauze.

Every garment removed should be inspected in detail when it is removed from the drycleaning machine. Ideally this should be done on a table so that garments that are still stained can be sent for spotting. This will ensure that the staining is not heat set by being finished.

Most of the remaining stains will be water-based. If the staining is heavy the cleaner will have to decide whether treating it on the spotting table is realistic or if the size or number of stains make washing or wetcleaning the best choice. Any further processing may need to be discussed with the customer.

This kind of problem usually occurs when the stains were not visible before drycleaning but have developed during the process. The most common developed stains appear when moisture is removed from them in the course of drycleaning. Fortunately stains of this type will almost invariably respond rapidly to the high pressure water spray or in some cases the steam gun.

There will always be some stains that do not respond immediately to treatment. Occasionally it may take time for the treatment to be fully absorbed. This applies particularly to blood, which may occasionally need to be left for 5 – 10 minutes after application.

Occasionally rings may develop when the fabric is dried off with an air gun. To reduce this risk, work as quickly as possible and if there is a problem try removing the ring in segments. If problems still persist masking the affected area with a specialist product for sensitive items and re-cleaning will usually remove any sweals.

The effectiveness of a stain removal treatment may be affected by different factors.

Time: Has sufficient time been allowed for the reagent to react fully with the stain? Remember stains do not always respond immediately.

Temperature: Has the steam gun been used to raise the temperature? Would raising the temperature be appropriate? Most chemicals become more reactive as temperature increases so using a steam gun may help to release the stain but it also increases the risk of colour loss.

Reagent: Stains will often only respond to the appropriate reagent and if a stain does not respond it may not have been identified accurately. In this case, consider using other reagents.

Mechanical Action: Using a different type of mechanical action may help to release the stain. Most spotters use a spatula and rarely if ever use a spotting brush to tamp stains but this is generally much safer and can be more effective.

Fibre/Fabric Type: Some stains may have particular chemical or physical properties that bind them to particular fabrics. Oil usually responds well to spotting and drycleaning but may be difficult or even impossible to remove from a polyester fabric, which has a strong affinity for oil.

The steam gun

The steam gun plays an important part in the removal of some stains and when used in conjunction with ammonia and bar soap it is very effective in removing small areas of ingrained soiling and many water-based stains.

The cleaner should always bear in mind that increasing the temperature increases the risk of localised colour loss so great care is needed as you build up your experience.

On some spotting tables the volume of steam cannot be regulated but it is important that the volume of steam is infinitely variable to reduce any risk of fabric damage.

The steam gun should not, in the first instance, be used in the removal of blood or egg or any other stains which contain a large amount of albumin as the stains may be heat set before they can be flushed out of the fabric.

If after doing a colour test you are concerned that the colour may run, use cold water or acetic acid. Acetic acid is perhaps the safest spotting chemical the industry has ever used. In most cases it is safer than cold water as it tends to hold the colour in place.

Ammonia has a tendency to bleed colour so avoid using it if you are spotting a colour sensitive textile.

The risk of the colour being affected is significantly increased when using kit pre-spotting chemicals on sensitive fabrics.