The introduction of new cleaning symbols is likely to result in considerable expansion of wetcleaning services in the UK and in many other countries.

The wetcleaning symbol, , will probably have three variants but the earliest they are expected to appear officially is the end of next year or the beginning of 2004, with the publication of the revised international care labelling code. Some garments are already carrying the wetclean symbol. These originate from Germany where there is significant wetcleaning capacity.

Machinery suppliers, chemical manufacturers and experts from the research institutes for textile cleaning, worked on the Aquacarb project for 18 months up to the end of 2000 and delivered to ISO two draft test methods, one of them for wetcleaning and the other for hydrocarbon processing. The project was established by Mike Palin, technical director of the Textile Services Association.

ISO has progressed the draft test methods, which are now being voted on by the national standards organisations around the world with ISO membership.

Reference detergent

The proposed test method for wetcleaning has a reference detergent that satisfies worldwide availability requirements. This detergent is a base product, not incorporating some of fabric-protective chemistry found in the formulations available to the cleaning market. The action of the test method is, therefore, slightly more severe than would be the case in the professional cleaner’s operation.

If the national groups accept the technical rationale set out in the proposal, then publication of the wetcleaning test method could be later this year or early next. However, if technical issues are raised then further committee work will be necessary and another test method draft produced. This process could delay publication by about nine months.

Mike Palin is the convenor of the ISO committee responsible for developing standards for professional textile care methods. He considers that the publication of the wetcleaning test method and the introduction of W symbols will lead to the textile industry increasing its efforts to manufacture wetcleanable products.

He believes that the appearance of W symbols will create significant consumer demand for professional wetcleaning services, and that the TSA’s Drycleaning Information Bureau will play an important role in directing people to shops where wetcleaning services are offered.

Wetcleaning in the UK has established a market niche and it is expected that volume will build once the textile retail industry adopts the new test method and applies the new care symbols.

Five per cent of professional cleaning in the UK is now thought to be by wetcleaning. The three envisaged wetcleaning symbols are: a W in a circle with no underline; a W in a circle with a single underline; and a W in a circle with double underline.

The W in a circle with no underline would indicate that the item is cleanable in normal washing cycles but that professional processing is required because of the item’s size. This symbol could be used for wedding dresses and ski wear.

A W in a circle with one underline would be used for items needing the benefit of reduced mechanical action in both washing and drying, and requiring the inclusion of fabric-protective ingredients in the wash chemistry.

A W in a circle with double underline would indicate that the item needs even more care at all processing stages.

Tim Hitchcock, who runs a solely wetcleaning unit – Hydrotech Cleaners at Bognor Regis, West Sussex, considers that while the introduction of the wetcleaning symbol might initially encourage people to clean clothes carrying it at home, but it would soon be discovered that professional cleaning remained a necessity. The appearance of the symbol would create, he says, a positive impact on the trade of shops offering a wetcleaning service.

He established the business five years ago when he was a newcomer to the textile care industry. From the start, the reaction from customers to wetcleaning was positive and enthusiastic but some fears about shrinkage had to be allayed. He points out to customers that the wetcleaning process – costing no more than drycleaning – makes clothes particularly clean, bright, and fresh smelling. He explains that the process, using special detergents, is suitable for all textiles.

Green image

The green image of wetcleaning remains important, Mr Hitchcock says, adding that many people have become not only more responsive to green issues but also more aware of political drivers behind these.

Customers are pleasantly surprised with the wetcleaning results achieved, and there has been notably positive feedback on wetcleaned business suits. The wetcleaning process has proved to be gentle on the interlinings and adhesives of the suits, he says.

The business volume at Hydrotech Cleaners has been grown by building up the number of regular customers who personally recommend other people to the shop. Most of the customers are local, but a number of people who pass through the area make a point of regularly stopping at the shop to take advantage of the wetcleaning service.

Mr Hitchcock has developed a bespoke approach to his wetcleaning work, evaluating the specific requirements for textiles and any soiling or staining present. Two detergent phases are used for an average of two out of three loads, and cycle time extensions are often employed. Garment shrinkage is avoided as the processes do not involve damaging heat or agitation.

The shop has an Ipso 40 lb capacity washer-extractor and an ADC dryer. Most of the structured garments processed are dried overnight on formers, with the dryer being used subsequently to bring the moisture retention of the garments to an ideal level. There is a drying cabinet which is useful when there is a large volume of items to turnaround quickly.

Generally, customers are happy to leave items for three days so that a quality result can be achieved. Mr Hitchcock likes to work without time pressure. There is a surcharge for work turned round rapidly.

He agrees that wetcleaning is labour intensive. Finishing, in particular, takes time – and skill. While a structured jacket may be finished in four minutes after solvent cleaning, some 13 minutes is taken by Mr Hitchcock who is highly focused on first rate finishing standards. Despite the labour intensive nature of the business, Mr Hitchcock says satisfactory margins are maintained – he carries out all the processing tasks himself and has some part-time help with packaging.

He points to how wetcleaning is more economic than drycleaning from a shop operation point of view. Supplies are cheaper, there are no residues to dispose of, and machine maintenance is lower, he says.

In the past five years, competition locally has declined due to a reduction in the number of drycleaning businesses run.

Malcolm Brooke, retail division sales manager of JLA, says the introduction of wetcleaning symbols will undoubtedly lead to an increase in consumer interest in aqueous processing and a growth in the number of shops offering a wetcleaning service.

JLA has found that wetcleaning appeals to highly professional cleaners who see the benefits of operating an aqueous process alongside a solvent one. With the drycleaning market not buoyant in recent years, these professionals have looked to increase service options.

Wetcleaning has been found to help both the one-shop business and the small chain, enabling them to process classifications such as wedding dresses – on which stains are likely to be water-based, and sequined garments. A “good proportion” of leather, sheepskin and suede clothes can be processed in an aqueous system.

Processing flexibility

Mr Brooke says washer-extractors and dryers have been developed to a point where ultimate processing flexibility is delivered. With washer-extractors, the drum rotation speed, dwell time and wash liquor temperature are controlled with high accuracy. Dryer operation is just as precise. For high volume wetcleaning operations, a drying cabinet, which reduces the amount of finishing time required, may be employed. Development to fine tune wetcleaning chemistry continues.

He adds that consumers positively like aqueous processing, the prices of which are similar to those of drycleaning.

JLA has supplied about 250 Aquatex aqueous processing systems worldwide, and approximately 150 of these are in the UK. Other suppliers have installed about a further 50 wetcleaning systems in the UK.

As well as Aquatex systems, JLA offers its Duvet Super Plus specialised equipment package which utilises some Aquatex processing features. The Duvet Super Plus package has a washer-extractor of 35 lb to 40 lb capacity and a 50 lb capacity dryer. It is aimed at the cleaner who wants to augment solvent cleaning with laundry work and a limited amount of wetcleaning but who does not want to opt for a full specification wetcleaning system.

The Duvet Super Plus washer-extractor has three specialist wetcleaning programs and six laundering ones. Though not having the degree of flexibility of an Aquatex machine, it is nevertheless ideal for processing not only, as the package name would suggest, duvets but also “delicates” such as wedding dresses.

The Aquacarb participants also tested a wide range of textiles in hydrocarbon solvent in a selection of commercially available machines. They concluded that concerns over the effect on sensitive textiles of such variables as cage design, drying times and temperatures were unfounded and that the existing F labelling was still satisfactory. The test protocol developed in the project will complete the suite of test methods in professional retail cleaning needed to support the care labelling code.