Following the autumn floods, wet weather and gales, cleaners now need to be prepared for an influx of household items. While this may bring with it the much-needed Spring boost to turnover, there are many pitfalls around the corner, just waiting to trip up the unwary!

Failure to record obvious signs of physical or chemical damage could, at worst, result in the cleaner having to accept responsibility in a case where they were not at fault; but this is not the whole story, as the overall risk for household textiles is much greater than for personal wear items. In many cases curtains, suite covers and pelmets will have been custom-made or home-made, meaning that the standard of make-up can vary from one end of the spectrum to the other. It is also the case that any fibre content and aftercare labels originally attached to fabrics by the manufacturer, may have been lost or discarded by the retailer or purchaser, leaving the cleaner having to decide how, or if, the items can safely be cleaned.

Because of the effects of climate change, during this winter, we have experienced long periods of very high relative humidity, reaching levels approaching 100% ( see Jan 2024 Trade Secrets – ‘The Further Effects of Climate Change’). Operators need to be aware that, in damp weather conditions, the risk of shrinkage can increase exponentially, because atmospheric relative humidity (RH) stays well over 80% for a long time. This can result in the standard regains of textiles such as cotton (regain 8%, calculated at 65%RH) rising to levels well above those at which they can safely be drycleaned! This can be made even worse by steam-finishing in a poorly ventilated unit. .


Most textiles have the potential to shrink and in the case of close-fitting suite covers, even a very small relaxation in cleaning may be difficult or even impossible to recover (with cotton fabrics being very much at risk). The British Standard for curtain fabrics1 allows for up to 3% relaxation in drycleaning and many manufacturers work right up to this tolerance. Others allow even more! With tight fitting loose covers, the customer may well find even a typical 3% shrinkage unacceptable.

To avoid any misunderstandings at a later date, the potential for unavoidable shrinkage of up to and sometimes over 3% should be brought to the customers attention at the cleaner’s reception. Also, it is vital that all curtains and fitted covers are carefully measured and a record made of the measurements.

When curtains are made up, a generous hem should be allowed where length might be critical, as 3% relaxation on say a drop of 200cm (79in) results in a loss of 6.0cm (2.4in).

Cleaners should be aware that the risk of shrinkage and distortion is always going to be greater in wetcleaning, with animal hair fibres and cellulosic fabrics (e.g. cotton, linen and viscose) being very much at risk. Cleaners should also bear in mind that furnishings can be in use for many years, and this can impact on their response to dry or wetcleaning processes, because of fabric/fibre degradation and the effects of moisture and sunlight over time.

Pre-cleaning inspection

In cases where there are no care labels or where any aftercare information is insufficient or thought to be unreliable, items need to be very carefully inspected and checked. The following are examples of fabric types that always have the potential to create serious problems for the cleaner.

  • Printed fabrics: always need be checked with solvent (dry or wet) prior to cleaning. Using a piece of white fabric moistened with solvent, rub the printed pattern to establish if any colour is transferred to the cloth. If the pattern is not entirely fast to the solvent, it may fade considerably during cleaning and/or mark off on to other fabrics in the load.
  • Curtain linings and particularly those hung in south facing windows may fade leaving vertical stripes down the fabric. On dirty linings, this may be largely masked by the soiling and only fully revealed following cleaning. Cotton linings, when exposed to direct sunlight over time, suffer photo-chemical degradation to the fabric to such an extent that it may rupture or disintegrate during cleaning. While the extensive failure of linings in cleaning is not usually the cleaner’s responsibility, it does not reflect well on their competence. Use the simple test illustrated to establish the strength of the linings.
  • Moiré effects can be produced on fabrics such as cotton, silk, and acetate rayon. As some moiré effects are removed or reduced by water, these fabrics should always be drycleaned, unless the care label allows water-based processing.
    Any fading or removal of the characteristic wavy pattern from contact with condensation etc needs to be pointed out during reception…
  • Mildew staining: owing to condensation, this type of staining is often found on a curtain (especially the lining); unless it is superficial it cannot be removed from most textiles and particularly not from cotton fabrics.
  • Pelmets: stiffened pelmets will, in most cases, have been custom-made, and their response to the mechanics of even the gentlest machine process is likely to be unpredictable. Surface cleaning using professional equipment for furnishings is therefore likely to be the safest option, but even this is not without risk of shade variations if the curtains are drycleaned. There can also be a risk of swealing or migration of colour from whatever has been used as a stiffener. Any trims such as metallic braiding (which may have been stuck on) and tassels (which may have been secured with rubber) need to be assessed for their response to cleaning.
  • Blackout/thermal lined curtains: while all types of thermal insulation fabric demand careful inspection, blackout fabrics with a smooth opaque plastic type coating on the reverse of the fabric have a history of unpredictable performance in drycleaning. In particular, exposure to sunlight can lead to the coating shredding off in vertical stripes where the outer folds have been most exposed to the sun.

There have also been cases where the majority of the coating has disintegrated, leading to major machine problems caused by the fragmented coating adhering to internal machine surfaces and to components such as the recovery head. This can have major financial implications for the cleaner. In addition to litigation and claims for compensation, we know of one cleaner who was forced to cease cleaning for almost a month while their machine was stripped down and the shredded coating removed from the inner surfaces of the machine.

Our advice is, regardless of the care label, to reject or forward this type of fabric to specialist curtain cleaners.


Curtains and furnishings often carry heavy localised and overall general soil loadings accumulated over very long periods.

While general pre-spotting detergents can be very beneficial for dealing with localised ingrained soiling, the removal of specific stains can present difficulties for the cleaner due to the localised removal of soiling giving rise to lighter areas or enhanced colour.

Because of the bulky nature of many household items and to facilitate drying, it is advisable to underload machines by up to 50%. Cleaners with machines of less than 18kg capacity need to carefully consider the size and bulk of individual curtains and suite covers accepted. While it will be obvious that stage curtains have to be handled by a specialist, larger domestic items can still cause serious problems (in relation to extraction and drying) for high street cleaners with smaller machines.

To avoid the risk of pile distortion of acrylic velvets during drycleaning, underloading the machine is essential, and the drying temperature should be reduced to below 50C. You can reduce the risk of permanent pile distortion (caused by warm items lying in the cage when drying is complete) by removing items from the machine immediately the cage stops rotating! Air the items before folding. Acrylic pile fabrics should never be steam finished!

Finally, because of the increased risks of shrinkage and distortion, wetcleaners would be well advised to only accept items with reliable wash care labels and to carefully consider their finishing equipment and their finishing skills when accepting furnishing fabrics for wet cleaning.