Water is a powerful solvent and can be a useful tool for professional drycleaners. It will dissolve polar compounds – substances that split into ions such as sugar and salt, battery acid, oven cleaner, baby bottle sterilising fluid and most food and drink stains, with the exception of oil-based marks. This is why washing is used domestically.

Unfortunately, washing can lead to problems of shrinkage. This includes noticeable shrinkage on cottons and felting shrinkage of wool suits and angora sweaters. It can also lead to crack-creasing on most acetates and velvets, with the associated shrinkage. Drycleaning overcomes these problems by “washing” in solvents, which is why the drycleaning industry has developed and prospered.

Wetcleaning was developed to clean many types of “non-washable” items. This specialist process uses low temperature to minimise wash shrinkage of cottons and low mechanical action to avoid felting shrinkage of wool and cashmere and crack-creasing of acetate and viscose. The trick is to let the water do the work. The chemicals used in wetcleaning are designed to protect the work as much as to remove the dirt.

Just as a well-trained drycleaner can produce superb results with drycleaning, so a well-trained wet-cleaner can produce equally good results with wetcleaning in many cases but the results on staining are not the same. Oily marks come out better in drycleaning, sweaty armpits and soup spills are better wetcleaned .

Washing and wetcleaning can be extremely useful processes for the drycleaner when rescuing damaged items or when improving the drycleaning outcome.

Case Studies

Dye bleed ruins dress

Fault: This garment was heavily soiled with neckline perspiration and make-up, which was probably water-based, judging from the wet-rub test results. The cleaner decided to dip the dress in water to soften and remove the water-based marking before drying and drycleaning. The dye from the black parts bled into the white sections and drycleaning did not improve this.

Cause: Many dyes are safe in drycleaning but they bleed in water and this might have been why the dress was labelled “dry clean only”. However as the dyes are stable to drycleaning, this would not reverse the bleeding.

Responsibility: The blame here lies with the cleaner. This damage was avoidable.

Rectification: This fault cannot be corrected on this garment because the bleeding is adjacent to the dark panels. When treating a fabric with water it is always wise to check the colourfastness to water of each of the colours before cleaning. This only takes a few seconds and would have avoided the problems here.

Bloodstain spoils sleeve

Fault: The sleeve on this white cotton jacket was stained with blood from calves’ liver. The cleaner applied protein remover, left it for 10 seconds and then flushed it with the steam gun, removing about half the stain in the process. It was then drycleaned in perc but the cleaned result was if anything slightly worse than before it went into the cleaning machine. More pre-spotting with protein remover brought little further improvement.

Cause: Pre-treatment with protein remover should have removed all of the stain. This treatment would have worked if the protein remover had been left on the fabric for longer and lightly tamped to break down the fatty proteins in the blood, which were trapped in the interstices of the weave. The cleaner gave up too early and then set the remaining protein with the heat in the steam gun. When flushing a bloodstain it is better to use water rather than steam. Finally, the stain would not have been dissolved by the drycleaning solvent and would have been set even more firmly by the warmth of the tumble dry. During the drying, any iron from the haemoglobin in the blood would have oxidised to iron oxide (rust) which is why the mark looked slightly worse after cleaning than it did before.

Responsibility: The blame for inadequate stain removal here lies with the cleaner.

Rectification: The set proteins might still be removable by post-treatment either with a strong post-spotter designed for blood removal or with a strong ammonia solution, followed by flushing with water. The area should then be spot treated with rust remover to remove any remaining brown ring. For future reference, this garment should either have been properly pre-spotted or, if the blood marking was extensive, it should have been washed or wetcleaned and the blood would have come out completely and very easily.

Greyed wool felts during washing

Fault: This black and cream garment was cleaned with a load of dark garments, because the cleaner feared dye bleed from the black parts if cleaned in a pale load. Unfortunately, the garment greyed, either as a result of loose dye or of soiling from the dark load. As the label allowed hand-washing, the cleaner tried to correct the fault by washing in a domestic machine on a normal wool cycle. This restored the cream colour but the wool felted and shrank.

Cause: Classifying a garment with contrasting colours is problematic and the cleaner’s choice was a reasonable one but he was unlucky on this occasion. Rectifying with a water-based method was a good choice and worked but the wool felted and shrank because the mechanical action in the normal wool cycle is much greater than in hand-washing.

Responsibility: The blame here lies with the unfortunate cleaner who got all but one thing right.

Rectification: Once wool has felted and shrunk the damage is irreversible.

Greying reversed but the cotton shrank

Fault: Drycleaning removed all the oil stains from a bright white summer coat but it was grey and dingy when it came out of the machine. The cleaner then washed it at 40C using plenty of a standard all-purpose detergent with plenty of optical brightener in it. This removed the greying but when trying it on the customer noticed that the garment had shrunk.

Cause: A cotton coat will shrink in drycleaning because of the release of the slight stretch set into the fabric by the cloth maker. If it is then washed it will shrink further because the warm water will swell the fibres.

Responsibility: The cleaner is responsible for the original greying, because this can be avoided by using clean solvent, pre-drying wool and cotton items and maintaining a good detergent charge. The cleaner is not responsible for the relaxation shrinkage in cleaning (because this affects all fabrics and cannot be avoided). The cleaner is responsible for the wash shrinkage during rectification because the garment was not labelled for washing or wetcleaning.

Rectification: The garment can be largely rectified by re-pressing using tension, steam and vacuum. Each lay is steamed lightly to render the cloth flexible, then pulled to size to remove seam pucker and finally vacuum is applied to cool, dry and set the cloth before tension is released.

Beads are sensitive to perc solvent

Fault: this beaded dress was labelled “dry clean only”, but when a single bead was immersed in perc solvent and left for 20 minutes, it became soft and sticky. The cleaner had no other solvent, so hand-cleaned it to remove the small drink stains and make-up marks and returned it to the owner as hand-cleaned, explaining what had happened.

Cause: Many garments are labelled by guesswork, hence the probable source of the label here.

Responsibility: The cleaner needs to explain fully what has happened but this is a very intelligent solution. The dress has been made wearable without risk to the beading.

Rectification: None is necessary. The cleaning method is appropriate for a poorly labelled beaded dress which has only been worn once or twice.