Cleaning up problems on unusual items

20 June 2023

Roger Cawood and Richard Neale get to grips with problems that can scupper items that are a
little bit out of the ordinary and offer advice and practical guidance

From time-to-time, cleaners can expect to receive unusual items that often have no aftercare or fibre content labels, let alone a manufacturer label. There are potentially very serious risks attached to accepting these items but provided the cleaner adopts a professional and systematic approach at reception, many can be accepted at very little risk. The following items are typical of those that might fall into this category.

  • Religious vestments and altar cloths
  • Historic garments and fabrics
  • Period TV and theatre costumes
  • Homemade garments

While information from the customer can be helpful, the cleaner needs to be aware that, in the absence of labels, the customer might have had the item refused by several other cleaners. It is possible that any information they provide could be less than reliable, as they may fail to disclose facts that have resulted in the item previously being rejected. You are the expert and if you are not satisfied the item can be safely cleaned, do not allow the customer to persuade you to change your mind - they are certainly not going to be happy at being asked to pay for the cleaning of a ruined item.

Basic fabric tests

  • Colour fastness checks with solvent, or water + detergent
  • Fibre identification burning tests
  • Manual strength test
  • Copper wire test for PVC fibres

Examples of burning tests

The chart gives limited examples of simple industry standard burning tests that can be used to distinguish between natural and man-made fibre types. However, difficulties arise when more than one fibre type is present in a yarn.

Manual strength test

Fold the fabric in half and stress between the thumbs and forefingers. If the fabric is weak, you will immediately feel the yarns/fibres starting to rupture. You can minimise risks from weakness by seeking authorisation for ºthe risk and minimising this using a shorter cycle and if necessary, intermittent rotation.

Copper wire test for PVC

Heat a thick copper wire in a gas flame then touch the sample fibres with the wire and reintroduce to the flame. If PVC is present the flame will turn green.

Religious items and historic fabrics

The cassock and the surplice are worn both by priests and choristers and are the most likely items to be sent for cleaning. These are both fairly robust garments and should not present any problems for the cleaner, but be on the lookout for missing buttons, signs of wear and tear and fugitive colour on red cassocks. However, some ornate items such as chasubles, other priests’ vestments and altar cloths, can be of great age and may contain silk and metallic threads, both of which are prone to serious deterioration with age.We would recommend that cleaners carry out careful checks on their provenance and condition before accepting vestments, altar cloths and other items and decline to accept anything of a historical or antique nature.

Historic fabrics

Metallic threads are subject to age deterioration, due to the formation of Verdigris, which will penetrate the adjacent fabric, causing greenish discolouration and possible fabric damage. In addition, tin-weighted silk will have been used in some historic items. Over a period of time, tin-weighting results in a progressive weakening of silk fabrics. We would recommend cleaners, for the most part, not to accept items of great age or of an historical nature, as they generally need to be assessed and where possible, cleaned by conservation and restoration experts.

From around 1945, artificial Astrakhan fabrics were produced and while these fabrics are no longer made, they gave rise to major cleaning failures. Some of the fabrics were produced by sticking, rather than sewing, the artificial Astrakhan to a backing fabric. During drycleaning, the adhesives used were prone to failure, releasing the Astrakhan and ruining the garment or a component of it. Careful inspection of astrakhan garments and accessories will reveal stuck-on types.

Up to the late 1960s, many wedding gowns and ballgowns were trimmed with sequins made from gelatine. Gelatine will partially dissolve in water-based processes and if subjected to steam finishing it will instantly shrivel. These sequins are easily identified by removing one of each colour, then steaming them on the press or with the steam iron.

Period TV and theatre garments

These are likely to be pretty much oneoff creations or from short, restricted production runs and are unlikely to carry any labels. While some may be very old, the age of many may be in the region of 10 years or less and be assembled from modern fabrics. Once again, before going ahead, the provenance of these garments should be assessed/established. Subject to the use of fibres such as PVC (which should not be drycleaned or finished) and garments with suspect colour and trims, these items can be expected to respond well to drycleaning, with the normal caveats in respect of wetcleaning. Because of the complex nature and structure of many period garments, one of the main areas to address during reception is the question of finishing and customer expectations. Where necessary use a burning test to assess fibre content

Those cleaners who rely solely on an ironing table and a rotor cabinet or steam/air finisher are unlikely (in terms of finishing skills or equipment) to be able to finish the more complex items to optimum standards. However, it has to be said that these garments are not normally subjected to close inspection and this aspect of cleaning may not be of primary importance to the customer.

Homemade garments

Homemade garments are unlikely to have any labels and while the make-up standard of some may be very good, the make-up of those at the other end of the spectrum can be truly appalling. Homemade garments will not of course have been subjected to any form of testing and it will therefore be up to the cleaner to assess their likely response to cleaning in solvent or water and whether they will stand up to the mechanical action of cleaning and the temperatures involved in finishing. The cleaner will need to rely heavily on experience when considering whether to accept a particular garment. In particular, look for pulled or gaping seams, inadequate selvages, raw edges not oversewn, trims such as PVC (which are incompatible with drycleaning in perc), loose dyes and stuck on adornments and solvent-soluble plastic buttons and so on.

Case study

This decorative church cloth (with no care label) was received with some minor stains thought to be from a drink spillage, which the cleaner treated using a protein kit spotter. The spotter was flushed out and the area dried off with the air gun, followed by drycleaning in perc.

Fault: when removed from the machine, the cloth had an unsightly wavy appearance, with only a slight bluish cast to the background fabric.

Technical cause: the mechanical action and (we suspect) excess moisture caused yarn slippage particularly on the underlying blue yarns.

Responsibility: this rests with the cleaner, who should have appreciated the risks associated with cleaning such a potentially high-risk item.

Rectification: in this case it is most unlikely the damage could be corrected.

CHECK LIST: Check the item carefully at reception and test if required
CURTAIN CALL: This test is frequently used to test curtain linings, so that you can avoid creating noticeable damage in cleaning
TESTING TIME Copper wire test
DANGER ALERT: A homemade cocktail dress was a disaster waiting to happen
CLOTH TRANSFIGURED: The effect the solvent and mechanical action in dry cleaning caused the blue yarns to shift slightly, altering the appearance signi¬ficantly
CLOTH TRANSFIGURED: The effect the solvent and mechanical action in dry cleaning caused the blue yarns to shift slightly, altering the appearance signi¬ficantly

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.