Physical and chemical damage - who is to blame ?

20 September 2023

Playing the blame game of customer v drycleaner is a sad and often costly fact of life for drycleaners but there are ways to avoid it, say Roger Cawood and Richard Neale

It can often be difficult to attribute responsibility for physical or chemical damage in dry/wetcleaning and a thorough detailed inspection during reception is by far the best way of avoiding trouble further down the line. Damage can vary from a cigarette burn/spark to colour loss/fibre damage from contact with domestic chlorine bleach or incorrect use of spotting chemicals, the results of which may not be readily apparent until the damaged fibres/colour are flushed away during the cleaning process. Moth damage, which is common on animal hair fabrics, is often revealed by cleaning (because loose, chewed fibres are flushed away) but may not be noticeable during reception. In the case of rips and tears noticed after cleaning, you should immediately inspect the machine cage, because metal objects such as small screws can be trapped in the machine cage perforations and may cause damage in the next load as well.

However, the most common form of physical damage is probably normal wear and tear, which starts immediately the customer wears a new item and is an inevitable consequence of the flexing, rubbing and abrasion that takes place during the life of a garment or furnishing fabric. Normal wear and tear varies considerably depending on the wearer, their occupation, how frequently the item is worn, the fabric/fibre type and how often the item is cleaned. Workwear items and corporate clothing can be expected to have a significantly shorter life than personal wear items that are not in continuous daily use. Items that are subject to heavy soil loadings or are worn for very long periods of time before cleaning can reveal significant effects of wear, even after the first clean, resulting in customer complaints relating to loss of handle.

Normal wear and tear?

This should not be confused with the manufacturer’s deliberately distressed appearance that is applied as a fashion statement to appeal to the younger generation. You may also need to remind customers that these distressed finishes could result in a considerably shorter life span than could otherwise have been expected.

The cleaner is not responsible for set-in wear creases, wear marks or the results of localised normal wear and tear that are often evident in the form of weakened or frayed fabric in areas such as cuff edges, elbows, pocket mouths and trouser bottoms. It is mainly caused by a combination of abrasion and the gritty, particulate component (often around 50%) of general soiling, in conjunction with stresses and abrasion during wear. Localised abrasion on some fabrics, especially cotton, often causes localised colour loss at pressure or wear areas, such as the leg seams and pocket areas of trousers.

Other effects of normal wear and tear (such as loss of body and handle), which the cleaner may not be able to correct to the satisfaction of the customer) may be revealed during cleaning but are not usually the responsibility of the cleaner. However, they often form the basis of complaints and if this occurs, we strongly recommend that drycleaners consider using a retexturing agent to reduce this risk.

Moth Damage

The Common Clothes Moth normally lays its eggs in fabrics containing animal hair fibres which provide keratin for its larvae to feed on. The larvae will also attack cotton and linen when present in mixed fibre yarns. Depending on the severity of the attack, moth damage can very easily be missed during reception, as the damage may be masked with debris, the full extent of the damage only being revealed when the debris is flushed away during cleaning. Note the neatly munched yarn ends, with very little weave disturbance. While the larvae have been known to attack man-made fibres, this is rare and in polyester/wool fabrics, the larvae will usually feed only on the wool. In this case, the damage may manifest itself as a slight colour change in the areas affected. As suede and leather items contain keratin they will also be at risk. While moth damage is obviously not the cleaner’s responsibility, this is not always acknowledged by customers, who may not have been aware they had a problem prior to cleaning!

Beware cigarettes

Holes or singes that are a result of contact with a cigarette are quite common and are likely to vary depending on the textile type. Burns on natural textiles such as cotton, linen and wool may have a singed area around a hole and frayed edges, whereas those on fabrics with a polyester, acrylic or nylon component will have noticeable hard beads on some fibre ends, caused by melting of the plastic. Sheer silk and lightweight cotton fabrics are particularly susceptible to sparks. A small spark from a cigarette on sheer silk can instantly result in a small hole. Depending on the severity of the damage minor burns/holes can easily be missed during reception and it is a good idea to zero in on high value items and particularly silk. Bearing in mind the high risk to all textile types from smoking and the health risks associated with the possible breakdown of drycleaning solvents into toxic products, smoking should be prohibited in all textile cleaning operations.

Bleach is corrosive

Domestic bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is found in every home and throughout industry and even a minute amount of bleach solution can cause catastrophic damage on most textiles.

On natural textiles such as cotton, wool and silk it is likely to cause instantaneous colour loss, followed by a gradual weakening of the fabric which may eventually result in a hole surrounded by an area of faded colour. Weakened fibres can be flushed out during cleaning to reveal a hole, where nothing was apparent before. It can be difficult to attribute responsibility retrospectively, so keep domestic bleach well away from the production area. Hydrogen peroxide bleach (used in some stain removal products and in domestic hair products) can be just as harmful as chlorine bleach and should always be expertly tested before use.

The importance of the pocket search

Cleaners never cease to be amazed at what customers leave in their pockets, with items varying from jewellery, cash, lipstick and legal documents to a wide variety of DIY items! Rips and tears and other physical damage can easily occur within cleaning production environments and DIY items in particular have the potential to cause considerable damage if not removed before cleaning. What is not so obvious is the on-going risk of hidden problems caused by heavy objects such as spanners and very small items such as self-tapping screws.

Cleaners who process engineering workwear need to ensure that every pocket is checked, as any weighty, sharp or pointed metal object has the potential to damage not only garments in the load but also the machine cage. Heavy impacts with the cage by objects such as a spanner have the potential to cause a small, seemingly insignificant burr in the metal of the cage; and while this may not present a hazard to the vast majority of garments, sheer silk, satin and any delicate fabrics are likely to be at significant risk from snags and pulled threads. Self-tapping screws are now common in DIY and if a small screw becomes trapped in a hole in the cage it will present a very serious hazard to all classifications. One unlucky cleaner reports missing a screw, which caused significant on-going damage before it was finally located in a tumble dryer!

WEAK KNEED: The fabric on these stretch jeans was found to be quite weak and could deteriorate further in cleaning. However, this could possibly result in increased customer satisfaction
NORMAL WEAR: A good example of normal wear and tear and a wear crease. Abrasion has resulted in loss of pile and colour on the back pocket and along the seams of these cotton corduroy trousers (although the presser could have done better job here)
MOTH FOOD: Very small moth holes like this are easy to miss at reception. Fortunately, the cause of the damage is easy to identify when viewed under a low powered microscope or even a smartphone magnification app
FIRE DAMAGE: A small hole from a bonfire spark spoiled this expensive cotton tee shirt
FIRE DAMAGE: A small hole from a bonfire spark spoiled this expensive cotton tee shirt
CUSTOMER CATASTROPHE: A splash from water containing chlorine bleach ruined this linen/viscose dress. Note the clean edges with no fraying. Only one side of this sleeve was affected, suggesting it occurred during wear
BLAME GAME: There is no doubt about who is to blame if one of these gets stuck in a cage hole

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