Physical damage

18 August 2021



Physical damage and day-to-day wear and tear can throw up problems for cleaners. Our experts Roger Cawood and Richard Neale get down to the nitty gritty


With few exceptions, all items received for cleaning are already physically damaged insofar as they have been worn, and occasionally this can and does impact on cleaning, in some cases resulting in customer complaints. During wear, soiling (which typically comprises around 30% particulates, such as sand and grit) builds up in textiles. Due to movement in wear, these gritty particulates interact with fibres and yarns, resulting in damage/wear. Simultaneously, other components of soiling (such as oils, waxes and water-soluble impurities) build up and have a stiffening effect on textiles, which tends to counteract the noticeable effects of wear. However, when textiles are cleaned, and the soiling removed, the full effects of wear and tear may be revealed for the first time. In the case of heavily soiled items that have been worn for a long time, the effect can be dramatic, leaving the garment with an obvious loss of body and handle.

The function of retexturing agents (vital components of many premium drycleaning detergents) is to counteract the effects of normal wear and tear. However, let us be clear, the effects of normal wear are the responsibility of the customer and any changes in body and handle that cannot be corrected cannot be used as a basis of a claim against the cleaner.

In addition to normal wear and tear, physical damage can also be introduced in a number of ways and at any time during the life of the garment. Unfortunately, damage may also be attributable to mishandling by the cleaner. This month we have a look at some examples of physical damage from various common causes.

Mechanical action (MA)

In any cleaning process there is a risk of damage from the M.A. involved. The actual risk depends on

1. The type and condition of the items: old badly worn items and delicate, fragile fabrics require careful inspection. Beads and trims are particularly prone to failure in cleaning. Always check the stitching and test beads and sequins with the solvent in use for signs of ‘melting’ or deterioration of surface finish.

2. The type of solvent in use: The degree of MA. in cleaning systems is also dependent on the specific gravity (S.G.) of the solvent: This means that cleaners using perc need to be particularly careful when cleaning delicate items, because the weight of the solvent in the item and other items in the load can impose potentially damaging levels of MA. In this respect, hydrocarbon solvent at only half the S.G. of perc is generally a much safer option for delicate and fragile items.

3. Cleaning parameters: increasing the height of the dip lowers the mechanical action due to the cushioning effect and the reduction in the height of the drop as the items fall back into the solvent. Reducing the length of the cleaning cycle and programming intermittent rotation during the wash stage significantly reduces MA..

4. The degree of loading and item type: the stated cleaning capacity advised by the machine maker refers to normal items. For delicate items, the load should be reduced to 60% of capacity and sometimes even lower for wedding gowns or organza ballgowns for example. The maximum MA is imposed when machines are loaded to their rated capacity, so reducing the load weight reduces M.A. Garment types also have a considerable influence on M.A. Heavy robust items like coats are very heavy when saturated with solvent and impose high levels of M.A. on delicate items if they are included in the load - even if they are in a net bag !

Localised colour loss

If colour is removed during attempts at stain removal, the responsibility lies with the cleaner. BS/ISO 3175 (the standard international test for drycleanability) only requires that colours are fast to cold water and it is part of the cleaner’s skill set to be aware of at-risk dyes and fabrics and the risk potential of the spotters they are using. A good example concerns linen or cotton fabrics, where the risk of colour loss should always be anticipated, with colour fastness checks done in an inconspicuous area of the item. Stain removal experts have also noted that the risk of colour loss can be greater with spotting kit blends rather than with pure chemicals.

Relaxation shrinkage

There is always a risk that during cleaning, items may relax/shrink due to relaxation of strains introduced during fabric manufacture. This is an important topic which will be covered fully in a dedicated future issue. It has not been forgotten!

  • If you have problems you would like the authors to examine please send with a good quality, high resolution (300dpi/1MB at least) pic of the item to
    [email protected] laundryandcleannnews.com

Trousers look ‘worn out’ after cleaning

Fault: these cotton trousers started to fray after little wear and only three washes!

Technical cause: a tension test on a single yarn taken from a seam indicated extreme weakness. The fabric used for these trousers has been over-bleached during manufacture, severely weakening the fibres. Mechanical action in the washing machine did the rest.

Responsibility: should be taken entirely by the retailer and ultimately the manufacturer.

Rectification: unfortunately, none is possible.

The most common causes of physical damage

a. Relaxation shrinkage in all types of cleansing, caused by release of strains set in during manufacture.

b. Felting shrinkage caused by poor control of moisture and/or mechanical action (see LCN, February 2021 issue).

c. Thermal shrinkage caused by incorrect drying.

d. Thermal shock usually caused by absence of correct cooldown after the hot wash (see LCN, Trade Secrets, April 2021 issue).

e. Mechanical action, causing damage to delicates (especially beads and other trims), pulling of seams and fraying of edges.

f. Colour bleed or colour fade, caused by poor quality dyeing or poor washing-off.

g. Colour change caused by exposure to slightly acid or slightly alkaline conditions (termed ‘pH sensitivity’).

h. Localised colour loss from incorrect attempts at stain removal.

Fugitive dyes – dealing with ‘bleeders’

The dyes on textiles are not always fast to solvents or water and while this has always been the case, the problem has increased in recent years and in some cases even polyester has been found to bleed colour! Beware of dark cellulosic textiles which can heavily contaminate the base tank solvent. Corduroy, cotton velvet and jean fabrics are always suspect and where appropriate should be classified as ‘bleeders’.

To avoid contaminating the base tank solvent and filter, bleed classifications should be cleaned on circulating dips, drained to the still. This will avoid the risk of discolouring other garments with coloured solvent from either the base tank or filter.

Shrinkage ruins wool coat

Fault: this pure wool coat came out of the perc cleaning machine matted and felted, and it had shrunk so much that the lining was hanging down.

Technical cause: excessive moisture in the solvent is the cause of the classic symptoms of felting shrinkage described here. Excess moisture in the solvent can be introduced mainly by machine faults and by excessive use of soap/water mixtures for general prespotting.

Responsibility: here the cleaner is solely responsible, as the shrinkage was estimated to be over 10% and the symptoms are so clear.

Silk coat displays white lines and pale patches after cleaning

Fault: this silk coat came out of the cleaning machine with random straight lines of whitening accompanied by random pale patches. The cycle selected was a ‘normal’ one and none of the other (more robust) items in the load was affected.

Technical cause: the white lines and pale patches found here are classic symptom of severe abrasion damage caused by excessive mechanical action. Silk is particularly sensitive to rubbing which can easily rupture filament yarns which then project above the fabric surface. This alters the light reflectance properties of the fabric giving the characteristic appearance of colour loss as seen in the picture. The white lines are formed when the fabric folds and the fold is rubbed by the rotating action.

Responsibility: the responsibility here should be taken entirely by the cleaner. The coat should have been cleaned with similar items using a ‘delicate’ cycle. Folding it inside-out into a net bag would also have helped.

Rectification: it may be possible to mask the damage if the item is processed for 2½ minutes in a solution of suede oil in distilled solvent, dosed at a rate of up 50 ml/litre. Extract with a short, medium-speed spin and then tumble for 2 minutes without fan before drying normally. Unfortunately, the fault will re-appear at the next cleaning.

Trousers look ‘worn out’ after cleaning
Shrinkage ruins wool coat


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.