Dry cleaning is a bit of a misnomer. The name stems from the fact that the process is not water based and is therefore not "wet-cleaning" (industry term for washing in water). Items that are dry cleaned are immersed in a solvent bath. That's right! They get wet, just not with water. Most U.S. dry cleaners use the solvent perchlorethylene. They use closed systems where the clothes are put in the drum dry, the door is sealed, the drum fills with a solution of perchlorethylene and cleansing agents, and the clothes tumble in this. This solution is then spun out of the contents in the drum at high speed. Following that the items in the drum are tumbled in hot air and the remaining solvent that evaporates from the clothes as they dry is captured and re-used, so no perchlorethylene escapes the system.
The entire process includes spotting prior to cleaning, and steaming and pressing after cleaning. The reason that dry-cleaning costs have risen dramatically in the last few years has to do with the costs of maintaining the dry-cleaning equipment to OSHA and WISHA standards, as well as rising wages to keep competent employees, etc.
So you may be thinking about using Dryel or one of these other "dry clean at home in your dryer" kits. Before you do, consider this... Dryel and these other kits are NOT dry cleaning. Your clothes are not getting wet, they are just tumbling in a bag with a pad filled with freshening agents. This is not dry-cleaning. It's freshening. The kits come with a spotting agent. I've had many people ask me about using Dryel. This is my answer: I've never used it. I've read several consumer reports stating that it has less than satisfactory performance for some types of garments. I would never use it for anything structured (suit jackets, coats, anything heavily tailored), but it might be okay to freshen a sweater, skirt, trousers or similar items and some people seem to have success when they correctly use these products to freshen their dry-cleanables and extend the time between cleanings (understanding that there are times when garments still must go to the cleaners for a 'real' cleaning and pressing).
In the information on dry-cleaning and Dryel, I broached the subject of spotting. I consider spotting to be an art. The gentleman who taught me spotting techniques worked in the dry-cleaning field for over 50 years.
Here are some brief pointers:
1) If you have a valuable, irreplacable garment and it has a bad stain and you don't know what to do... don't do anything—take it to a dry cleaners you trust. While even they may not be able to remove the stain, they have training and spotting agents not available to the public that have a better chance of working. If you work on it and are unable to remove the stain, you may inadvertantly damage the garment.
2) Never ever use hairspray to remove stains, not even ink...most likely you'll just make things worse not better. Hairspray is water soluble, so if you spray it on something wool, silk, or any other dry clean only fiber, you will not only have an ink stain, you'll have a hairspray stain. When I was still working in the industry, I had a customer ruin a wool skirt by attempting to get an ink stain out with hairspray -- all she did was make the ink run, set the now bigger ink stain and make and even bigger hairspray stain. Spraying hairspray (aerosol or pump) on things that can't be immersed in water (like expensive designer wool skirts) will ruin the garment.
3) When you do work on stains at home, no matter what spotting agent you use, never rub or scrub. You want to work to push the stain THROUGH the fabric by tamping. Tamping means that you lightly pound on the stain with a brush in up and down motions. If you don't have a brush to use for tamping, use your hand and a white cotton towel or washrag and pat in an up and down motion. When you rub or scrub, you risk abrading the fibers and causing worse damage than the spot – pilling and a light area from abraded fibers are common damage from incorrect spotting.
Care Labels and Fibers
In the very early 1980's, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) made some sweeping changes in care label laws. Among other things, they instituted the international care symbol system that we all see on most all of our care labels now. One of the changes that were made, was to the ruling requiring all acceptable care methods to be listed. After the change, only ONE acceptable care method had to be listed, even if there was more than one that would work. So an awful lot of clothing got labeled "Dry Clean Only," even if it could also be washed, and still other clothing that could be dry cleaned or washed got labeled "Hand Wash, Hang Dry" or something similar. So should you trust your labels or your instincts? I say a little of both...use common sense and don't be afraid to ask your dry cleaners what they think.
Some rayons, some silks, some linens and some woolens can be washed -- but be prepared for the likelihood of shrinkage, wrinkling and a loss of sizing. These may occur even if the label says the garment is washable.
Sizing is what the industry calls the chemical finishes that makes fabrics look nice - they can add crispness, body and/or shine. Once the original sizing is gone, it can be very difficult, if not impossible to restore. Also, some of the dyes manufacturers use aren't permanent if you wash something that's meant to be dry cleaned (or vice versa). Most dyes are either infused into the garment with solvent or with water. Depending upon the stability of the dyes used, if you immerse it in the same agent used to dye the fabric, you're more likely to have fading or dye transfer to other garments in the load.
Acetate is a difficult fiber to wash, I generally have my acetate garments dry cleaned, even if the label suggests washing is possible. In addition, some old (vintage) acetates can simply disintegrate if you clean them (water washing or dry cleaning) due to deterioration of the fibers. Acetate deteriorates from sun and heat. As does silk. Acetate and silk garments or fabrics stored in attics for many years may have started to rot from summer after summer of baking heat.
Silk and Wool fibers do not take kindly to bleach of any kind. That means NO chlorine bleach, NO oxygenated bleach (Clorox II) and NO Oxiclean.
Rayon is made from wood pulp. It is at its weakest state when wet -- do not rub, scrub or abrade rayon when wet (actually, don't do it at all -- it's a really good way to have color loss on rayon). Some rayons can be washed, others should be dry cleaned - a good deal depends on whether you want them soft and flowing. Most rayon fabrics lose their sizing when washed. If you want a rayon garment to retain its original body and hand, I recommend dry cleaning.
About this information...
I worked in the dry-cleaning industry for 14 years...I've spotted, cleaned, pressed and more. This information is not meant to do anything more than give you a glimpse into what happens to your garments while they're being cleaned, and to help you make wiser choices when cleaning, washing and spotting. If you have questions that this guide didn't answer, please come and visit the Needle Arts & Vintage Textiles Discussion Board right here on eBay...There's a direct link on my About Me page or use the site map in the links at the top of this page.