Dry cleaning is a necessity if you own a closet full of elegant men’s clothing. While proper wardrobe maintenance should always be the foundation of your clothes cleaning efforts, dry cleaning has its place. The tags of your sweaters, suits, and shirts may declare that they are “dry clean only”, but what does that mean and why is it necessary? After all, frequent dry cleaning can be quite costly and that “bargain” sweater that needs to be cleaned every time you wear it ends up costing you lots of money and time.
In this guide, we will explore what dry cleaning is, why you need it, how often you need it, which clothes really require dry cleaning and how to find a good dry cleaner.
What Is Dry Cleaning?
Dry cleaning is the process of cleaning textiles without the use of water. Despite the name, the process isn’t dry; in fact, garments are soaked in a solvent such as tetrachloroethylene, perchloroethylene (which is known as “perc”), trichloroethane or petroleum spirits, and then spun and steamed to remove the solvent.
First a little history: dry cleaning has been around for nearly two centuries. In fact, the first African-American ever to be granted a patent was Thomas Jennings, who patented the process of dry scouring in 1821. Until the late 1910’s, dry cleaning employed petroleum or chlorine based solvents that were highly flammable, so the business and the final product were highly risky. By the early 1930’s, dry cleaning transitioned to using tetrachloroethylene/ perchloroethylene, which was compatible with most fabrics, stable, effective, and most importantly, not flammable.
The cleaning process itself looks remarkably like a regular washer and dryer set up, the difference being that it exchanges water and detergent for a solvent. Machines that look like modified drum washers are front-loaded with similar clothing collected from a number of patrons. Clothing is agitated in the drum with the solvent to remove dirt and stains and is then rinsed with fresh solvent. The solvent is then drained and extracted using a spin cycle. Finally, the garments are dried using warm steam, which vaporizes the remaining solvent.
There are two kinds of dry cleaning establishments, and they are differentiated by where the actual cleaning takes place. At a “dry store,” the only function of the retail location is to gather, sort, and price out dry cleaning services to customers; no dry cleaning actually takes place on the premises. These operations will send all of their dry cleaning to a central plant that can be shared by many other dry stores, sometimes even those from competing businesses. The advantage of a dry store is that the service tends to be less expensive and more price competitive. On the other hand, they have less control over the final result because they are the middlemen, and it can increase the likelihood that something will get lost forever among thousands of other garments at a large facility.
A “package plant” is a single location operation in which the customer service and cleaning take place at one facility. Staff tends to be more familiar with the nuances of dry cleaning because they complete the process themselves. Neither store model guarantees good customer service or a quality result, so make sure to try several before committing to the best one.
Why Do You Need Dry Cleaning?
Dry cleaning is necessary to protect fabrics that would be damaged by the heat or water of your traditional washer and dryer and to remove stains that are not removed by a “wet” cleaning process, such as grease and oil.
Heat and water can damage delicate fabrics by altering their structure during the cleaning process. Water can swell and stretch fibers, which can cause the fiber to lose its original shape. In addition, stain removal often requires a water-based detergent and a high degree of heat to dissolve stains effectively, further increasing the potential to damage the fabric. As such, dry cleaning is the appropriate cleaning method for delicate or stained fabrics that shouldn’t come in contact with water.
Dry cleaning can be controversial because of the toxicity of the chemicals it uses to both humans and the environment. Tetrachloroethylene, for example, is a common soil and water contaminant that is extremely difficult to clean up. Thankfully, modern day regulations are strict regarding solvent emissions, so most modern dry cleaning machines extract and recapture 99.9% of the solvent used in the process. Even so, the state of California will ban the use of tetrachloroethylene by 2023.
What Clothes Should You Dry Clean?
Clothing labels are usually the best place to check for the cleaning method, but there is a little room for interpretation. Note that some labels will read “dry clean only” while others will simply read “dry clean.” Since manufacturers are only required to list one method of cleaning the garment rather than all the options, bring your “dry clean only” garments to the cleaners and make a judgment call about the second kind of label. You can always test the fabric for colorfastness by rubbing a little detergent and some water into an inside seam of a garment; if they don’t react, you might consider handwashing it with cold water and mild soap or using the delicate/hand wash cycle on your washer.
In terms of fabrics, bring silk, acetate, velvet, and wool items to the dry cleaner. Cotton, linen, cashmere, polyester, acrylic, and nylon can usually be washed at home, but keep an eye out for blended materials; when it doubt, bring it to the dry cleaner.
When considering the category of the garment, as a rule of thumb you should dry clean suits, vests, dress pants, garments with linings, and overcoats. Of course, check the fabric type and the label before dry cleaning these items.
Dry cleaning services often come with the option to have a garment pressed. “Pressing” technically refers to the process of lifting and pressing an iron over clothes, while ironing indicates a back-and-forth motion. Pressing in dry cleaning stores is almost entirely done with large machines, which are not nearly as precise in terms of the finish as a hand-guided iron is. Some cleaners may offer a “by hand” service, but it pays to check if that means that they operate the pressing machine by hand or if they use an actual iron.
To further complicate matters, many cleaners will use a product called sizing, which will add a bit of stiffness to soft garments to make them easier to press.
How Often Should You Dry Clean?
The biggest drawback of dry cleaning is that it will shorten the life of your garment, so this answer is straightforward: dry clean your garments as minimally as possible. Since it’s a strong process that immerses your clothes in a solvent, uses friction as part of the cleaning, and puts your expensive clothes at risk of damage, it’s best to keep dry cleaning to a minimum. The same goes for pressing; this additional step can further expose your clothes to chemicals (the sizing) and can cause certain fabrics to become shiny over time as the heat and pressing have flattened and thinned the fabric. That means you should avoid buying items that require dry cleaning after every wear, such as dress shirts or sweaters you plan to wear against the skin.
To help avoid repeated trips to the dry cleaner, try these ideas instead:
- Wear washable undergarments (underwear and undershirts) to protect dry clean only garments from sweat and deodorant
- Wear washable clothes whenever possible if you know sweating will be an issue when wearing the garment
- Layer washable dress shirts under dry clean only sweaters to extend their wear between cleanings
- Hang dry clean only clothes outside or by a vent to air them out after wearing, prior to returning them to your closet
- Avoid spraying cologne directly on dry clean only clothes, as it will linger long after it’s worn off your skin
- Avoid spraying dry clean only clothes with “fresheners” such as Febreze; it contains alcohol, fragrance and other chemicals to bind to odors but the product itself will linger and build in clothes over time
- Attempt to spot-clean stains at home before submitting the entire garment to the dry cleaner; look up a specific remedy depending on the type of stain, such as baby powder for oil stains
- Use a clothing brush to freshen dusty clothes or to remove dry dirt or lint; as opposed to surface-only lint rollers, the bristles of clothing brushes are able to reach under the weave of a fabric without damaging it to safely release trapped particles
In fact, spot cleaning, airing and brushing your garments should be the first line of defense BEFORE dry cleaning. They should help you extend the wear of many garments between cleanings.
What To Look For in a Great Dry Cleaner
A good dry cleaner will:
- Actively heed your preferences, such as for pressing or starch
- Ideally clean on the premises, where the staff you interact with are in contact with the staff that does the actual cleaning
- Ask what stains are present and pre-treat them accordingly as so not to set in water-based stains such as juice or blood
- Indicate if trims, zippers, buttons or any of the garment’s details might be harmed by the dry cleaning process
- Have a written, fair policy regarding damaged or lost garments that they have a reputation for following
- Indicate if your garment is likely to have issues in the dry cleaning process, such as shrinkage
- Have clear pricing, no baiting-and-switching at the counter
- Have reasonable pricing; this is not a situation in which you want the cheapest or fastest service
- Have mostly good reviews; every establishment will have an upset customer or two, but overall, their ratings should indicate a longstanding, quality service
Dry cleaning, while far from interesting, is important to understand for the sake of maintaining your wardrobe. Follow our tips and tricks and you should be able to dry clean only when it is really needed!