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An in-depth analysis of real-world cleaning scenarios for troublesome fabrics

The first event that makes most cleaners consider dry cleaning a fabric is this common request from a customer: “I have a fabric that has a label stating that it needs to be dry cleaned. Can you do that?” The fact is that very few fabrics actually require dry cleaning. Contrary to furniture manufacturer’s label guidelines, most fabrics clean easily and safely with water-based cleaning solutions.

However, there are times when dry cleaning might be an option, and before using this poorly understood method, there are specific things you need to know in order to use dry cleaning solvents as safely and effectively as possible.


Cleaners have, for several decades, been using dry cleaning solvents for cleaning delicate fabrics. In the early years, cleaners would pour dry cleaning solvent into a bucket, then dip a towel or sponge into the solvent and clean the furniture by hand. Extraction was accomplished by using absorbent towels.

In the early 1970s, machines were introduced that could spray and extract dry cleaning solvent in a manner similar to hot water extraction.

Before the end of that decade, such machines were equipped with heating devices that would warm the dry cleaning solvent, but keep it below the flash point – for safety considerations.

During that same period of time, the use of more aggressive chlorinated solvents was gradually replaced by ones that were primarily made from odourless mineral spirits. Through all of these changes and developments, one thing remained consistent: Dry cleaning with solvents would never clean a fabric as well as a method that used water-based detergents, whether it was with a wet shampoo, dry foam, or hot water extraction method.

Why doesn’t dry cleaning ‘clean’?

The reason cleaning with solvents, with rare exception, never can clean as good as well as water-based solutions is very simple: Water-based solutions are most effective when removing water-based spills, but dry cleaning solvents are only effective on oily soils and spots. Most furniture, when subjected to “normal use”, is exposed to more water-based soils and spills than ones that are oily in nature. Oils from skin and hair may tend to be more solvent-soluble than water-soluble, but still are removed more efficiently with preconditioning agents that contain both water-based detergents, as well as solvent additives.

The other type of soil that cannot be readily removed with dry solvent cleaning is insoluble, particulate soil. While vacuuming alone should remove this material, some of it is “glued” to the fibre with oily or sugary soils, and some particles are so small that they cling to the fibres and defy vacuum removal. The lubrication and suspension quality of water-based detergents will help to remove such soil; safe, alkaline builders in some upholstery cleaning products will also disperse particulates.

Dry cleaning solvents do not perform these important functions. Other than for spotting purposes, dry cleaning cannot be expected to do more than remove thin films of oily soils that dull the colour of the fabric. Furniture that has been in a home that has experienced very minor smoke damage might be successfully cleaned with dry cleaning solvents, if the material was not heavily soiled prior to the smoke damage.

Dry cleaning alternatives

Some cleaners use dry cleaning solvents when they are afraid of cleaning the fabric. Their fears are based on visual indicators (bright colours, intricate designs, shiny finishes, delicate textures, etc.), but in most cases they dry clean because there is a care label that directs them to do so.

Though the goals of voluntary care labelling of furniture are laudable, very few tags that recommend “dry cleaning only” reflect a true need for the fabric to be cleaned in that fashion. The reasons that most fabrics could require dry cleaning are: Colourfastness, texture change, dimensional stability, or finish damage.

Let’s look at each potential problem and cover the alternatives available.

Colourfastness: This is likely the issue that most concerns cleaners. Colour bleeding or fading are very rarely correctable, and the appearance of an item that has experienced severe colour damage is usually so bad that replacement is often necessary. In most cases, however, dyes can be stabilized without resorting to the use of dry cleaning solvents. Most colour bleeding occurs when cleaners use alkaline detergents, often the “same stuff” that they use for carpet cleaning.

Texture change: Velvet fabrics made from natural fibres, such as cotton, or regenerated cellulose, such as rayon, will often dry stiff after cleaning with water-based detergents. Chenille fabrics made from rayon have become very popular, and will dry both stiff and with an altered appearance if not cleaned very carefully. Thorough rinsing of detergents from the fabric, and grooming the fabric with the assistance of air movers, and perhaps a steamer, will generally enable you to restore such materials to an acceptable appearance. Note that exposure to body oils, perspiration, and abrasion from normal usage will distort such materials far worse than gentle cleaning will.

Dimensional stability: Shrinkage is not nearly the problem that it was in decades past. Nevertheless, if fabrics made from cotton, rayon, or blends of either with synthetic material are over-wetted, they will very likely shrink, which will be most evident between cushions, on skirting, and around buttons. This can be avoided with limited wetting “dry” tools, dry foam extraction, or hand cleaning with a mist of detergent and the use of an absorbent towel. Finish damage: Surface designs, such as moiré, may be removed when the fabric is cleaned with water-based solutions. Watermarks may also occur when fabrics that have heavy amounts of sizing in them dry unevenly. These problems can be minimized, if not eliminated, by the use of light applications of detergent, applied evenly, then extracted with absorbent towels or vacuuming.

All of the above alternate methods are limited in effectiveness when compared to hot water extraction, but are far superior to dry cleaning.

If you have a fabric that cannot be safely cleaned with any of the above methods, and you feel you must dry clean, remember this:

Safety first: The use of dry cleaning solvents present both health and fire hazards. Never engage in any type of dry cleaning without the use of an organic vapour respirator, solvent-resistant gloves and apron, and protective eyewear. You must only work in an area where adequate ventilation is available to remove solvent fumes, and if using an extraction machine, where the vapours from the equipment’s exhaust can be vented outside the building. Under no circumstances should building occupants or pets be anywhere in or around the rooms where this cleaning is being done.

Limitations of cleaning: Fabrics that have become even moderately soiled, and with visible spills or stains, will not look significantly better after cleaning. Attempting to clean materials that are heavily soiled with dry cleaning processes will only frustrate you and disappoint your customer.

Dry cleaning tips

Vacuum thoroughly: This is not only important when doing any cleaning, but critically important with dry cleaning. As dry cleaning solvents have no ability to suspend or disperse insoluble, particulate soils (as do detergents) you need to pay more than the usual attention to vacuuming.

Apply solvent with care: Dry cleaning solvents do not work better with “flood and flush” cleaning techniques. Apply the solvent in a light mist and wipe the fabric with a clean, white towel. Even if your equipment has the ability to “spray and extract,” you’ll remove more soil with absorbent towels than with vacuuming alone. You can then follow with vacuum extraction if your machine is designed for that type of use.

Moisture barrier preconditioning: Areas that are more heavily soiled (tops of arms, cushions, etc.) may be preconditioned by applying a very dry foam with a sponge, brush, or towel, in areas that have been treated with dry cleaning solvents. This will help to remove more water-based soils, while the potentially damaging effects of the water-based detergents are resisted by the oily solvent film. While this method has been proven to be fairly safe when it comes to issues of colour bleeding and dimensional stability, it may not prevent texture damage. In most cases, any soil level that requires moisture barrier preconditioning has already damaged the texture.

Dry quickly: Because the solvents that we clean with today evaporate slower than water, it is critical that towel and vacuum extraction, as well as air movement, be used to remove as much solvent from the fabric as possible. The risks of fire and health hazards to your customer are such that you should only dry clean on location when you are completely confident that you can leave the fabric dry and odour free before you leave the premises. If you cannot be absolutely confident that you can achieve this, you should perform all of your dry cleaning in plant.

The decision of dry clean or not should take into consideration all alternative methods first, your ability to deliver a pleasing result to your customer, your ability to do so profitably, and, most of all, the health and safety of everyone involved.

Jim Pemberton
Industry trainer and consultant
President -Pemberton’s Cleaning & Restoration Supplies, USA

Source: Cleanfax Magazine

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