Clean IQ: Everything You Need to Know About the Dry Cleaning Process

updated Sep 28, 2023
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(Image credit: New Africa)

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When I was young, I believed the dry cleaner represented the height of sophistication. There was a sort of starched romance to the way my father’s shirts would dance down the conveyor, a gossamer flutter of pinstripes and plaids. It was a Narnia-like window into plastic-wrapped adulthood, all glamour and ease. It was only later that I realized paying $10 to get the smell of stale cigarettes and regret out of the silk dress I wore on a Tinder date was the ultimate scam of growing up. Despite dry cleaning now being a regular part of my life, I still have no idea how it works. What’s actually happening behind the glass door?

Quick Overview

How Does Dry Cleaning Work?

Once an item arrives to a dry cleaner, it is inspected to determine how it’ll be cleaned. Stains are treated and the garment is washed. For final touches, there’s a spot treatment for any lingering stains and it is looked over for any other issues. Then, it is pressed, folded, and ready for pickup.

What Is Dry Cleaning?

Dry cleaning is the process of cleaning garments with a liquid chemical solvent, independent of water. It was invented and patented in 1821 by Thomas L. Jennings — who, incidentally, was also the first African-American ever to receive a patent.

The solvents used in traditional dry cleaning are not super awesome: The most common, perchloroethylene (or “perc”) is a chlorocarbon that has been in use since the 1930s. It is an awesome stain destroyer; it is also classified as a toxic chemical in California. Many dry cleaners have switched over to “green cleaning” solvents, which are thought to be less reactive and more environmentally friendly. 

That said, Peter Blake, Executive Vice President of the North East Fabricare Association, a trade association for dry cleaners, points out that only a microscopic amount of solvent is released during the cleaning process: solvents are filtered, cleaned, and reused cycle after cycle, so very little escapes into the air or water supply. (Modern machines recapture 99.99 percent of solvent.)

How Does Dry Cleaning Work?

Let’s tag along with one of my beloved cashmere turtlenecks, shall we?

Bring the item to a dry cleaner.

When an item arrives at a dry cleaner, it is given an identifying number before, most likely, being shipped out to a commercial cleaning facility. That’s right: Due to the high cost of machines and solvents, many of today’s dry cleaners don’t have actual cleaning facilities on site. They’re like babysitters, giving your sweater a friendly chin chuck and juice box before sending it on its way.

The item gets examined to determine how it’ll be cleaned.

Upon arrival at the cleaning facility, your items will be examined by staff to determine the best cleaning method. That’s because — hold on to your dry-clean-only hats — much of what you send to the dry cleaner is actually just being tossed in a (professional, industrial-strength) washing machine.

“We’re actually trying to get away from the term ‘dry cleaning’,” says Blake. “Think of it more as a ‘fabricare entity.’ We will know, as professionals, what the best way is to handle this garment. We want to give it back to you in the best condition, and we’re trying to prolong the life of your fabrics.” That means many clothing items, including my cashmere, are being wet washed. 

Stains are pre-treated.

Upon inspection, any garments with stains are often treated before the washing process.

(Image credit: ivan_kislitsin)

The item is professionally cleaned.

Professional cleaners can avoid the common problems that plague home washing, like shrinkage. “There are two things that lead to shrinkage: water and mechanical action,” explains Blake. “If you put a cashmere sweater in your washer at home, you’re getting fiber constriction through the mechanical action, which is what turns a real nice sweater into something your dog wears.” In the fabricare industry, however, new machines limit the amount of ‘swooshing’ (the technical term), and specialized chemical detergents are employed to coat clothing fibers, removing soil while preventing water from getting into the garment. Your clothes will also be set on high-tech presses that can re-block and re-constitute garments to their original shape and drape.

As for textiles that absolutely can’t be washed — think delicate silks, fine-weave sweaters, anything with beading or embellishment — those will get the standard dry cleaning treatment. Clothes are placed in what is essentially a giant washing machine; there, they are buffeted around the drum along with a liquid (but water-free) cleaning solvent that chemically draws out and filters stains, before being carefully rinsed and heat-dried at a controlled temperature in the same machine.

A post spot treatment is done.

If there are any lingering stains, these are taken care of and removed before final touches.

The item is inspected and ready for pickup.

For final touches, the item is looked over for any tears or missing buttons and then steamed or pressed before being folded and packaged. Then, it’s ready for pickup.

(Image credit: ivan_kislitsin)

How to Improve Your Dry Cleaning Experience

Blake is also awash with tips for how to make your dry cleaning experience a better one. “If you have any stains at all, tell your dry cleaner. It’s important to know what the stain is — like, it’s not just coffee, but coffee with cream and sugar,” he says. “There’s a specific procedure for coffee, for dairy, for sugar. The more information the cleaner knows, the better.” Also, undo all your buttons — ”Your dry cleaner will love you for that!” 

Finally, look for a cleaner that belongs to the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute. These cleaners have access to resources and “stain removal classes,” which, to me, sound like a real party.

Is Dry Cleaning Worth It?

So my cashmere turtleneck has been blasted, pressed, and hung sweetly in its sheath — but could I have achieved the same results at home? Possibly, through a careful hand wash with specialty detergent, but as Blake points out, what you’re really paying for with dry cleaning is the service. “We want to take care of your garments so you don’t have to,” says Blake. “So you can spend your time more wisely, and enjoy your life a little more.”