Might As Well Be Witchcraft: What Is Dry Cleaning, Anyway?

Maybe you visit the dry cleaners every week. Maybe you've just gone a couple of times to take care of those few fancy pieces of your wardrobe. Or maybe you're visiting our site because you've never been to a dry cleaners at all and are looking to make a decision. No matter which of the above categories you fall into, chances are you're really in the same position: you have no idea what dry cleaning actually is.

Dry cleaning is a bit of a mystery to people. It might as well be witchcraft, or wizardry, for all you know. But it's really not that complicated.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguisable from magic."

- Arthur C. Clarke, British physicist and sci-fi writer

The first thing you need to know about dry cleaning is that it's a bit of a misnomer. "Dry cleaning" isn't necessarily dry; it just means that it doesn't involve water. There are still liquid solvents involved in the process, but unlike water, which shrinks many common clothing fabrics, these other chemical solvents aren't going to shrink your garments. They'll also do a better job of helping to get stains removed. As this article on the history of dry cleaning demonstrates, people have been experimenting with better cleaning alternatives since ancient Greece and Rome.

We currently use as our primary solvent a solvent called tetrachloroethylene, more commonly known as perchloroethylene, or "perc" for short.

When you drop off your clothes with us, we'll take a look for obvious stains that will require special attention, and we ask you to bring to our attention any spots as well. Before going into a dry cleaning machine, these garments will be "pre-spotted," which is to say that a special cleaning agent is used on them. There are a number of cleaning agents at a dry cleaner's disposal to treat unique stains. Some of the most common are protein stain removers (protein stains are mostly things that come out of you, like blood and sweat), tannin stain removers (tannin stains are usually beverages, like coffee, tea, wine, fruit juice or soda), and paint/oil/grease removers.

All clothes are then placed in a large drum in a specialized perc dry cleaning machine, which shares some of the same DNA as your home washing machine but is much larger and more technically advanced. But like a regular washing machine, dry cleaning machines put clothes through a series of cycles, like your basic soak, wash and rinse cycles.

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The "agitation" process is where perc passes through each garment to take on stains. Once that's done, there's a spinning process whereby the perc is removed from the garments and the tub (in one of the major benefits of the process, the perc is filtered out and can be repeatedly reused rather than just going into a drain somewhere). Clothes then face hot air and vapor, which dries them and removes the last traces of the perc.

Clothes are then inspected to make sure that all the stains are gone and that there hasn't been any damage in the process like a broken button. If there's still a stain, we have to see if we can try again. If there's a repair that needs to be made, we'll take care of it.

Cleaning is only part of the process, really, when it comes to dry cleaning. There's also pressing and "finishing," which is the term for the appearance of how a garment is presented once it's ready. We want you to be overcome with how great your things look when you get them back, so pressing them neatly and finishing them to your expectations is key. This is one of the reasons why coin-operated dry cleaning machines and home dry cleaning kits have both failed in the marketplace - even if they were successful at cleaning, consumers weren't getting the pressing and finishing they have come to expect from a professional cleaner.