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How Dry Cleaning Works

Updated on December 1, 2016

Dry Cleaning is the process of washing fabrics with liquids other than water. Dry cleaning solvents dissolve oily and fatty substances that are not soluble in water. These solvents do not swell natural fibers as water does. Such swelling is one of the major causes of shrinkage.


Archaeological discoveries have revealed the existence of dry cleaning in the Mycenaean civilization (1600-1100 B.C.). Mention of dry cleaning was included on clay tablets that listed more than 100 occupations. Grease-absorbent earths may have been used.

Turpentine has long been known as a good spotting agent for grease stains. In 1690 an anonymous writer stated, "Oil of turpentine will make rosin crumble away." In 1716 a French book about arts and crafts, Secrets concernant les arts et metiers, described a "special secret for removing grease and oil spots from silk stuff." It said, "One rubs the spots on the silk with spirits of turpentine, this spirit evaporates and takes with it the oil in the spot."

Dry cleaning as we know it today was not really practiced until the birth of the chemical industry in the 1800's, when such solvents as benzine (from petroleum), benzol (from coal tar), naphtha, and gasoline initially became available.

The first commercial dry cleaning plant was probably opened by the Jolly-Belin organization in Paris about 1845. After visits to this plant, J. Pullar of Perth, Scotland, and W. Spindler of Berlin returned to their native countries and introduced dry cleaning. Dry cleaning then began to spread throughout Europe.

Dry cleaning became widespread in America by 1910. The exact date that it became established initially is not known. In the 1920's valet shops or press shops became common in the United States. These shops sent clothing out to be cleaned. Garments were returned to the shops for finishing or pressing. This type of service has to a great extent been replaced by shops with small dry cleaning plants. In the 1930's many laundries added dry cleaning departments, and gradually dry cleaning has become the predominant service.

Dry cleaning grew from a $55 million industry in the United States in 1919 to a slightly less than $2 billion industry in 1959. In the late 1960's the industry's estimated volume was $2.8 billion. This amount included the earnings of the 36,000 to 37,000 dry cleaning plants in the United States.

Dry cleaning is classified as "small business" in the United States. Most plants can be maintained by three to five persons. Even smaller family-operated plants are not uncommon. There are also many large dry cleaning plants that employ 150 to 200 persons.

Dry Cleaning Procedures

Garments to be dry-cleaned are inspected upon arrival at the plant for spots, stains, items left in pockets, tears, and special instructions from the customer. They are then tagged for identification by the marker, who also removes buttons, belts, shoulder pads and fragile ornaments that require special handling or that cannot be cleaned. The clothing is next sorted according to fabric type, color, and construction. Each garment is sent through the plant with tags bearing special handling instructions.

After classification, clothing goes to the cleaning department where it is placed in the perforated revolving cylinder of a washer containing the dry cleaning solvent. A special detergent is added to the solvent. The solvent dissolves the oily, greasy soils, and the detergent loosens and suspends the remaining insoluble soils. The dirty solvent passes from the washer cylinder through a filtration system where insoluble soils are removed. The solvent itself is periodically distilled to remove soluble soils.

Most of the solvent is removed from the garments by centrifugal force during the spinning cycle of the washer. Drying then takes place in a tumbler or in a special drying cabinet where the last traces of the solvent are eliminated.

Garments are handled next by the spotter, one of the most highly skilled men in a dry cleaning plant. He identifies and removes stains by using a variety of chemicals, tamping the fabric with a brush, and flushing it with a special steam-air gun. The spotter must be able to identify fibers in order to remove stains effectively without damaging the fabric or dye. Some plants maintain a separate wet cleaning department to which garments are sent by the spotter when dry cleaning and spotting have not been sufficient.

Garments are next sent to the finishing department. A variety of equipment, ranging from small puff irons to body-sized steam-air forms apply steam to soften the fabric, remove wrinkles, and restore shape.

Then each garment is inspected. Ornaments removed before cleaning are replaced. Some dry cleaning plants also perform minor repairs and alterations. The clothes are then assembled into individual customer orders and are placed in protective bags for delivery to the customer.

Essentially the same procedures are followed in the dry cleaning of many textile items other than clothing, such as draperies, table linens, blankets, and small rugs. Leather garments are dry-cleaned also, but the dry cleaning of leather requires special skills, and most dry cleaners send such articles to leather cleaners.

In 1959, small dry cleaning establishments with coin-operated machines were introduced. The small complete dry cleaning units hold 8 pounds (3.6 kg). The customer or an attendant loads and unloads the garments.


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