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Discover How the Clothes Dry Cleaning Process Works

Updated on March 22, 2012

Dry Cleaning Clothes - Wet But No Water

Nicely pressed, crisp creases, clean and clean smelling - those are just some of the descriptions for clothes fresh from the Dry Cleaners. But how do they do it? How can you get clothes clean without getting them wet? Just how does dry cleaning work? How do they dry clean clothes?

Those are all pretty common questions for people that have never been past the front pick-up counter of their local Dry Cleaners. A quick tour of the back work area, where the clothes actually get cleaned would have revealed huge "washing" machines, full of wet clothes tumbling in water.


Wait, it's not water, it just looks like water. It's really a chemical solvent. And when your clothes are dry cleaned, contrary to the name, they do get wet - just not by water.

The process starts when you drop off your clothes, and ends with them neatly hanging on a movable rack - protected by plastic and waiting to be picked up. It is what happens in-between that is the dry cleaning process.


The Dry Cleaning Process

The chemical cleaning is only part of the dry cleaning process that starts when you drive up or walk inside to drop off your clothes. Once they give you a pick-up receipt for your clothes, the wheels start turning...


Dry Cleaners tag or "mark" your clothes

The clothes are tagged with numbered dry cleaning tags that ensure your clothes don't get mixed up with someone else's clothes. (clothes are dry cleaned in 35 to 60 pound batches, so many different people's clothes are washed together)

  • The tags are numbered, and color-coded by day of week. A tag from the batch is attached to the cleaning order to identify the batch with the customer.
  • The tags are not usually stapled to most clothes. They are put through button holes or belt loops and the ends are stapled together to keep them in place.


Spot and stain removal

  • During the tagging process the clothes are examined for missing buttons, rips, tears, or stains. Buttons get replaced, rips, tears, and stains are noted on the batch order, and stains are pre-treated and/or removed. The dry cleaning stain removal process is much more than just applying a spot remover before washing. (like you probably do at home)
  • clothes are then tossed into bins or hampers with other similar clothes. ie. shirts, light or colored, starch or no starch, etc...

The dry cleaning "washing" machine

Commercial dry cleaning machines are similar to front loading home washing machines like a kid's pedal car is similar to an Indy racer - similar functions and basic components, but worlds apart in the details.

Commercial dry cleaning machines:

  • Have 35 to 60 pound load capacities
  • Use solvents instead of detergents and water. The most commonly used dry cleaning solvent is a liquid silicone called perchlorethylene, or perc or per clean for short. Other solvents like White Spirits are also used for specialty fabrics and leathers.
  • The washing action is just like a home front-loading machine. The clothes are tossed and tumbled, but in solvent instead of water.
  • Are also a dryer. The solvent is extracted, (and saved, cleaned, and recycled for more use), and the clothes are tumble dried in the same machine they were washed in.

After the dry cleaning "wash"...

Once the clothes are cleaned, they go through a post-cleaning inspection to check for stains that did not come out, (and need another treatment), buttons lost in the process, (usually retrieved from the lint filter), and cleaning-caused rips or tears, (very unusual).

After this inspection it's off to the ironing and pressing stations. Commercial dry cleaning is a very machine-oriented process. There are specific-task machines for just about every step of the process.


Press ironing Shirts

Ever wonder how your shirts got those crisp collars, cuffs, and creases? Here's how they do it.


Press ironing the pants.

And how about the knife-edge leg creases and crisp pant's cuffs? Yep, they have a machine for that too.


No Wrinkles, No Creases, No Problem

They even have a machine for those clothes that don't have, or want, creases. Like jackets, or dress tops.

It's called "The Suzy"


The complete dry cleaning process

The last step...

The last step in the dry cleaning process is bagging and tagging. The clothes are put on hangers, covered with plastic dry cleaning bags, grouped together by tag numbers, and hung on the motorized trolly - waiting to be wheeled around to front and center when you come to pick them up.

And that is how dry cleaning works. As you can see it involves a lot more than just understanding that dry cleaning isn't really dry, it just uses solvents instead of water, and includes a lot more steps than just tossing them in a machine.

One last video to sum it all up...

Information and images sources

Many thanks to the experts at for the excellent videos used in this article.

All images used are free-use creative commons images from


About the Author

Reporting for the Daily Constitutional, and providing articles for various online publishing sites are my primary work responsibilities, but it is the freelance editorials from the Curmudgeon's desk that provide the most satisfaction. - GAA

See more of my writings at:

*Composite image component source citations: Creative Commons images,,,, and personal art and graphic programs: GreenStreet Clipart, Print Shop, Art Explosion Pro Silver Edition Publishing program - *photo and image source credits: divider and separation images -


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