21 November 2007

How The F Do You Clean My Clothes If They Never Get Wet?: The History of Dry Cleaning

Whether the technology was beating the garments on rocks by the river or pushing buttons on programmed washing machines, doing laundry depends on water and a mechanical action usually assisted by soap or an alkali. The purpose of an alkali is to saponify the oils and dislodge ordinary soil and other matter. More often than not, the soapy agent holds soil in suspension as it becomes loose during the wash cycle, and is subsequently flushed away during the rinse cycle and centrifugal spin.

The drying process for doing laundry at home is either hanging clothes on a clothesline or tumbling them in a gas- or electric-heated dryer.

Dry cleaning, on the other hand, is different. It's a process that cleans clothes without water.

Without water, you say!? Then how the fuck do they clean my clothes?!

Well, mon frère, the cleaning fluid that is used is a liquid, and all garments are immersed and cleaned in a liquid solvent — the fact that there is no actual water is why the process is called "dry." Leave it to the French to pull some tricky shit like that.

Like many inventions, dry cleaning came about by accident. In 1855, Jean Baptiste Jolly, a French dye-works owner, noticed that his table cloth became cleaner after his maid accidentally overturned a kerosene lamp on it. Operating through his dye-works company, Jolly offered a new service and called it "dry cleaning."

Early dry cleaners used a variety of solvents — including gasoline! and kerosene! — to clean clothes and fabrics.

In the United States, the dry-cleaning industry is fairly new and has developed only during the past 75 years. Since World War II ended, the volatile synthetic solvents carbon tetrachloride and trichlorethylene gave way to a product known as perchlorethylene (perc), which became the overwhelming solvent choice for the industry.

It was not only safer and faster, but did a much better job of cleaning, required less massive equipment, less floor space, and could be easily installed in retail locations. As a result of this innovation, the majority of clothes today are cleaned by perc.

Perchlorethylene or Perc is that sweet, peculiar smell you'll smell if you hang outside a dry cleaners for too long.

There are two things that piss me off about dry cleaning. One is, just because I can afford dry-clean only clothes doesn't mean I can afford to do dry-cleaning twice a goddamn week; and two, the dry-cleaning process produces way too much garbage. Every morning I'm throwing out hangers, plastic bags, sheets of paper, staples, tags; its unbelievable! And I'm not a tree hugger or a granola-fucker, and even I recognise it as insane; even my dog looks at me like I'm nuts because every morning is like Christmas morning in my bedroom; unwrapping my shirt and suit for the day.

One thing I didn't realise was the intricate methodology behind those little tags they staple on your every garment. I know a lot of these dry cleaning factories deal with hundreds and hundreds of garments at a time. I can only imagine the nightmare of playing Memory with all those little tags, it must be maddening. I say dry-cleaning is worth every penny.

So anyway, when you drop off your clothes, every order is identified but the tag does more than simply help keep track of the order.

Lets say one of your shirts needs special attention, such as removing a Petit verdot stain or putting a double-crease in pant legs, there's a special coloured tag that gets affixed to that particular item of clothing. And that tag remains attached to the clothing during the entire dry-cleaning cycle.

OK, my ADD has kicked in and I'm bored with this now. Go here if you wanna read more about dry-cleaning.

How Stuff Works has a video about the entire process from soup to nuts.

I need to corral all my garbage from a typical morning of unwrapping clothes for work and take a pic for y'all. Promise to do it soon.

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