Facing Your Fabric Fears

Martin L. Young Jr. |

Too many drycleaners in the industry have never taken the time or made the effort to acquire a working knowledge of fibers, fabrics, dyes and trims. This means that they’re ill-equipped to deal with many of the garments coming across their counters.
Any of these variables can alter stain-removal protocols significantly. This leads to a fear of any garment that isn’t a plain, one-color synthetic. They turn away garments that should make a healthy contribution to the bottom line profits of their businesses. Worse still, they may damage garments they don’t understand, and with them, damage their reputations.
This column addresses three of the most-feared fibers and fabrics. It will save (and make) you money.WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT SILK?
Nothing breathes like silk, nothing drapes like silk and nothing flows like silk. But nothing requires more knowledge and attention from the professional cleaner than silk, either.
Silk is a protein fiber produced by the silkworm. The worm’s cocoon is plucked from the branches of a tree and exposed to a liquid mixture that unravels the fibers, leaving behind the strand of fiber created by the silkworm larva. This fiber is the basis for the thread used to weave the fabric.
Silk does not react well to water. Silk is strong and absorbent when dry, but fragile when wet. When a silk fabric is exposed to excessive mechanical action — and “excessive” for silk is significantly less than for other fibers — when wet, it chafes. When attempting stain removal on a silk garment, stay on the dry side as long as possible.
Everyday environmentals can damage silks. Silk is damaged by sunlight, which causes it to fade and weaken. Silk is damaged by perspiration, which contains moisture and alkali salts.
You should treat every silk garment you receive for perspiration. Treat the underarms with a general prespotter/leveling agent or a specialized silk prespotter, even if there are no noticeable rings or stains.
If there is discoloration under the arms, attempt to reverse it by flushing it with steam, applying NSD, flushing with steam, applying acetic acid or tannin formula, and flushing with steam. Do not use mechanical action.
Silk is sensitive to alkalis. That means that when it is necessary to use a protein formula, you should work quickly to flush the protein formula from the garment and neutralize the area with acetic acid or tannin formula.
If a customer identifies a stain as containing alcohol, there’s a risk that the dyes in the garment have loosened and will be flushed away in cleaning. There may be no evidence of this before cleaning, and you can demonstrate your professionalism and knowledge by warning the customer.
A sizing finish enhances the “hand” (feel or texture) of most silk garments. The sizing may be water- or solvent-soluble. The result is that rings may form easily on a silk garment when it comes into contact with a stray drop of liquid. This situation can be corrected easily with the use of a leveling agent or a specialized silk spotter and then rerunning the garment.
Be sure to inspect silk garments at stress points such as the elbows, shoulders and underarms for yarn slippage. This will go a long way toward eliminating a damage claim by the customer upon pickup. Silk can be wetcleaned, although it’s a good idea to keep mechanical action to a minimum to prevent chafing.WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT SATIN?
Satin is misunderstood. It is not a fiber; it is a fabric. Satin describes the way in which the threads are woven and the fabric constructed. In order to achieve that appealing shine, the threads are woven by taking the thread over one warp thread and then under several threads (usually four) before going over the next warp thread.
This leads to loose construction, so the fabric is likely to suffer yarn slippage from even moderate mechanical action. When attempting stain removal on a satin garment, limit mechanical action in consideration of its fragile construction.
Most of today’s satin garments are synthetic, making stain removal fairly routine. Limit mechanical action, even to the point of working the garment on its reverse side instead of on the surface. Fortunately, most polyester satin weaves, dyed in solid colors and without any fragile trims, can be wetcleaned to deal with stubborn or large water-soluble stains.WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT RAYON?
Rayon, a cellulose fiber, is man-made — a product of pulp, tree bark and other recycled plant fibers. Rayon is relatively inexpensive and is often blended with other, more stable, fibers.
Rayon is sensitive to water and dimensionally unstable. Rings form on it easily due to water-soluble sizings used to enhance the hand. Rayon can lose almost half of its tensile strength when wet. Dyes tend to be unstable in rayons, making stain removal a challenge.
For safety, treat rayon much like silk at the board by reducing mechanical action, keeping the steam gun at a safe distance, and flushing stain-removal agents thoroughly. Remember that cellulose fibers are sensitive to acids; after using a tannin spotter, neutralize the area with a few drops of protein formula and flush it with steam.
Life and love require effort and protocol; so do garment care and stain removal. Consider these fiber and fabric weaknesses and put forth an effort. The more you know, the more you can profit.

About the author

Martin L. Young Jr.

Industry Consultant and Trainer

Martin L. Young Jr. has been an industry consultant and trainer for 20 years, and a member of various stakeholder groups on environmental issues. He is a past president of the North Carolina Association of Launderers & Cleaners (NCALC). He grew up in his parents’ plant in Concord, N.C., Young Cleaners, which he operates to this day. Contact him by phone at 704-786-3011, or via e-mail at


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