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A Final Curtain Call

Norm Oehlke |

Some drycleaners refer to cleaning drapes, curtains, bedspreads and other household fabrics as something they must cope with in order to keep customers. But being able to clean these items well is a big incentive for customers to bring in everything they need cleaned. It’s a service that all customers need — and every customer expects his or her cleaner to “do it all.”
Consumers must be reminded that curtains and drapes get soiled and stained, though, and need professional care. They must be informed that frequent cleanings can actually extend their drapes’ useful life. Customers tend to assume that their household fabrics will last forever without cleaning.
With proper care, drapes and other household fabrics will last three to five years. The type of fabric used to make the drapes and their environmental exposures will have a bearing on these expectations. Silk deteriorates easily in sunlight, while many synthetic fabrics can perform well for many years.
Because drapes are left hanging for long periods before cleaning, they often get heavily soiled. Drapes get very dirty just hanging in a window, filtering out dust and dirt. And the more soils drapes attract, the more attention they need in drycleaning and stain removal.
Perform classification carefully. Tightly woven materials hold more soil and require a longer drycleaning cycle, proper detergent concentration and excellent filtration. Heavily soiled drapes can overwhelm a filter quickly. Some drycleaners like to clean drapes in the last load of the day so that they can maintain machine filters properly.
If you clean a light-colored load immediately after a dark-colored load, it can lead to redeposition, so classify according to color. Most deep colors and prints have limited colorfastness, so you should also keep an eye on the sightglass—if the solvent darkens, let the filter run without anything in the wheel.
Good filtration usually clears solvent if the filter is given time to recover after cleaning fugitive colors or heavy soils; you should also distill the solvent properly. Don’t overload the wheel; instead, underload it a little to allow the machine to separate all soils.
To aid in soil removal, you’ll usually want to run household loads on a longer cleaning cycle, and moisture will improve cleaning quality. Most atmospheric soils are water-soluble and can only be removed with moisture.
Be sure that you clean the entire set of drapes and any matching slipcovers or accessories. Poor colorfastness will be obvious between items if some are cleaned and some are left uncleaned.
Inspect drapes carefully before cleaning. A longer run will produce a cleaner drape, but may cause fabric damage. Excessive agitation can cause weakened areas of the draperies to separate. You’ll have to make individual decisions on every set of drapes.
You may need to get a signed customer consent form before processing household fabrics. You should explain any concerns you have about the job carefully to the customer in order not to frighten them.
Get as much information as you can about how long the drape has been in use, how much light exposure it receives and whether anyone smokes in the home. If the drapes are used in the dining room,  kitchen or family room, they may be stained with cooking fumes, food and beverages.
Removing these stains can be a problem; they should be treated prior to drycleaning. Fireplaces, too, can contribute to substantial smoke and carbon stains.Wetcleaning. In such cases, drycleaning alone just won’t do the job — wetcleaning will be your best option. See for yourself: Take a soiled curtain and put it in a container of warm water and detergent. The water will yellow with the first immersion, and the curtain will require several rinses before you can see its true color.
Wetcleaning is often the only way you will be able to remove heavy concentrations of water-based soils on a drape. However, household fabrics are prone to shrinkage if the fabrics used to make them aren’t completely preshrunk. They can shrink about 3% in drycleaning, and more in wetcleaning.
While wetcleaning offers excellent soil removal, it may cause excessive shrinkage. You can correct shrinkage by stretching in finishing, but this usually requires the use of tensioning equipment.
Tensioning equipment can almost guarantee restoration to the correct length, but you must measure the drapes carefully before cleaning so that you know the dimensions to target. If you expect substantial shrinkage, you may wish to soak the drapes in detergent and water, hand-rinse them, extract them lightly and hang them to dry.
Drapes that have been hanging for several years will show a much heavier concentration of soils, smoke and atmospheric soils on the outer edges of the folds. These drapes have rarely moved from one position to another, and may have developed yellow streaking on the folds. Once drycleaned to remove the solvent-soluble soils, the streaks will be more apparent.
Drycleaning will never remove streaks completely, so try wetcleaning instead. Drycleaners who handle lots of drapes and household textiles should be equipped with wetcleaning machines and tensioning units; there are many occasions when only wetcleaning will provide the proper end result.
Many household fabrics contain sizing and dyes that wetcleaning will alter, however. Before wetcleaning, test colors well. Wet out a portion of the fabric with water and determine if the sizing is soluble in water. If wetcleaning removes the sizing, a limp fabric will result; you may need to add starch or sizing back into the fabric.
Limit agitation in wetcleaning. Drapes weakened by light exposure may tear or shred easily while wet — even more easily than they can in drycleaning.
Drapes hanging close to an exterior window can often absorb condensate that forms in cold weather. Condensation will disturb accumulated atmospheric soils and any water-sensitive sizings in the fabric, causing the formation of water rings. Rings can also develop if portions of the drape get wet during rainy weather. Removing rings requires moisture in spotting that can cause additional rings, so wetcleaning is the better choice.
Cleaning household items can be a profitable part of a drycleaning operation. Be sure that you perform your processes professionally, whether you choose drycleaning or wetcleaning.

About the author

Norm Oehlke

Retired Columnist

Norm Oehlke was the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Tips column from 1996 through 2007, as well as the author of American Drycleaner's Spotting Guide. Now retired, he spent a lifetime in the industry — first in a plant, and from 1955 through 1995 at IFI and its predecessor, NID. He resides with his wife, Adeline, in Highland, Md.

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