Give That Garment A Bath

Martin L. Young Jr. |

He was one of my best customers. Some call people like him “big tunas;” I called him “friend.” I was well aware that he had been putting jelly on my toast for many years.
The dress was white, high-dollar, major-label, and made of linen. His daughter was wearing it when she was in an auto accident that resulted in a broken nose. At least 60% of the dress was covered with bloodstains. He wanted the dress cleaned, and I wanted to make him happy.
I needed to perform wholesale stain removal, but the thought of standing at the board for hours to remove the stains depressed me. Then, I thought about using an enzyme digester — and I could use an insulated cooler to keep the water warm longer, even overnight!
I filled the cooler with warm (105°F) water and mixed in the digester powder, making sure it dissolved completely. Linen retains its strength in water, so my only concern was the additional time needed to press the acetate lining.
I slowly immersed the dress, making sure to force out any air that was trapped inside. I allowed the dress to soak in the solution through the night. When I removed it, the blood and other protein stains were gone.
After a short cycle in a pH-neutral wetcleaning detergent, the dress was ready to dry. After finishing, it exceeded my client’s expectations, ensuring some great word-of-mouth advertising.
The use of water is as old as garment cleaning. Long before official “wetcleaning” detergents and additives became available, I was using a conditioning shampoo to soak perspiration stains out of light and pastel silks. If you know garment construction, you can sometimes push the envelope of risk — to your customers’ benefit.
To recap the procedure above, the water must remain warm (about 105°F), and you must give it time. An insulated cooler will retain the water’s heat; make sure it has enough room to permit the garment to float freely. The enzymes do the dirty work; they will require no mechanical action to remove the stain.
Once the protein stain is gone, rinse the garment in clear water, dry it and dryclean it. You can also wetclean the garment, taking advantage of advances in chemical technology that permit a wider range of fabrics to be cleaned.
For years, the garment-care industry has been polarized on the subject of wetcleaning. That’s no longer the case: Wetcleaning has demonstrated itself to be an effective and safe stain-removal method, a good supplement to drycleaning, and even a preferred process when combined with a secondary solvent that can handle the items that are most sensitive to water.
For large stains and multiple garments with similar wet-side stains, wetcleaning is a valuable stain-removal tool. A dedicated wet-side detergent and fabric finish can save time and effort, and produce superior results. Even when using a bucket or home washer in the corner of the cleaning department, you can overcome stains while leaving no “footprints,” or evidence that you used water.
Follow each product’s directions and proceed slowly. It’s easy to get a good hand by using the proper finishing agent. A softener produces a supersoft garment if tumbled, or moderately soft if air-dried. A texturizer or wet sizing will produce crispness if tumbled, or stiffness if air-dried.
When using a home washer, use the gentlest cycle, cold water and a water level slightly higher than you’d use in laundering the same item. Most people believe that four factors lead to shrinkage: water, heat, mechanical action and alkalinity; if any two are present, you are at risk for shrinkage.
Soaking garments in a bucket of cold water and neutral synthetic detergent (NSD) can go a long way toward removing large stains safely. No heat, no mechanical action, no alkalis — just mix the solution and immerse the garment for a few hours. Go about your business and return at your leisure.
To some operators, “bleach” is a dirty word; to others, it’s just another chemical tool for garment restoration. There are at least eight different bleaches in use today, and each one has its place.
Sodium perborate is the active ingredient in many of the “color-safe” bleaches sold over the counter to the general public, and is effective on many fabrics. Dissolved in water, its aggressiveness can be controlled by time and temperature. When water drops below about 85°F, the oxidizing action of the bleach slows or stops.
Using water at about 105°F, dissolve the bleach in a non-metallic container, submerge the garment, and agitate it slightly to ensure even distribution. Allow the garment to soak for at least 30 minutes. Rinse in clear water, neutralizing the bath with acetic acid, and rinse again. (I once had a beige cotton sweater than turned bright yellow after a sodium perborate bath.)
Titanium sulfate reducing bleaches (“dye strippers”) are another tool. Sold under various trade names, they all work the same. The secret? Start out cold, and work your way up in temperature to get the desired results. Reducing bleaches are often the answer to dye migration in a garment, but they don’t know the difference between a fugitive dye and the garment’s color.
Again, start with tap water and follow manufacturer recommendations. But don’t soak the garment, and don’t leave it unattended. Keep the item moving and watch for progress. Warm the water slightly until the fugitive dye is removed. Rinse the garment in clear water, and neutralize it with a very mild ammonia solution or protein formula. Rinse in clear water again.
Know the characteristics of fabrics, and test for dye stability on an unexposed seam whenever necessary. Wetcleaning can enhance your professional reputation — water keeps even the biggest tunas happy.

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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