How to Toast a Tannin Stain

Norm Oehlke |

The term “tannin” covers a broad range of stains originating from fruit juices, mixed drinks, wines and sodas. It’s one of the most common stains confronting the spotter; it’s also the most difficult one to remove. Complete removal often isn’t possible.
Several readers have called to inquire about specific recommended procedures for removing certain tannin stains. Most inquiries concern the difficulty of removing various wines, including champagne. Graduations and weddings usually contribute to a surge in these stains.
Many customers don’t remember spilling, but cocktail parties such as these are often crowded affairs, with people holding a drink in one hand and an appetizer in the other. Arms get bumped and drinks are spilled, staining a garment while the wearer is unaware.
When the garment is cleaned and the surface soils removed, the heat of deodorizing tends to make these invisible stains turn yellow. Now it becomes the spotter’s task to remove the stains. Notice that I said “remove,” not just “reduce” them to nearly invisible.
Spotters need all the help they can get from counter personnel. “Are there any stains on this item?” is a question that needs to be asked. If there are stains present, flag the garment with a specific stain tag and route it to the spotter. Nothing is more helpful to the spotter than knowledge of a stain before it’s accepted for drycleaning.Targeting Tannin. Start with tannin removers or any of the acid agents (tannin formulas), and follow through with oxidizing bleaches. Sometimes the first application of a tannin remover and a steam flush will quickly remove all of the stain. In other cases, the endless application of numerous agents fails to complete the job. It’s frustrating for a spotter to try so hard only find his efforts fruitless.
Some stains look like they should flush out easily but don’t; others that appear to be old, yellowed and set literally fall out with the first application of tannin formula. Why? Answering that question requires one to know the entire history of the stain and fabric content. Sometimes—even with all of this information—total removal of a tannin stain escapes us.
Remember, the content of tannin stains varies greatly in concentration, acidity and age, and fabrics differ in weave, sizing, starch, etc. A tightly woven cotton fabric can absorb large, concentrated amounts of the tannin portion of the stain. A small quantity of tannin on a polyester fabric will produce a much less intense stain and be easier to remove. The spotter is faced with many unknowns, so he or she must proceed with removal as if each tannin stain is a difficult one. There are no short cuts.
A question I’m often asked by spotters is, “What went wrong?” They followed the correct procedure, took their time and still failed to remove the last traces of a stain. This inquiry always comes from a professional spotter who’s concerned about putting out a quality, stain-free product. They wonder further if they skipped a step in stain removal and how they should explain the failure to the customer.
Removing tannin stains requires using an acid spotter, tannin formula and sometimes, bleaches. Apply tannin formula several times, followed by flushes with the steam gun. Start with a mild one and work up to the stronger, more aggressive ones. Then proceed to the bleaches, starting with the oxygen bleach sodium perborate, then hydrogen peroxide, and—if possible—chlorine. Sometimes a reducing bleach can be helpful. You’ll have to experiment with various bleaches until the magic happens.
Most bleaches—such as sodium perborate and hydrogen peroxide—work slowly. Reapply bleach to the stain every 15 to 20 minutes. Many spotters are reluctant to do this, because keeping some fabrics wet out with moisture for long periods can produce heavy sizing rings. The bleach removes the stain, but the sizing ring left is more difficult to remove than the stain. Many spotters avoid the problem by lightly misting the outer edge of the wet area with a leveling agent. Recleaning later allows any disturbed sizing to level off and flush out.
Another helpful method for preventing sizing rings is to place a ring of mineral oil a few inches beyond the tannin stain before extensive wet-side spotting. Mineral oil can be purchased at most grocery stores and many convenience stores. Apply it directly to the dry fabric and leave it on until wet-side spotting is completed. Mineral oil is soluble in drycleaning solvent, so it will flush out on the board or during recleaning.
Wet agents such as tannin removers don’t mix with oily solvents such as mineral oil, so sizing rings won’t form. This procedure is very effective in preventing sizing rings, but also limits the size of the wet area to which you apply the wet agents.The Unsmart Chart. One reason some stains are so difficult to remove is the pretreatment consumers have attempted. Some of the so-called solutions offered in consumer literature do more harm than good. Ask the customer, “Have you tried to remove this stain at home?” If “Yes” is the answer, ask what was used. It may help solve the mystery of why a certain stain resists all attempts at removal, while other stains respond well to typical spotting procedures.
One spotting chart that appeared in a family magazine said crayon stains could be removed by placing a towel over the stain and ironing the area with a warm iron. Heat will soften crayon, of course, but permit it to become deeply embedded in the fabric. This sounds like a great method for setting a stain, not to mention making life more difficult for the spotter who attempts removal.
The chart also suggested that grease, oil and butter stains could be removed by softening them with petroleum jelly, wiping them clean and ironing the remaining stain into a paper towel. This is a great way to oxidize and set the original oil stain. Now you know why that “fresh” oil stain on your customer’s dress was so difficult—or impossible—to remove completely.
On the subject of tannin stains, the chart proposed that red wine could be removed by applying white wine. That’s simply a waste of white wine. Many red wines and various grape juices have added vegetable dye or coloring to produce a particular shade desired by the manufacturer. It’s the added coloring that makes some wines almost impossible to remove.
Consumer education is very important. Cleaners must educate counter personnel on the basics of stain removal. Use every opportunity to inform customers about the proper treatment (or non-treatment) of consumer spillage. They will appreciate any information you can supply, and could make stain removal much easier for you and your spotter. Surveys show that drycleaning customers are eager for knowledge about fabricare; you are their best and only resource.
If you find total removal is impossible, talk to the customer when they pick up the order. Tell them you did your best, but some of the stain just refused to separate from the fabric. Now the customer knows you’re aware of the remaining stain, and that it wasn’t overlooked.
That’s important. Once you’ve explained the reasons behind incomplete removal, the customer will accept the item and won’t feel like you’ve failed them. Your frankness will also make it more likely that they won’t complain to their friends and others about the failure, remaining loyal to you and returning often.

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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