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‘Spotting’ Indian Summer (Part 1)

Tackling those ‘left-behind’ stains: Caramelized sugar and oxidized oil

CONCORD, N.C. — The summer heat has faded and the leaves are giving us a backdrop of orange, gold and yellow.

The mornings are brisk and your drycleaning customer are breaking out those sweaters and jackets that were put away last spring.

Any stains left behind are now a major undertaking, due to time and heat “setting” the stain.

Does your business model include taking the time to pre-spot and post-spot a garment to impress a short-sighted customer who thought putting away a sweater for the season, without cleaning the sweater first, was a way to save money on cleaning?

Based solely on my experience, I want to throw out some estimated failure rates contrasting stains that are four weeks old verses stains that are less than 48 hours old.

After as much as four weeks, you will find less than satisfactory stain removal in a silk garment about 60% of the time.

In rayon, the rate of unsatisfactory stain removal after the time period is about 50%, or half the time. In cotton, the rate appears to be 33%, while a poly/cotton blend is around 25%, or about the same as wool.

Acrylic appears to provide unsatisfactory stain removal after the four weeks about 20% of the time, and polyester seems to do best, at a 10% rate of unsatisfactory stain removal.

The numbers are not scientific, by far, but they are grounded in the fact that older stains are progressively more difficult to remove. As you can see from the numbers, natural fibers are less responsive after time. Also, the darker the color, the more easily it is chafed.


Caramelized sugar and oxidized oil are the most common “aged stains” encountered by a cleaner/spotter. They are also at opposite ends of the scale when it comes to removal.

Caramelized sugar is the result of allowing a substance containing sugar to remain in contact with a garment for an extended period of time. A common example is a clear soft-drink stain that goes unnoticed.

As time goes by, the sugar will begin turning dark, much like a half-eaten apple left on a counter. The good news is the stain is easily removed by applying neutral synthetic detergent (NSD) and flushing with steam.

The hot steam will solubilize the sugar and carry it away through the vacuum nose of the spotting board. The stain will have a distinct outline and will immediately respond to the stain removal process.

Oxidized oil, on the other hand, is one of the most difficult stains to remove. It is often confused with caramelized sugar. But upon close inspection, the cleaner/spotter will notice that there is discoloration that has “wicked” its way along the yarns to form a noticeable cross pattern along the outer edge of the stained area.

This cross pattern is what sets this stain apart and makes the identification of oxidized oil relatively routine. Satisfactory removal of oxidized oil is both difficult and time-consuming.

Place the garment over the solid portion of the spotting board and apply a general pre-spotter/leveling agent.

Allow this mixture to penetrate and soften the stain for about two minutes while you are spotting other items. After a couple of minutes, tamp the stain with your spotting brush to further break down the stain.

Apply an oily-type paint remover to the stained area and tamp again. This will lubricate the oil to assist in removal. Flush the area again with the general pre-spotter/leveling agent, then clean as usual.

The number of attempts you make at removing oxidized oil is only limited by your patience and the commitment to supplemental stain removal contained in your business model.

Check back Thursday for the conclusion.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].