Category Archives: Drycleaning

What is “Dry” Cleaning anyway?

Ever Seen the classic Seinfeld episode about drycleaning? Well, there are actually many, but specifically the one on how we all “think this is actually possible”? You gotta see it…

So hilarious! I love watching Seinfeld and the fact that he has so many relatable comic routines based off of drycleaning is just pure awesomeness.

Let’s delve a little into this whole “dry” business and understand where the “dry” comes from as it tends to be quite misleading.  Spoiler: Yes, there are liquids “back there” just not exactly how you think.

Dry cleaning is a method of cleaning garments using non-water-based solvents in order to remove dirt, grease and other stains.  Thus, liquids are used in the dry cleaning process, but they are devoid of any H2O. So the very omition of water (H2O) makes for the “dry” in drycleaning.

The first dry cleaning firm was the firm of Jolly-Belin in the 1840s, whose founder Jean Baptiste Jolly is credited with the accidental discovery of using petroleum-type fluid to clean a greasy fabric.  The story is that Jean Baptiste Jolly, a French dye-works owner, noticed that a tablecloth in his home became cleaner when his housekeeper accidentally spilled kerosene on it.  He soon developed a service to clean other’s clothing in this manner and termed it “nettoyage a sec” or “dry cleaning” in English.

Vintage Laundry Photo

In the early years of dry cleaning, dry cleaners used gasoline and kerosene and other petroleum-based solvents to clean clothes, but concerns over flammability soon marked a change in the industry.  William Joseph Stoddard, a dry cleaner from Atlanta, developed a slightly less flammable alternative called Stoddard solvent.  Unfortunately, these highly flammable petroleum solvents led to many fires and explosions, which in turn resulted in the heavy regulation of dry cleaners.

By the mid 1930s the drycleaning industry adopted tetrachloroethylene or percholoroethylene, which is colloquially called “perc”.  This solvent has proved to be the ideal solvent as far as it being stable, nonflammable, and a gentle yet powerful cleaning solvent for removing stains from garments.

Technology has afforded the drycleaning industry with immense progress in the efforts of “going green” and moving away from the widely used Perc solvent.  Solvents known as K4 & Green Earth as well as creating a “wet” cleaning (using H2O) for dry clean only garments without shrinkage or damage.

Perc continues to be widely used though because it’s just so darn effective.  It removes grease and other non-water-soluble stains very easily and leaves garments feeling super soft.

The mark of a responsible and eco-conscious drycleaner that uses Percholoroethylene is to check their dry clean machines, specifically where one should see the clean Perc solvent about to be injected into the cleaning cycle.  Clean, properly cared for Perc should look like champagne, NOT dark and sludgy looking.  So challenge your drycleaner and ask for a tour of their drycleaning plant and ask what solvent(s) they use to clean and where it is so you can take a look-see.

If it is a dark color or pitch black, bring this up to the owner and/or management because they’re unfortunately reusing their solvent over and over again and not filtering it properly (and probably not disposing of it properly either).  You may be sending your clothes to be cleaned in dirty solvent.  Yuck! So yes, ask your drycleaner to take a look at their dryclean machines there is absolutely nothing wrong with knowing “what’s under the hood.”