The vast majority of drycleaners have always cleaned certain types of garments brought to them for professional cleaning and finishing in water. Most often, the decision to clean a garment in water is driven by the instructions on the care label. Up until about 40 years ago, a greater proportion of garments, which today carry a label of "dryclean only", were cleaned in water because the drycleaning processes and detergents in use were not very effective in the removal of water soluble soils and stains. Then, drycleaning processes such as the two-bath charge method were introduced to minimize the amount of wetcleaning because of its high labor intensity and because the new drycleaning processes and detergents offered a much better method of cleaning many garments, while minimizing damage.
Today the role of wetcleaning as an alternative or supplementary cleaning technology in professional fabricare is a matter of dispute between the drycleaning industry and environmentalists. Some dryc!eaners are looking for ways to increase the amount of wetcleaning to respond to concerned environmentalists and certain sectors of government whose theory is that a greater use of water would proportionately reduce the consumption of perc.
This will provide basic information about the fundamental principles of wetcleaning and how those principles affect cleaning process decisions, and will review the issues surrounding increased use of wetcleaning in the fabricare industry. From a technical performance point of view, one can legitimately argue that the search for alternative cleaning methods is not necessary. When done properly, textile cleaning with perc is very efficient and providing it is properly handled, does not cause an undue burden on the environment or risk human health and safety. However, to avoid being caught in a confining paradigm, we should explore alternatives and implement them, providing that they lead to better ways of cleaning garments. A transition to increased amounts of wetcleaning would appear logical only if one assumes that garments can be wetcleaned with acceptable soil removal and no garment damage and if the use and discharge of resulting waste water is environmentally sound.
Fundamental Principles of Wetcleaning:
Water is the 'solvent" used in wetcleaning. Unlike drycleaning solvents which are non-polar and dissolve non-polar substances such as oils, greases and waxes, water is polar and will readily dissolve polar substances such as salts and sugars. Just as in drycleaning, detergents are required for the removal of insoluble soils in the wetcleaning process. Because water is polar it tends to interact with hydrophilic (water-loving) fibers causing swelling and other forms of distortion. If not properly controlled, this could have a detrimental effect on garments. Professional drydeaning evolved because these risks could be avoided.
There are four important variables in wetcleaning:
1.) Mechanical action
As one variable is changed, one or all of the others must also come into play. For example, a reduction in mechanical action may require an increase in time, temperature, or chemistry to achieve the same cleaning results. For water sensitive garments, mechanical action must be lowered to avoid excessive distortion. Increased time and temperature are ill-advised as garments are more likely to become damaged, so the only option would be to change the chemistry, or in other words, the type of process additives used. This appears to be the technical positioning basis of the evolving wetcleaning technology for garments which traditionally are drycleaned.
The limiting factors for wetcleaning are the intrinsic properties of textiles. It is a fact that water swollen textiles do relax and can shrink. If shrinkage of garments exceeds 2%, they will no longer fit well. They can be stretched under wet conditions during finishing, but this step would have to be repeated after each cleaning. This process is also more labor intensive and runs the risk of over-stretching the garment.
Issues Concerning Wetcleaning Viability:
Drycleaners have been successfully wetdeaning a portion of customer's garments for years. However, when considering the integration of additional wetcleaning into the fabricare specialists business, there are some key issues to consider:
1. Care Label Laws: Although many drycleaners are integrating more wetcleaning into their business, present care labeling instructions do not reflect this process option. To wetclean "Dryclean Only" garments would make drycleaners liable for any garment damage due to wetcleaning. The textile and apparel industry are in the process of revising care instructions, however, this requires more testing and time. Until these revisions take place, the choice of wetcleaning a garment labeled "Dryclean Only" will continue to be a risk-filled decision.
2. Increased Labor: As mentioned earlier in this article, drycleaners have tried to minimize wetcleaning over the years because of the high skill and labor involved in finishing the garment after the cleaning. Cleaners who decide to incorporate additional wetcleaning into their business, must consider the additional time and expense of increased finishing time.
3. Education and Skills. If a cleaner begins wetcleaning garments which previously have been drycleaned, the wetcleaning operators and finishers will need to receive additional education and training. The first skill required is identifying whether or not the garment can be wetcleaned. The structure and properties of fibers, yarns, fabrics and colorants ultimately determine which cleaning process is best for them. The professional cleaner must know as much as possible about these factors in order to choose the proper textile cleaning process. The second skill required is determining the correct selection of wetcleaning process variables which most effectively clean the type of garment being processed. The third skill required is finishing the garment effectively using techniques such as stretching to compensate for distortions that often occur in wetcleaning.
4. Process Additives: A professional cleaner is expected to provide high quality fabricare which cannot be duplicated at home. This applies to wetcleaning technology as well, even though this process often occurs in a "home-type" washing machine. In order to offer professional wetcleaning to the consumer, the cleaner must skillfully use products which are purposefully designed for wetcleaning, and allow safe and effective care of all fabrics that should be cleaned in water. The products should help protect the fabric from damage during processing, and deliver a finish that is both desirable and necessary. Ultimately, the products need to help the fabricare professional restore garments to their original "like new condition.
5. Customer Base: The demographics of the cleaner's customer base will affect how much wetcleaning is possible. Plants that service upscale customers report that their wetcleaning levels do not match the higher percentage levels achieved at plants in a lower income area. Tailored or structured garments and high fashion items often have linings, interfacing, trims and other accessories or have complex design features. Damage to these items is less likely to occur in a non-aqueous medium rather than in aqueous cleaning.
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