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The Dry Cleaning Industry of Today

Almost everyone has a dry clean only shirt or other textile that gets taken to the cleaner weekly. But almost no one understands exactly what these dry cleaners do from there.

dry cleaning

Dry cleaning is a nine billion dollar industry, and it could soon enter the private lives of the public. Researchers are pushing to develop an economically efficient personal dry cleaning machine, eliminating the tiresome task of taking clothes to the dry cleaners weekly. To truly understand why this goal is so lofty, readers must understand the complexity that goes into properly dry cleaning clothes, and how dry cleaning is specifically different from a regular wash cycle.

By definition dry cleaning is simply cleaning without water. Whether or not a liquid is used, the process is still called “dry cleaning”. By this definition, the clay-based cleaning methods of the Greeks is dry cleaning. This process was later refined by the Romans who understood that a type of clay called Fuller’s earth was capable of absorbing and removing oil, dirt, and grease. Today clay is never used for modern dry cleaning, but Fuller’s earth face masks are still popular cleanses.

Modern dry cleaning came about in the 1840s in the home of Jean-Baptiste Jolly when his maid knocked a kerosene lamp onto a linen tablecloth. Jolly realized that the spot where the kerosene had touched the textile was significantly cleaner. Thus, modern, liquid solvent-based dry cleaning was born. Jolly quickly implemented this technique in his Paris company named Jolly-Belin. It became the first dry cleaning company in the world. It goes almost without saying that using kerosene, an extremely flammable fuel, is incredibly unsafe for daily use in cleaning. And while kerosene and gasoline methods remained prevalent in the 19th century, the hunt for a safer, more efficient solvent had begun. Today the public has settled on Perchloreoethylene as the safest and most effective solvent, but alternatives like carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons are used.

Different machine types use different solvents, which is a vital consideration when selecting dry cleaning machines. A carbon dioxide solvent is more expensive but gives a deeper clean while a hydrocarbon solvent requires a longer wash cycle. Machines also come in a variety of sizes, sometimes holding over a hundred pounds in a single load. Other important considerations are the energy efficiency and safety of the machines. When purchasing a dry cleaning machine it is important to ensure that the machine meet EPA and ISO standards. Picking an unstable, CFC-based machine that does not meet EPA regulations is simply not worth saving a few hundred dollars. As for the viral, five hundred dollar, personal dry cleaning machine, it is up to readers to decide whether the maintenance and cost is worth the saved trip to the cleaners.

With all of this in mind it is breathtaking to reflect on how civilization has evolved from washing clothes in a river to using high-tech chemical solvents in a combined washer-dryer. The steady development of human techniques never ceases to amaze.


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