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What in the World is Dry Cleaning?

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

Even though Dry Cleaning has been around for a really long time (circa 1825), many are still totally clueless as to how it works. Well, we try to answer this question for you here.

Emily had just bought herself a pretty red silk dress from Gucci. She can imagine how she will be the centre of attention during the class reunion in her new new dress. She decided to give it a gentle hand wash before wearing it next Friday. To her horror, the dress is now horribly faded, and had shrunk by at least 2 sizes. What happened?


For the record, dry cleaning is NOT dry. It is a very wet process. Except that there is no water molecule in the cleaning process. Who ever called this cleaning method Dry Cleaning must be trying very hard to differentiate it from washing with water. Chemicals are used as the solvent, instead of water.


Believe it or not, some records of an early form of dry cleaning for delicate garments, like wool, were found in the ruins of Pompeii. People from that era wore a lot of woollen garments, which tended to shrink in water. Therefore, they needed a method of cleaning to prevent shrinkage of their woollen garments.

For the modern method of dry cleaning, it was apparently discovered by accident. Around 1820, someone accidentally spilled some turpentine on a piece of fabric. After the turpentine evaporated, it was noticed that the same spot appeared much cleaner. It wasn't until 1825, when the first commercial dry cleaner opened shop for business in Paris. The shop used a huge tub filled with turpentine to soak garments. The items were mechanically agitated, and them left to dry naturally via evaporation. Over the years, many different forms of solvents besides turpentine were used in the process of dry cleaning. They include gasoline, benzene, kerosene and petroleum.

Since those early days, most machines now use Perchloroethylene, or Perc for short, as the standard solvent for dry cleaning. While it is a highly effective cleaner of fabrics, there are many concerns that it causes harm to the dry cleaning operator. Many manufacturers have been improving on their machines so as to provide a more efficient way to handle Perc as well as offer better protection to the operators. As of now, Perc remains the most popular choice of solvent for dry cleaning companies all over the world.


The fact that water is a fantastic solvent in bringing detergents deep into the fabrics of garments for effective cleaning is actually a double edged sword. The ability of the H2O molecules in penetrating fabric structures allows it to deliver cleaning agents deep into the fibres to effectively extract dirt particles. Unfortunately, many a times, it can also interact with the integrity, look and feel of the same fabric.

This does not happen with dry cleaning. The solvents used in the dry cleaning process do not cause damages to fabric. The structures, look and feel of dry cleaned fabrics generally are able to maintain its integrity. Hence, dry cleaning is the recommended choice of high end fashion designers and manufacturers when it comes to cleaning and caring for garments.

A good example of how dry cleaning does not damage the fabric is a silk blouse. A silk garment is generally able to maintain its structural integrity and colours after the dry cleaning process (unless due to wear and tear from aging). If it had been laundered, the damages will be irreversible.


Given how dry cleaning is able to better clean garments with a lesser risk of damage, it would always make better sense for one to send delicate garments to a professional dry cleaner for cleaning. This will help to ensure that the life span of the fabric is maintained.


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