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How Often Should You Be Dry Cleaning Your Garments?

canvas dry cleaning fusible garment care sport coat suit

The last several blog posts have focused on jacket construction – this time I’m concentrating on garment care, since the two are intrinsically connected when it comes to longevity.

Garment care is multifaceted, but the largest issues I encounter surround a general misunderstanding of dry cleaning – particularly why a garment should be cleaned.

What is dry cleaning and why should I have a garment professionally cleaned?In an age where men don't get dressed up for formal occasions, it's hard to believe they used to wear suits for manual labor.

To understand why, it is important to understand what dry cleaning is exactly. Most people know that woolen goods generally can’t be laundered or dried. Tumbling in water will destroy the guts of a jacket and drying will shrink the wool, so delicate garments need to be dry cleaned – which contrary to the name, is not a dry process.

Dry cleaning a garment entails bathing it in a harsh solvent “liquor”, the most common of which is perchloroethylene (PCE). By definition, solvents are chemical compounds that “dissolve” other compounds. A home washing machine functions much in the same way, employing a very common and harmless solvent – water – to dissolve dirt and grime, aided by a detergent.  After the garment has been bathed in the dry cleaning solvent, it is generally placed on a form and blasted with steam from the inside before being pressed and ironed.

How does cleaning affect my garments?

Though this process might sound benign enough, there are several aspects that are detrimental to a garment:

  1. In addition to removing undesired grease and grime, solvents will also strip the wool of its naturally occurring lanolin, which is a beneficial waxy compound that aids in water resistance, durability, and luster of the fabric
  2. Coupled with the use of solvents, the extreme heat employed in the pressing/ironing process can flatten the fabric and contribute to the unsightly “shining” effect that can sometimes be seen on suits and sport coats. Fabric shine is generally most noticeable on the inside of sleeves and around the jacket pocket, where the swinging of the arms contributes to the shininess by essentially buffing the fabric.

The dry cleaning process is especially damaging to fused suits, since the solvent dissolves the resin glues and the heat causes them to return to a sticky state, which results in delamination  – an undesirable condition where the fabric and the fusing separate and cause bubbles or puckering that is noticeable on the outside of the jacket.

When people lament that their garments don’t last very long, I make a point of asking how often they are taking them to cleaners. From my completely anecdotal survey, it seems like the people that have their garments cleaned the most frequently are getting the least wear out of them. If your suits are getting shiny or blowing out at the elbows in a couple of years under moderate use, it is quite likely that you are getting them cleaned too often.

When should I have my garments cleaned?

So if dry cleaning is bad for a garment, should it be avoided altogether? My advice is to only take it to the cleaners if you have to – specifically if it’s dirty, smelly, or stained. For most people, I’d assume that this is somewhat rare. Wool is not like the cotton used in denim or chinos and does not absorb dirt and odor in the same way. Moisture is not retained for very long in wool, so even on a balmy summer day, a jacket should air out without much lingering smell (assuming the wearer uses deodorant). Consider an undershirt as an extra layer of protection if you’re particularly sweaty.

Though dirtiness and smell are really the only grounds for cleaning, I find that there are a couple of other reasons that people bring their clothes to the cleaners:

  1. The garment is wrinkled from travel or general use - well it’s true that you don’t want to wear a wrinkled suit, dry cleaning is unnecessary in this situation. The suits and sport coats that I carry at the store come boxed from Italy, so naturally they are quite wrinkled when I receive them. I’d say over 90% will return back to their original non-wrinkled state in a matter of hours. Some fabrics are more wrinkle prone and will require steaming. However, pressing with a hot iron (vs. steaming without contact) should be avoided unless necessary. Steam is delicate, but ironing is damaging to the fibers and is a major cause of shining. Ironing is required to properly crease a pant leg and sometimes to flatten jacket pockets, but it is advisable to do this with a damp cloth between the iron and the garment if possible – however, most dry cleaners will not take this step. The majority of modern steamers are compact, inexpensive, and heat up in less than a minute, so consider investing in one if you find your garments are often wrinkled.
  2. It’s been a while – because so many of our other clothing items cannot be worn repeatedly without cleaning (t-shirts, unmentionables, etc), sometimes it feels like a suit or sport coat might be overdue. I fully understand the desire to be clean and hygienic, but consider just a good steaming if you’re worried. When was the last time you deep cleaned your parka or a favorite pair of shoes?

Remember, less is more when it comes to dry cleaning – more longevity from your garments and more hard-earned greenbacks in your pocket.

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