Friday, February 22, 2013

Textile Friday: Dry Cleaner Wisdom

               There's few things as wonderful as getting back your mother's wedding dress for your big day or as devastating as having your favorite coat turned to mush. While most of us know how to use a home washer and dryer, we ALL struggle with how best to use our local dry cleaners without feeling scammed. It's this will we/won't we internal debate on the shop racks in stores, unpacking attic treasures, or snuggling our favorite sweater. While I won't claim to be an expert on dry cleaners, I can help simplify how and why to use your local dry cleaners having free-lanced behind the scenes when I was starting out. This is a quick and dirty user guide for you, my customer, not the nitty gritty html code to set-up your own shop. It wouldn't be fair the the local businesses in the area I respect to give away their secrets. Oh, and if you're curious, based on what I've seen, Medlin-Davis is my vote from a behind the scenes perspective having both moonlighted there in alterations briefly and used them for over 25 years as a favorite family destination. Their shop was featured on How Stuff Works (and yes, that's what a real dry cleaners looks like behind the scenes). I've got years of my Dad being addicted to these guys, they do a great dress shirt week after year after decade. Plan to keep using these guys for another 25 years, no questions asked as I've kicked their machines around and bothered their staff enough to know they're the real deal. I will also mention H2O Only as some tailors in the area swear by them for delicate or sensitive pieces, but no personal knowledge. Enough about specific cleaners in my area, let's go over the basics.
                There are three major reasons most of us go to the dry cleaners:

1.Getting regular clothes cleaned (often service clothes): dress shirts, suits, slacks, service uniforms, sports uniforms, military uniforms, etc. This is primarily cotton clothing which can be pressed, cleaned, and returned in a day or two. Always be sure to ask for wet cleaning and you should be able to get turn around service quickly. Any member of a dry cleaning staff  in a good shop is trained to handle these.

2. Getting annual "dry cleaning" in the spring or special occasion: leather coats, fur coats, wool sweaters, wool anything, bridal cleaning, quilts or bedding, or other unusual requests done in the spring. These are what are called heirloom quality clothing which is made to last your lifetime and possibly your grandchildrens' lifetimes. They usually handled by the shop expert with 20 plus years experience. Normally orders are processed for the week on a Tuesday (when you get the best possible service) so to get these cleaned go in on a Monday or early Tuesday morning. Be pleasant, ask for the specific name of the most experienced person in the shop who normally handles x or y. Make it clear you prefer that person (and make sure the name is written on the ticket!) and say you are comfortable waiting an extra week if necessary to get the job done as the right person is more important than a fast job. This does 2 important things, it puts you in the expert's cue and gives them time to work on your job while recognizing them as a person. In the trades, an artisan is MORE impressed by you bothering to find out their name and asking for THEM as the expert than the money. They'll go a better job, and a week's time allows them to both do a good job and fit you in. Always go in the spring before you do your cleaning and pack away the garments to prevent moths and the winter's grime from setting mold and decay into your clothing. It is easier to get stains out before they have 6 months to set in. Remember, fur needs to be handled by a furrier (it's a different process with different equipment) and CAN NOT be done by a dry cleaners, no matter what they say it's a lie if someone tells you they can. I've worked for both dry cleaners and furrier, trust me. I've seen enough melted coats and $10,000 fur coats reduce to piles of slime to know what I'm talking about here. And I don't make a dollar off telling you this hard truth so please please please trust me here on this.

3. Basic tailoring and alterations repairs. These are generally simple repairs that your local tailor can, but often dry cleaners will hire a receptionist who doubles as a seamstress in the front to supplement the shop income and does repairs while she waits. If there's sewing equipment up front that the receptionist uses (may have a curtained changing room off to the side), chances are good you can reasonably have buttons sewn back on, pants hemmed, or minor rips repaired. However, if it's not listed on the counter behind the shop, take it to an actual tailor. This is a good way get sewing done for you at a reasonable price as the shop is discounting your overall price since they already pay the receptionist for her time.

                      Now, wet cleaning. Any reputable dry cleaner anywhere in the world uses what is called "wet cleaning" now in which they actually wash your clothes, they are then manually pressed in machines like the videos I uploaded (I could see these in my sleep). REAL dry cleaners require elbow grease and a fair amount of work to get your clothes clean. They will also often be humid or moist when you walk in the front door from all the work going on behind the scenes. The various machines are expensive, require up front cash outlays, and often result in tiered pricing for womens and mens as men's shirt pressing machines are common and less expensive.
              Now, having walked you through good dry cleaners and how to use them, let me make you aware of the oldest scam in the books which has been written about for hundreds of years besides prostitution. I say this not because all dry cleaners are scam artists, but about half of them are honest hard working people who care about you and have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and labor to save you, and the other half are lazy scam artists trying to make a fast buck with what I call the "Febreeze Scam." It drives me nuts. Most of us have fallen pry to it including yours truly at one time or another. And it's been around for so long because it works as a con. Basically like the name implies, instead of honestly taking your money and doing the work to clean your clothes, the person behind the counter takes your clothing and Febreezes it by hanging it up somewhere and squirting chemicals all over it to give it the appearance and smell of having been cleaned without the actual work. Big tips offs for this include: 1 set price instead of various prices to reflect different labor and machine costs, "We use a new 'dry process' dry cleaning method.", and "Oh yes, we do everything here" bullshit. Real shops with real equipment have various prices, methods, and often turn around times. We all know Febreeze takes an hour to dry and costs $3.00 for a big bottle. Use your brain people.
               The Chinese have taken this to a whole art form in the 1990s with cheap caustic chemicals designed to work like Febreeze on crack, and they are the primary source of "Oh, your shirt, jacket, insert random item here MELTED in the cycle."  If you ever had this happen to you, chances are high you were being scammed in more ways than one. However, to be fair, they weren't the first. The French probably started it with their perfume. Every age seems to have a different name and product for the same scam. So protect yourself. Do the research, go get your stuff wet cleaned at a reputable cleaners, don't settle for anything else or you've wasted your money better spent on Febreeze or saving up until you can actually use a real dry cleaners.
                On a side note for finding the best dry cleaners in town without doing a lot of leg work, if you are new to a city besides Raleigh (I already told you were the best ones where here) and want to make sure you aren't being scammed, go to the nicest hotel in town you can afford dressed professionally (normally 2 star hotel or better) on a Tuesday afternoon/evening. All better hotels generally have an internal dry cleaning departments for guests, but out-source their employee uniforms to the best local dry cleaners as they are not as time sensitive or profitable. However, the cleaning staff is fanatical about getting their employees the best quality goods in town so they will RELENTLESSLY do all the footwork for you and are knowledgeable enough not to be scammed without you ever having to lose sleep over the matter. Take advantage of their brains by stopping by the bar to buy a drink (You can do this even if you are local) and compliment the most experienced barman on his uniform. I mean he's wearing what you're looking for and ask him where he gets it done. Dry cleaning for the week is normally dropped off on Monday or Tuesday so he may still even have the ticket on him. If he can't tell you that Tuesday, leave a $20 TIP and go back the next week. Chances are he will know then. Do not waste your time asking the front desk, bellboy, or concierge, they are trained not to tell you as it goes against their bottomline. The local barman knows you might come in to buy drinks even if you live in town and share the same cleaners.
                 There my customer, the best wisdom and protection I can give you about how to use your dry cleaner to make your clothes last longer and end up the right side at the end. Happy Friday! May your clothes always be shiny.

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