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Stu Bloom on Professional Shirt Laundering
By: Stu Bloom
A while back, I came across an article published in the New York Times. The title, “The Life Of The Modern Shirt: A Short One In Laundries,” piqued my interest.
Then I noticed the dateline: August 22, 1895!
Today, we can safely say that, despite all the advances in washer and pressing machine technologies, there appears to have been little improvement in the quality of the delivered product over the past 120 years.
As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Standard Operating Procedures
Truth be told, any ordinary cleaner can “clean and press” a shirt in 3 or 4 hours or less.
It’s a service available at almost any of the 26,000 cleaners in the USA where, typically, the operational norm is get ‘em in, get ‘em out. They’re in by 9:00 and out by 5:00. Picked up on day 1 and delivered on day 3.
But there’s much more to crafting extraordinary shirts than
- scrubbing your collars and cuffs with hard- bristled brushes and collar and cuff solution/detergent,
- jamming them into washer, injecting hot water and harsh, caustic, industrial grade detergents and bleach,
- starching them with synthetic glue,
- banging them out on a series of shirt pressing machines,
- creasing the sleeves, and
- stuffing them in a thin, narrow poly bag or machine folding them.
This is the factory approach to cheap, fabric destroying shirt laundry.
At ordinary cleaners, these shirt travesties are called standard operating procedures.
And the results?
A machine mangled, dishwater dingy, cardboard crusty shirt. That’ll last 25 to 35 cleanings at best before you’re forced to throw them out or consign them to the charity bin.
Symptoms of these crimes of fashion
And what are the symptoms of these crimes of fashion?
- wrinkles and ripples on both sides of the collars and cuffs
- wrinkles and ripples in the pockets, pocket flaps and epaulets
- wrinkles and ripples in the front and sleeve plackets
- collars that are not correctly “broken” at the lower rear (i.e., there is a gap between the lower rear edge of the collar and the collar/back joining seam)
- frayed collar points
- collar stay impressions
- missing and/or bent collar stays
- a triangular-shaped collar (instead of a perfectly rounded collar).
And especially look for…
- collars, cuffs and front plackets that are abrading or fraying prematurely
- puckered side, sleeve and yolk seams
- puckered joins between the body and sleeves of the shirt
- puckered joins between the sleeves and cuffs of the shirt
- wrinkled underarms
- small “pinch marks” in the area where the body meets the sleeves and where the sleeves meet the cuffs
- creased sleeves (often automatically done without a client’s prior approval and without the client being offered the option of a rolled sleeve).
By the way, any cleaner that tells you that they crease the sleeves of your shirts because creased sleeves “look great”, that they crease the sleeves of your shirts to achieve a “look of perfection”, or that they crease the sleeves of your shirts to “give your shirts the focused care that only we can provide” should hire a fiction writer to help them formulate a more believable story.
Fact is, ordinary cleaners automatically crease your sleeves for one reason only: it quickly covers up a whole host of telltale signs that the shirt have been machine pressed at a rate of 40 to 50 (or more) per hour per presser – on a series of machines that have all the subtlety and precision of a sledgehammer and that can best be described as medieval torture for fine shirts.
True quality garment care is all about process, craftsmanship and time.
A skills, judgment and time based process will yield great results; a bang and hang process will yield disastrous results.
It’s just that simple…and just that complicated.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
What are the critical elements of a process that will produce an extraordinary professionally laundered shirt?
I’d submit that there are 7 critical elements:
- Examine and assess
- Soak out oil-based stains
- Soak out soil and water-based stains
- Launder gently and briefly
- Rinse. And starch if required.
- Hand iron
- Inspect and package.
To better understand the process, let’s examine each of these 7 steps using the process we follow at RAVE FabriCARE as a yardstick…
Examine and assess
We start the process by carefully examining each shirt for oil-based stains, soil and water-based stains. And assessing the item’s age, fabric content, dyes, construction and condition, including pre-existing damage and defects.
We also remove all metal and plastic collar stays so your shirts are never laundered and hand ironed with the collar stays still inserted.
This prevents the stays from breaking through the collar fabric, frayed the collar points and those unsightly collar stay impressions.
Soak out oil-based stains
After examination and assessment, we’ll soak your fine shirts in a dermatologically friendly, fabric gentle, environmentally benign dry cleaning fluid for about 15 minutes.
And why do we do this?
Because it’s the only way to safely and gently dissolve oil-based stains – such as body oils, hair oils, creams and lotions as well as greasy food deposits – without resorting to conventional washing techniques that use hot water combined with harsh, caustic, industrial grade detergents and bleaches in a futile attempt to “boil away” these oil-based stains.
And because it’s the only way to ensure that, when your fine shirts are finally hand ironed, those body oils, hair oils, creams and lotions as well as greasy food deposits don’t transform or oxidize through heat into difficult to remove yellow and brown spots.
And the dry cleaning fluid we use?
Siloxane – the same gentle fluid we use to clean “dry clean only” bespoke, made-to-measure, designer, high fashion, specialty, couture and vintage garments.
Fact is, our siloxane dry cleaning fluid is so gentle it’s been used for over 40 years as a base ingredient in many personal care products you drip into your eyes and apply to the most sensitive parts of your skin on a daily basis. Products such as shampoos, antiperspirants, deodorants, moisturizing creams, lipsticks and the like.
So gentle, you can (legally) wash your face and hands in it.
And for those of you who are (occasionally) partial to McDonalds’s french fries, you’ve even digested siloxane on your last visit to the Golden Arches (but that’s a story for another time).
Fact is, siloxane is so benign that, in 2008, the California Air Resources Board, the most stringent environmental safety agency in the country, gave siloxane a clean bill of health, stating that they see no reason to regulate siloxane in any manner whatsoever.
So benign that, in 2012, Environmental Canada, the highly regarded Canadian equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that siloxane is not harmful to the environment in any way and required no regulation of any kind.
Still worried about first soaking your shirts in a dry cleaning fluid to emulsify the oils?
I do understand your apprehension. After all, it’s easy to be confused when so many “experts” offer “shirt care advice” such as this:
It’s amazing that someone can be so eloquent yet, at the same time, be so utterly misinformed.
First, there’s no scientific evidence to support this position. Of course, it’s possible that the author may have some anecdotal evidence based on his personal experience at some ordinary cleaner or may have read something on the internet (“dry cleaning will ruin your shirts”) and then embellished on that “fact”.
But such generalized statements amount to nothing more than hysteria when considered in the context of true quality cleaning.
Second, we don’t soak your shirts in perchloroethylene or perc (Dowper), synthetic petroleum (DF 2000 or EcoSolv) or formaldehyde dibutyl acetal (K4 or Solvon), the dry cleaning solvent of choice for 95% of all cleaners.
Now you know why soaking to remove oil-based stains is so critical.
Soak out soil and water-based stains
So far we’ve dissolved the oil-based stains.
Next, we soak your fine shirts in special water-based solutions to relax/open the fibers and release soil and water-based stains. For a minimum of 8 hours. 12 hours for shirts with french cuffs.
Why is soaking critical to the stain removal process?
For 3 reasons:
- Conventional washing techniques involve tumbling your fine shirts in a washer wheel in a mix of hot water, harsh, caustic, industrial grade detergents and bleaches. High thread count shirts are sensitive to hot water, harsh, caustic industrial grade detergents and bleaches.
- Conventional washing techniques involve longer wash cycle times (anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes) to allow the hot water, detergents and bleaches to penetrate the fibers and release the soils and water-based stains. High thread count shirts are sensitive to long wash cycles.
- Conventional washing techniques involve high temperatures and bleaches. High thread count shirts are sensitive to high temperatures and bleaches.
In summary, conventional washing techniques involve washing your fine shirts in hot water, harsh, caustic, industrial grade detergents and bleaches for an extended period of time.
All no no’s.
But don’t take our word for it.
Alexander Kabbaz, a world-renowned bespoke shirt maker, offers this care tip on his website:
Now you know why soaking to remove soil and water-based stains is critical.
A word of warning: A number of cleaners have picked up on the idea that soaking your shirts has merit.
This begs the question: Is soaking an integral part of their cleaning process, or is the claim to soaking merely another marketing gimmick designed to differentiate their shirt laundry from the competition?
Here’s what I don’t understand: How can these cleaners continue to deliver this added, labor-intensive process while charging only $1.50, $2.50, $3.50 or $4.50 per shirt for same day or next day service?
Either they’re uniquely brilliant or they’re bluffing. My money’s on the bluffing.
Launder gently and briefly
After soaking, we gently launder your fine shirts in specialized, computer-controlled wet cleaning machines, where microprocessors control water temperature, water levels, and speeds of the washer, rinses and extracts to exacting specifications.
Here’s a little more information on this subject:
- Pre-softened water
- Cold to cool water
There’s no need to wash in hot water because the prior soakings have already removed all the oil- and water-based stains that can possibly be removed.
Aside: Please remember that we are based in Arizona. The outdoor temperature is cool to warm in the winter and hot in the summer. So the temperature of the incoming water is cold to cool, depending on the time of year.
- 5 minute wash
Again, there’s no need to wash for an extended period of time – say 30 to 45 minutes – because the prior soakings have already removed all the oil- and water-based stains that can possibly be removed.
- Enzyme detergents
Our Sanitone enzyme detergent is
— pH balanced. So your fine shirts will have a pH close to that of human skin. This makes them hypoallergenic.
— Fragrance and perfume free. So its suitable for those who are sensitive to fragrances and perfumes.
— Phosphate free. So it’s biodegradable.
- No bleaches
- No fabric softeners
- No washer overloads
- Shirts only
Rinse. Then starch if required.
After laundering, we rinse your fine shirts multiple times in cold water (during the winter months) or cool water (during the summer months). This ensures that they’re free from any possible irritating chemical residues.
After rinsing, we’ll starch your shirts to your personal preference using the finest, natural wheat starch for a smooth, even application.
Why wheat starch?
Because wheat starch will completely dissolve the moment it comes into contact with water – every time the shirt is soaked or laundered.
At RAVE FabriCARE, we don’t use cheap, synthetic starches (poly vinyl acetate commonly known as PVA) or synthetic blended starches (PVA and vegetable) which adhere to your shirt’s fibers like a coat of paint (think Elmer’s Glue).
Every time your shirts are starched, another “coat” is added. Soon, they begin to walk by themselves!
The use of synthetic starches has another disadvantage.
Because synthetic starch builds up on your shirt fibers and does not dissolve instantly on contact with water and because conventional washing techniques typically involves a 30 to 45 minute tumbling in a shirt washer, your shirts – particularly your collars and cuffs – will abrade fairly rapidly.
Oh, one more thing about your personal starch preference.
Please remember that different cottons and cotton blends natural absorb wheat (and corn) starch differently.
A light starch on one type and weave of cotton might be completely inappropriate on another type and weave of cotton. As a general rule, a thicker cotton will absorb more starch than a thinner cotton. A light starch applied to a single ply oxford cloth shirt will feel heavier than a light starch applied to an Italian bespoke shirt constructed of Egyptian cotton loomed at a reputable Swiss mill.
Common sense should prevail when one level of starch is applied across the board to all your cotton shirts.
As for the level of starch, RAVE fabriCARE only offer two levels – none and light.
If you request medium starch, we’ll have to have a conversation.
And, if you request heavy starch, well, that requires a serious discussion. And we might even reject your request, particularly if the shirt can be categorized as “high quality” based on brand name alone.
After laundering and starching (if required), we’ll steam out your shirts to relax the fibers and then hand iron them to perfection. Paying particular attention to the collars, cuffs, front and sleeve plackets, side and sleeve seams, underarms, body to sleeve seams, sleeve to cuff seams, pockets and epaulets.
Now, some ordinary cleaners and wannabe cleaners claim that they routinely hand iron all their laundered shirts. As a matter of routine.
Can this be true?
Of course it’s not true.
For example, show me a cleaner among the 400+ cleaners in the metro Phoenix area that routinely hand irons all their laundered shirts and I’ll show you pigs that fly and jaybirds that wear derby hats!
By way of background, here’s what happens to your laundered shirts – even at the so-called “better cleaners” or the self-styled “couture care specialists”…..
- Your shirt is laundered using conventional washing techniques – scrubbing, hot water, harsh, caustic, industrial grade detergents and bleaches.
- Next, your shirt is pressed on a series of machines that have all the precision of a sledgehammer: one for the body, one for the sleeves and one for the collar and cuffs. Typically, at the rate of 40 to 50 per hour (or more depending on the type of press).
- Then, your shirt is “strategically touched up” by hand. If there’s time. If deemed necessary. If you’re lucky. And then, typically, only on the sleeves and underarms.
- Finally, the sleeves of your shirt are pressed flat and creased.
This is the shirt that’s passed off to customers as a hand ironed laundered shirt.
Unfortunately, a 1 to 2 minute machine pressed, touched up laundered shirt – aka a hand finished laundered shirt – is not a 8 to 12 minute hand ironed laundered shirt.
To qualify as a hand ironed laundered shirt, the shirt must be PARTIALLY steamed by machine and then COMPLETELY pressed by hand. That’s a hand ironed laundered shirt.
Not COMPLETELY pressed by machine and then PARTIALLY touched up by hand. That’s a machine pressed, hand touched up laundered shirt, aka a hand finished laundered shirt.
At RAVE FabriCARE, every laundered shirt is hand ironed. As a matter of routine. Not machine pressed and then strategically “touched up…if there’s time…if deemed necessary…if you’re lucky.
A true quality shirt laundry would never pass off a machine pressed, touched up laundered shirt – aka a hand finished laundered shirt – as a hand ironed laundered shirt in the hope that you’d never know the difference between a $2/$3 machine pressed, touched up laundered shirt – aka a hand finished laundered shirt – as a $8/$10 hand ironed laundered shirt.
Why do ordinary cleaners pass off a machine pressed, touched up laundered shirt – aka a hand finished laundered shirt – as a hand ironed shirt?
To minimize labor and maximize profit, of course.
And how do they get away with this?
They count on you not understanding the process that produces an extraordinary laundered shirt and never figuring out the difference between a $2 to $3 machine pressed, touched up laundered shirt – aka a hand finished shirt – and a $8 to $10 hand ironed laundered shirt.
A reasonable person might even call this approach bait and switch.
No discussion about hand ironing would be complete without addressing the issue of creased sleeves.
Let’s be blunt: Creased sleeves on a long sleeved laundered (or dry cleaned) shirt is nothing more than shirt laundry malpractice.
At RAVE FabriCARE, we’d never, ever crease your sleeves from the shoulder to the cuff. Unless, of course, you specifically request us to do so. And then only after we try to convince you otherwise.
Why no creases?
Because a rolled sleeve (aka an uncreased sleeve) is the first sign amongst many other factors, that your shirt has been hand ironed to perfection. And because the manufacturer of fine shirts never intended that the sleeves of their fine shirts ever be creased.
After all, if that was their intention, wouldn’t your new shirts arrive with creased sleeves right out of their original packaging?
One more point about creased sleeves: If you own any of those formaldehyde coated monstrosities euphemistically called “non-iron” shirts, and any of those shirts were “processed” by a cleaner who automatically creases the sleeves of all their laundered shirts, those creases are now permanent and cannot be removed.
There’s no fix for this problem. Even if you use a spray starch and apply significant pressure with a hand iron.
In such cases, we have no option other than to return those shirts to you with creased sleeves.
Inspect and package
After hand ironing, we carefully inspect each shirt – individually. From top to bottom. Inside and out.
We replace missing buttons and reinforce loose buttons. We even replace chipped buttons with a complete set of new buttons, if requested.
We replace all collar stays. And, if the original collar stays are missing or bent, we replace those stays with a new set of stays that are sized to match your collar stay pockets (unless you have specifically requested not to insert new collar stays). At RAVE FabriCARE, we offer 6 different sizes of collar stays to perfectly fit your collar stay pockets.
We repair all open seams.
Finally, your shirts are packaged one shirt to an extra wide poly bag.
If you travel frequently, like to stack your shirts vertically on shelves, or are short on closet hanging space, you might ask your cleaner to “box” or “fold” your shirts.
However, when you open the packaging your shirts look like a rumpled, slept-in mess.
For 3 reasons:
- They’re machine pressed
- They’re machine folded
- They’re stuffed into a thin, narrow poly bag.
Here’s one more reason: the cleaner has prior knowledge that the shirt will be folded. So why bother with a “proper” pressing (as they might define it) when they know that the subsequent folding will destroy the “pressing” anyhow?
Given this situation, how do you maintain the pristine condition of your shirts and avoid that rumpled, slept-in look typically associated with folded shirts from an ordinary cleaner?
The answer is simple: a hand folded, air cushioned shirt.
At RAVE FabriCARE, we’ll carefully …..
- fold your shirt in half. Not in thirds, like ordinary cleaners.
- fold your shirt by hand. Never by machine, like ordinary cleaners.
- cushion the folds with sheets of acid-free tissue.
- support the body and collar with a stiff shirt board and collar band
- seal the shirt in a heavy gauge shirt bag with a “built in” cushion of air.
At RAVE FabriCARE, we introduced a variation of our hand folded, air cushioned shirt: We offer a “short folded shirt” designed to fit the depth of your cabinetry. “Short folded shirts” have to be folded in thirds. Just specify the maximum length of the poly bag and we’ll accommodate your needs. Same folding process; shorter poly bag.
So go ahead. Manhandle your folded shirts. Stuff ‘em in that suitcase. You’ll find that the RAVE FabriCARE folded shirt travels beautifully. With practically no wrinkles or creases when the package is opened up.
Fact is, if you travel frequently, your hand folded, air cushioned shirts will arrive at their destination in far better condition than shirts that are gently carried in a garment bag.
All shirts that are requested to be folded or that arrive at RAVE FabriCARE through our Nationwide Clean By Mail service are always folded and returned in this manner.
Here’s the takeaway from this White Paper: True quality shirt care is all about process and craftsmanship – process and craftsmanship that’s practiced every day on each and every shirt.
Not process and craftsmanship that exists only in the imagination of some cleaners and is repeated on their websites, on their social media and in their newsletters as if it were fact and truth.
With a good eye, an inquisitive mind and a little practice, it’s quite easy to separate fact from fiction. Hopefully, this White Paper has provided you with the ammunition necessary to do just that.
So don’t be shy. Ask the probing questions. Insist on straight answers. And invest some time assessing the “truthfulness” of those responses.
Your image and your fine shirts will love you for that.
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