Few people who regularly patronize a dry cleaner haven't at one point experienced the horrors of lambswool that went astray, fringe that became a braid, or a rogue red wine stain that not only refused to disappear, but mysteriously spread.

For those aggrieved customers and the dry cleaners who say such accidents are simply the result of poorly manufactured materials, there is a new and unique method for resolving these disputes.

The Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service and the Metropolitan Dry Cleaners Association joined forces this month for an innovative program that allows consumer disputes to be settled by an arbiter. The program is the first of its kind in the country, officials said.

The idea for the arbitration board began two years ago when Madeleine Greene, a textile expert with the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service, attended a luncheon for area dry cleaners and retailers, which she says erupted in "shouting and accusation" over who was to blame for dry cleaning accidents.

Before this program, a customer's only recourse for damaged clothing or for a lost garment was to take the dry cleaner to small claims court, a difficult and time-consuming process.

"People's emotions and their whole identity are wrapped up in their clothes," said Greene, who will serve as the clothing analyst, umpiring the disputes.

"When a woman has a favorite sweater that her boyfriend loves to see her in, or that she always gets a lot of compliments on, she naturally is going to be very upset if it comes back to her in ruins," Greene said. "And she is going to blame the last person to have his hands on it: the dry cleaner."

The procedure for the new program, which one-third of Montgomery County dry cleaners have joined, is that if a disagreement cannot be resolved at the dry cleaner's establishment, the customer fills out a complaint form obtained from the cleaner.

The complaints are referred to Greene, who evaluates the damage and the circumstances of the case, then makes a recommendation to the dry cleaner, who is bound to honor it. If the dry cleaner is found at fault, the case goes to the county consumer affairs office, which helps the cleaner negotiate the price of the settlement with the customer.

"Everybody wins. We are talking about satisfaction all the way around," Greene said.

Edward Boorstein of Parkway Custom Dry Cleaning in Chevy Chase is equally enthusiastic about the new program.

"No one who has gone to a cleaner hasn't had a problem at some time," he said. From the dry cleaner's perspective, he said, "If you know you have done something wrong, you would be unscrupulous if you didn't make amends.

"But it's better to have someone making the decision who doesn't have the emotional investment in the business."

Greene says that what most people do not realize is that dry cleaners do not have to have a license to practice dry cleaning, only a license to do business.

The only advice she can give to customers about choosing a dry cleaner is: "Look for insignias in the shop that demonstrate professional standing. Ask friends."

It also helps to follow the label on your clothes. Norman Oehlke of the International Fabricare Institute, an industry research group in Silver Spring, says dry cleaners must follow the care instructions on the label, according to Federal Trade Commission regulations. If a customer brings in an item that is supposed to be hand washed, the cleaner cannot dry-clean it, even if the customer insists, he said.

The Fabricare Institute will be one of the resources that Greene will use in determining who is at fault when the beads on your $2,000 dress melt and the black stripe on your sweater "migrates" into the white stripe.

"Clothes leave fingerprints," she said. By examining fabric under a magnifying glass or a microscope, Greene can determine whether colors fade because the manufacturer didn't make the material colorfast, or whether the wrong solvent was used in cleaning it.

"The dry cleaners who have signed onto this program are committed to it," Greene said. "The problems we are going to see will be from either a dry cleaner who has not kept up to date professionally, or a customer who has complicated the problem through improper spot removal."

Since the program was announced by Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer in a news conference July 9, there have been about four cases and a number of calls, but no final judgements. The Drycleaners Association estimates that 3 percent of all problems with drycleaned items need some kind of resolution, and based on those figures, Greene expects to see about a half dozen cases a week.

Most of those cases will be "big ticket items:" designer clothes, wedding dresses, clothes costing several hundred dollars.

Calling it "a marvelous program that will benefit everyone," Kramer said, "It seems like a simple answer to what has been a difficult problem for years. I would hope that other industries would look at this as an example."

Greene thinks that although the arbitration board will be helpful, consumers should learn how to take care of their own clothes.

When Greene offered to set up a clothing care workshop for a prominent local retailer, the retailer's response was: "We're in the business of selling dreams. I'm not sure my clients are interested in that."

Greene's reaction: "I'm not sure that someone who pays $1,500 for a dream doesn't want their dream preserved."