Nonprofit consumer group Washington Consumers' Checkbook's ratings of hundreds of area dry cleaners can help you identify shops that will do a great job cleaning your wardrobe without also cleaning out your wallet. For the next month, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area dry cleaners to Washington Post readers at this link: checkbook.org/washingtonpost/drycleaners.
In surveys of area consumers, many of the dry cleaners that Checkbook evaluated were rated "superior" overall by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers, while others received that rating from fewer than half of their surveyed customers.
You can conduct your own quality checks when trying out dry-cleaning shops:
•When you drop off garments, do clerks inquire about stains and note information you provide?
•Do staffers provide coherent answers to your questions about whether a stain will come out?
•Are your clothes ready when promised?
•Do the garments look and smell clean?
•Were the clothes pressed properly? One of the most common complaints that Checkbook receives from dry-cleaning customers is that shops sloppily press garments, leaving "double creases" and crushing or losing buttons.
•Does the dry cleaner have an efficient system for locating your garments when you pick them up?
Checkbook's evaluations of local shops also include price, which was calculated based on prices quoted to its undercover shoppers who checked costs to clean 12 items.
Checkbook's shoppers found huge shop-to-shop price variation. For example:
•To dry-clean a woman's cashmere overcoat, prices ranged from $2.19 to $30.
•To dry-clean a man's two-piece wool suit, the range was from $1.99 to $49.
•To dry-clean a woman's silk blouse, the range was from $1.99 to $39.
•To launder a man's cotton dress shirt, the range was from 99 cents to $5.95.
Fortunately, you don't have to pay a high price to get high-quality work. Checkbook found no correlation between price and customer satisfaction. Shops that charge low prices are just as likely to do great work as shops that charge high prices.
In addition to using a low-cost company, you can save money by cleaning many garments yourself. If you learn a few tricks, you can DIY some of your dry cleaning.
Start by closely reading the care label. Most clothing manufacturers aren't required to list more than one way to clean a garment. If the tag reads "dry-clean only," respect that. If it merely says "dry-clean," that's the recommended cleaning method, but you might be able to clean it yourself. But don't try to wash materials that spot or shrink in water. That includes silk, acetate, velvet, taffeta and many wool items. On the other hand, you usually can hand-wash or machine-wash cashmere, linen, cotton and polyester. If a garment has a lining or trim, pay special attention to care instructions. Although a tweed exterior is probably good to go for hand-washing, its nylon lining might not be.
Before taking your clothes to be cleaned, check them for stains and empty all the pockets. If there are stains, point them out to the clerk and provide as much information about them as you can. The more the spotter knows about what caused a stain, how long it's been there and what, if anything, you have used to treat it, the better the chances of removing it. Also indicate any hidden spots — particularly sugary spills (soft drinks, white wine, fruit juice). Pin a tag or have a staffer put tape on each stain to ensure that it is given attention.
If there's a problem that you believe the dry cleaner is responsible for, ask to have the work redone; a reputable shop will be happy to redo it for free. If the shop admits an error that resulted in permanent damage to your garment, the shop should give you the price of the garment and waive cleaning charges.
Unfortunately, you can't count on getting the replacement cost for your favorite jacket. According to the Fair Claims Guide published by the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute and widely used by dry cleaners, consumers and mediators, a dry cleaner is obliged to cover the replacement cost of the garment only after adjustment for its condition and based on the unused portion of its life expectancy — for example, two years for a tie or three years for a blouse.
At-home stain solutions
It's tempting to blot, dab, rub or scrub that wine/ketchup/mystery substance you just spilled on your favorite silk dress. But DIY stain removal risks shrinking that expensive sport coat or making the dye bleed on your cashmere sweater. Although it's probably always safer to entrust your best garments to a pro, here are some ways you can try to banish stains yourself.
Be quick: Act immediately to remove as much of the spot as possible. Blot, don't rub, with a white cloth or paper towel.
Read up: Check the garment label; if it says "dry-clean only," get thee to a pro. But if it reads "hand-wash, gentle cycle," do just that, turning your piece inside out first. When you hand-wash, dissolve a small amount of liquid soap in water, then gently push out the water (no wringing or twisting!) and lay the garment out flat on a white towel to air-dry.
Test it first: Before applying commercial stain remover to clothing, test it out on a small, out-of-the-way spot to see whether it works, makes a new stain, etc.
Watch out for fussy fabrics: Some materials — including most silks, velvets and taffetas — spot or shrink when washed in water, so leave them to the dry cleaner. Others, including cashmere, linen, cotton and polyester, can usually be hand- or machine-washed (just check that label). Still, test for colorfastness first.
Tailor the solution to the stain: For non-greaseball stains (ink, soda, wine), soak stained garments in cool water for 30 minutes before washing; for dry-clean-only items, sponge the stain with cool water and, if that fails, work stain remover into the spot and rinse. And if you spilled oil, margarine or wax on a garment, try working detergent into the mess. But you'll often have to resort to a grease solvent. And if the greased-up garment is dry-clean only, let the pros handle it. Dealing with blood? First, treat blood like an ordinary stain; if that fails, try a diluted ammonia solution followed by detergent and water, then rinse with more water.
Try an at-home dry-cleaning kit: Products such as Dryel and Woolite use a stain-removing agent to attack spots and then fabric-freshening sheets that you toss into the dryer with your garments. They do a pretty good job cleaning lightly soiled clothes, but seriously stained things should still go to the cleaner.
Know when to leave it to the pros: Anything lined — your Hugo Boss sport coat, that silk skirt — belongs at the dry cleaner because the exterior fabric and the lining can shrink and pucker strangely if you wash it. Leave leather- or bead-trimmed stuff to the pros, too.
Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. See ratings of area dry cleaners free of charge at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/drycleaners.
More from Lifestyle: