How exactly did the dry clean only label come about? Let’s condense history in to a brief paragraph. Silk has been around for anywhere from 8500 to 5500 years. Silk cocoons have been found in a tomb in Henan province China dated to 6500 BCE with a full bolt of cloth located, also in Henan province, dated to 3500 BCE. Dry cleaning wasn’t invented until 1855 by Jean Baptiste Jolly. So, from 6500 BCE to 1855 CE, water was used to clean silk. Water was still used to clean silk until the advent of the washing machine. How’s that? you ask. A brief story in merchandising.
Major retailers of fine clothing would sell a silk blouse to a lady. Or a silk tie to a gentleman. Then when doing laundry, the silk item would get thrown in with the blue jeans…probably on accident, sorting clothes has been standard process since forever. Whether accidental or on purpose, the result was the same. During spin cycle, the zipper on the blue jeans would catch on the silk, tearing it. This resulted in the blouse or tie being returned to the retailer. Who would accept the return because, <expletive deleted> you Nordstrom and your “Customer is always right” policy.
The retailers were losing scads of money on damaged returns because people weren’t paying attention. So they slapped a dry clean only label on it and made damaged goods the problem of the dry cleaning industry. Fast forward 100 years and everyone is scared to buy or work with silk because it is a dry clean only fabric.
Now let me explain to you why, exactly, except for in rare instances, I would NOT recommend dry cleaning silk fabric. Chemicals. Now, I am not someone to whom the word chemical is a scary thing. I believe dry cleaning is perfectly safe and use the dry cleaner for my wool cloak, and my down comforter, winter jacket. I do not use the dry cleaner for silk because along with any stains, the chemicals will strip the natural luster from silk, resulting in a decided dullness.
“Silk tends to look dull and dingy after several trips to the cleaners. In fact, many silks actually look better and last longer when washed by hand. (Parker, p. 61). How can that be? The Cleaners are supposed to make sure your garments look the best. Except for those chemicals which are actually very harsh solvents which strip fibers of any residual moisture. And as we know…silk loves moisture.
Initially, dry cleaning used petroleum based solvent. Yes…petrol. As in gasoline. However, due to the inability to obtain insurance coverage, what with the combination of highly flammable chemicals stored next to highly flammable fabric which had subsequently been soaked in those chemicals, the Dry Cleaning business does what commerce does best. It innovated. And by the 1930’s, the industry had shifted entirely to tetrachloroethylene, aka perchloroethylene or perc, as it is commonly known.
This was a wholly good thing, as perc is non-flammable, can be used with most fiber types, and is very stable, which means it can be recycled and is better for the environment. And while it’s chemical composition won’t hurt silk, it will dull that luster we all love so much. But for the low low price of $15.99 for Dr. Bronner’s and another $12.49 for the white vinegar to rinse your silk in, you can hand wash all your silk at home. That $28.48 will last FOREVER…well, not literally. But I bought my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s well over a year ago and still have half a bottle left. And white vinegar has other uses than as a silk rinse…it’s an all purpose cleaner!
So save yourself the cost of a dry cleaner and at the same time you will save your silks. Hand wash them at home. You can even machine wash them! Just make sure to separate out the blue jeans first.