How does Dry Cleaning Work?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Dry cleaning is the happy result of an accidental spill. Jean Baptiste Jolly owned a large scale dyeing company in the mid 19th century. One night in 1855, his maid accidentally overturned his kerosene lamp onto a stained tablecloth. The next morning, he realized that the tablecloth was clean and Jolly quickly decided to capitalize on the concept.

Dry cleaning uses solvents to clean clothes rather than water.
Dry cleaning uses solvents to clean clothes rather than water.

As part of his company, Jolly began offering cleaning services, which he named dry cleaning. This was not because the clothes he cleaned never got wet, but rather because they never got wet with water. Early cleaners included some fairly toxic substances and could be quite dangerous.

For example, Jolly used both gasoline and kerosene in order to cleaning clothing. Later, solvents like trichloroethylene and carbon tetrachloride were used, and they could also have nasty side effects. Since the 1950s, the most commonly used dry cleaning solvent is perchlorethylene, also know as perc.

The way modern dry cleaning works is that clothes are first tagged and pre-treated for any visible stains. They are then placed into a large machine, rather like a large washing machine. The clothes spin in the machine, which also administers up to 200 gallons (757.08 liters) of perc in as little as eight minutes, the typical cycle length. The next machine cycle drains the perc, and spins the clothing.

Most machines also have a heating element, so they are essentially a washer and dryer combined. After the perc is siphoned off, clothes are heated with circulating warm air, so they are dried. Once removed from the machine, the clothing goes through post stain treatment.

In dry cleaning, a good cleaner knows to check the clothes for any remaining stains. These will be treated again with solvent or even water. A service may also perform a little mending of clothes, replacing buttons or sewing up small rips. The clothes are then hung on hangers and bagged with plastic, awaiting pick up from their owners.

Concern in recent years over perc, which is not environmentally friendly, has led to new “green” dry cleaning methods. Instead of perc, some green cleaners have changed to solvents made from carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide can only be in liquid form when exposed to pressure, so the machine must be able to provide a pressurized environment in order for the carbon dioxide to work properly. One type of machine features a pressure chamber and pressure door in order to appropriately clean the clothes.

Green dry cleaning is considered gentler on clothes, and it is also more environmentally sound. With greater interest in environmentally friendly cleaning, green methods may ultimately replace perc.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@lovelife--I tried the home dry cleaning for a while, but it wasn't what I was looking for. They are water based, with a pre-spot treatment that is similar to what you would use when doing your regular laundry.

The ingredients are a pre-treatment stain remover, perfume and an emulsifier. The bag that you put the clothes in, has a steaming effect in the dryer.

Basically you are pre-treating, steaming and perfuming the clothes, any real deep cleaning will need to go the professional green cleaner.

I ended up skipping this step and going straight to the cleaner, as I had an allergic reaction to the perfume.


Does anyone know about the dry cleaning equipment that is made for home use? I was thinking about getting one, but I am not sure if it is considered green or really safe. I can't seem to make sense of the ingredients.


You should not be able to smell the chemical on your clothes. If properly cleaned there should be no odor.

Post your comments
Forgot password?