One realization can take the typical drudgery of laundry day from bad to worse: That dress or shirt you just bought is dry clean only.
You might be tempted to throw that piece of clothing in with your whites or colours and hope for the best. But are you going to end up with a sweater that fits your Pomeranian puppy better than an adult human?
Dry cleaning your clothing adds one more step to your busy to-do list, and the costs can add up quickly.
"If you spend $100 on a coat, and then 20 bucks every time you get your coat cleaned after five dry cleans you've already spent as much as you spent on the coat," said Jeanne James, a fashion design instructor at Kent State University. "It's kind of crazy."
But the need to dry clean is a reality for many people.
Let's take a look at why clothing gets labelled "dry clean only" in the first place, and what you can do to reduce some of those pesky dry-cleaning costs.
Who Decides Whether Clothing Is Dry Clean Only, Anyway?
When a brand produces a piece of clothing, it only has to list one reliable way of cleaning it, according to textiles expert Deborah Young. It doesn't have to list every way.
That's why you often see items labelled "dry clean only" or "hand-wash only." A company doesn't want to deal with complaints if a garment doesn't hold up in your usual washing machine cycle.
When you're checking care labels at your favourite store, take a closer look at the fabrics listed. The more absorbent fibre is, the more it will shrink, Young said.
Wool, rayon and cotton are the most shrink-prone fabrics, in that order, she explained. We accept a certain amount of shrinkage for some products. "We know a cotton T-shirt will shrink more than jeans, but we tolerate it and buy a size bigger," Young said.
Knowing which fabrics are likely to shrink can help you make better buying decisions.
But what about when fibres get mixed together? That's where science gets interesting.
When you have a garment made from a mix of fabrics, you increase the likelihood that something's going to go horribly wrong if you slam dunk it into the washing machine without a second glance.
Take, for example, a cotton jacket with polyester lining. Cotton is more likely to shrink than polyester, so you might discover that the outer shell of the jacket shrinks. If you've ever seen a jacket where the lining peeks out past the bottom hem, it's because the wearer washed it in warm water or put it through the dryer.
Blended fabrics are different from simply having two fabrics near each other. Intimate blends, as they're called, are more durable if you wash them at home.
"Polyester acts as a babysitter to cotton," Young said. "Poly-cotton doesn't shrink."
Average Dry Cleaning Prices by Item
Since every dry cleaner charges different prices, it can be difficult to budget for dry cleaning services. We've compiled average dry cleaning prices from dry cleaners across the country, including cleaners in New York, California, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Florida. We calculated prices using the largest garment or item in a category — for example, a king-size comforter and a three-piece suit.
Keep in mind these numbers are used to determine the average starting prices. Your final price may vary significantly depending on the type of garment and any premium services or upgrades you choose, such as hand finishing or repair. Some dry cleaners set prices with a flat fee per pound, regardless of the type of garment. Below, we explain how much you can expect to pay to get the following items dry cleaned:
Average cost: About $3.75, without hand-pressing
Cost factors: The cost can increase by a few dollars if you choose to have the shirt hand-pressed after cleaning. If you need minor repairs, such as sewing on a button or stitching up a small hole, the dry cleaner will charge an extra fee.
Average cost: About $7.45
Cost factors: The type of material can affect the cost of dry cleaning a pair of paints; for example, leather pants will cost more to clean than linen pants.
Average cost: About $10 to $18
Cost factors: The type of material and dress length are the two major factors that affect the price of dry cleaning a dress; for example, a formal silk or chiffon gown will cost more to dry clean than a casual linen dress.
Average cost: About $15.15
Cost factors: The type of material can affect the cost of dry cleaning a suit; for example, a wool suit will cost more to dry clean than a polyester suit.
Average cost: About $13 to $25
Cost factors: The cost to dry clean a coat will largely depend on the type of coat; for example, a leather coat will cost more to dry clean than a wool coat.
Note: While most coat dry cleaning prices will fall within the range above, notable exceptions are luxury down jackets from brands like Canada Goose and Moncler. Depending on the length and whether or not the coat has a fur hood, dry cleaning, one of these coats can cost anywhere from $80 to $100.
Average cost: About $250 to $500 or more
Cost factors: Many dry cleaners do not offer in-house wedding dress cleaning services because the fabric is so delicate. They may refer you to another vendor that specializes in cleaning and preserving wedding dresses. These companies usually offer complete package services that include cleaning, preservation, home delivery of your dress, and minor alterations or repairs. Still, most dry cleaners will accept orders to dry clean a gown or other special occasion dress.
Average cost: About $30 to $40
Cost factors: The cost to dry clean a comforter can vary by the material; for example, a cotton comforter will cost less to clean than a down comforter.
Average cost: About $17 per panel
Cost factors: Dry cleaning prices for draperies are often calculated by the foot. However, the material may also play a part in the overall price. For example, silk draperies will cost more to dry clean than linen ones.
A Few Fabrics to Clean With Caution
Here are some fabrics you probably have in your closet that may need extra attention.
If you wash wool garments at home, do so by hand in cold water. The agitation from a washing machine can cause the wool to shrink as heat does. Dry wool items flat on a laundry rack.
Treat your sweaters extra nicely by washing them by hand in sheep shampoo, available at farm supply stores. The pH balance in this specialty shampoo cleans the wool fibres without damaging them.
One exception here is a treated version called "washable wool." If the label specifies that it's washable, go ahead and throw it in the machine.
Silk is often washable but tends to hold water spots. If you get a stain on a silk blouse, you can't just wash out the stain — you have to clean the whole garment, James warned. Wash it by hand or in the delicate cycle.
Young agreed. "Silk is a little finicky," she said. Acetate often hides in the lining of clothing. "Acetate is not something you can ever wash," James said. "It will definitely fall apart."
For that, it's time for a trip to the dry cleaner.
The Dry Cleaning Process
Unlike regular garment cleaning that involves using soap, chemicals, and water to remove stains and freshen up clothing, dry cleaning is a cleaning process that only uses a chemical solvent without water to clean garments and household items. Solvents like benzene, camphene, gasoline, and kerosene may be used in a dry cleaning machine to circulate the solvent into the machine as the garments are rotated on a cylinder or large wheel. (Note: Some dry cleaners have made the switch to more eco-friendly chemicals and solvents, which will cost slightly more than traditional chemicals.)
The solvent is then extracted from the garments, and the garments are transferred to a separate dryer or dried in the dry cleaning machine. The warm air during the drying process vaporizes any solvent left in the material, and the solvent is then purified through a heating process before being pumped back into a holding tank.
Generally, items that need to be dry cleaned are ones made of a material that can be damaged by the water or heat from traditional washers and dryers. Dry cleaning can also remove stains better than traditional washing.
Wait, Back-Up. Can You Explain How Dry Cleaning Works?
There's nothing actually "dry" about it.
Instead of using water, dry-cleaning machines wash big batches of clothes in a solvent. The clothing gets dried in the same machine, at which point the remainder of the solvent evaporates and is collected in its purified state to be reused as a liquid.
After the cleaning cycle, items are pressed with special machines that steam the clothing evenly and quickly.
Wet cleaning exists, too — it's the term cleaners use when caring for garments that break down in solvents and must be washed in water.
Dry cleaning is expensive because it's labour-intensive. In our modern age, it still takes lots of human hands to sort, tag, inspect, press and transport the day's workload. Eco-friendly solvents can increase the price, as can pick up and delivery add-ons or rush orders.
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 the 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?
How to Reduce Your Dry-Cleaning Costs
- Invest in a clothing brush. They cost between $10 and $15, and clean pollen, soot and other dirty particles off suits and outerwear. By brushing occasionally and giving these garments space to air out between uses, you can cut down on dry-cleaning frequency, James said.
- If you're washing suit pieces, whether you're dry cleaning or doing it at home, make sure to wash all related pieces together. Uneven wash frequencies can accelerate fading and wear on some items, while others will still look fresh and new.
- Look for a dry cleaner that has a plant on-site. Since your clothing won't need to be carted to and from the cleaning facility by the cleaner, they'll be able to charge less for the service.
- Take time to point out stains. Cleaners make stain removal look like wizardry, but they can't work their magic unless they're aware of trouble spots.
- Consider at-home dry-cleaning kits. These kits provide a chemically treated sheet that goes into your dryer with the items you want to freshen up. Consider it steam clean for less than $2 per garment. "It's not the same as taking your clothing to the dry cleaner, as the dry cleaner will also press your items," James said. If you're fighting considerable stains, a trip to the cleaner may still be required.
Study Care Labels Before Purchasing Clothes
Clothes sold in the United States are required by law to have a care label that recommends at least one cleaning method. Manufacturers know that some consumers mishandle laundry at home and tend to take a conservative approach and list "Dry Clean Only."
Reading the care label for fabric content is one of the key steps in determining whether an item can be washed at home or must be dry cleaned.
Simple, unlined garments made of natural fibres or polyester can be washed by hand or on the gentle cycle in a washer in cold water. If you are concerned about colour fastness, wet an interior seam with a few drops of water and then rub with a cotton swab. If the colour transfers to the swab, take the garment to a professional dry cleaner.
Avoid Hidden Costs
Factor in the amount of gasoline and time it takes to take clothes to your current dry cleaner and then pick them up. It may be time to look for a new cleaner who is closer to your office or home and has easy access. Many cleaners in large cities offer free delivery for regular customers.
Keep Your Clothes Clean and Pressed
This sounds very simple, but it is the best way to avoid dry cleaning costs. Keep a stain removal pen or wipes handy. If you put together an emergency stain removal kit for the office, you'll become one of the most popular employees.
Wear a washable t-shirt or blouse under jackets to prevent perspiration stains. Apply deodorant, hair products, scented sprays, and perfumes several minutes before getting dressed to reduce stains on dry clean only clothes.
After every wearing, hang up clothes that must be dry cleaned and allow them to air for several hours before hanging in a cramped closet. If there are strong odours, use Febreze or other clothing refresher for a quick touch up between cleanings.
Don't send something to the dry cleaners if it is just wrinkled and all it needs are pressing. You can do it yourself by learning just a few ironing tips. Add some extra ironing tools and supplies, and you can be the professional!
If ironing seems beyond your level of commitment, invest in a clothes steamer. A steamer is simple to use and can remove wrinkles and odours with very little effort on your part. You may even find other ways to use that steamer around the house.
The cost of dry cleaning is dependent upon a variety of factors, including an item's size and material, the specific services you need, as well as things like overhead costs and employee compensation. In general, single clothing items should cost under $20 (and some will be under $10), coats can cost anywhere from $13 to $100 depending on the type, draperies and comforters will cost around $20 to $40, and wedding dresses can cost as much as $500 or more. Costs will increase with additional services and the use of eco-friendly chemicals.
Frequently Asked Questions
In general, single clothing items should cost under $20 (and some will be under $10), coats can cost anywhere from $13 to $100 depending on the type, draperies and comforters will cost around $20 to $40, and wedding dresses can cost as much as $500 or more.
Absolutely. In fact, dry cleaning doesn't damage clothes; it actually preserves them! Today, we're debunking 3 of the most common myths about dry cleaning to help you better protect the longevity of your clothing.
Dry cleaning is always a gentler procedure, but the washing machine is usually good enough for your more durable and inexpensive clothing. For everything else, the small additional expense of dry cleaning is well worth the results.