The Chemistry Behind Dry Cleaning

Topics: Dry cleaning, Solvent, Tetrachloroethylene Pages: 9 (3198 words) Published: March 27, 2008
“[Dry cleaning] cleans all sorts such a manner that nobody would ever think they had been neither changes nor alters color, but it takes the dirt, oil, and grease out of silks, cotton, and wool assisted by labor.” History And an Overview

In “Dry Cleaning, Part 1. The Process and History: From Starch to Finish,” author Eugene Garfield noted the early history of dry cleaning. It has been studied that the Mycenaean civilization, which was in existence from 1600 - 1100 B.C., employed a basic dry cleaning process. An Oxford Classicist by the name of C.M. Bowra had demonstrated that the profession known as “dry cleaner” could be found in the clay tablets of the civilization. (Garfield, 218) Thus, Garfield says, this early Greek civilization may have used grease-absorbent materials as solvents to remove dirt from garments. Now, to this day, dry cleaning is done with solvents that are not necessarily “dry” in the sense that one usually understands it, as in “a dry desert,” but rather, solvents are dry in that they do not need water to be effective. In other words, these solvents used today are non-aqueous.

In Drycleaning: Technology and Theory, authors Martin and Fulton define dry cleaning as “the cleansing of textiles in an organic solvent.” (Martin and Fulton, 1) The authors note that the process birthed in the middle of the 19th century in Paris, France, when camphene, an oil used for lamps, was spilled onto a gown accidentally. Consequently, the gown seemed cleaner. Now, the fact that the process originated in France gives rise to the process being referred to as “French cleaning. Other sources, however, describe the legend differently. Jean-Baptiste Jolly was the Frenchman who accidentally discovered, in the mid-19th century, that camphene made a garment cleaner. And it was not a gown that the oil was spilled on; he actually spilled the oil onto a table cloth. Perhaps the origin of dry cleaning is legend after all, because it seems that no one source can agree to the exact details of what happened. It makes one wonder how many inventions were the result of accident and not careful planning!

Now, Garfield continued his article by mentioning the process that pre-dry cleaning industry workers used to clean garments. It seems that workers had to dismantle garments and clean them in hot water, a process that was very time consuming and costly. Remember that garments were not always cleaned often in those days. Indeed, the birth of the dry-cleaning industry abolished the dismantling process and the expensive costs. The “modern” process itself, again, involves solvents that are used as cleaning substances which remove stains one would find difficult to remove with water alone. The immediate advantages of using solvents with the absence of water is that they do not cause wrinkling, shrinkage, piling, or other consequences one sees when cleaning clothes with water. Martin and Fulton note that dry cleaning's greatest advantage concerns the final step of the process, namely pressing, which often proves difficult when one uses water to wash garments.

The popularity of other solvents grew following the discovery of the efficacy of camphene; benzene, benzol, and turpentine were three such solvents among many. In the United States, in the early 20th century, gasoline was the most widely used solvent in dry cleaning. Its nature as a fire hazard was obviously a concern, and thus another solvent was quickly found as a substitute. Indeed, Congress passed what is known as a “Standard” in 1928, which promoted the use of a “solvent from petroleum with a minimum flash point (i.e., flammability) of 100°F.” (Martin and Fulton, 2) This standard, though revised over the years (the flash point has risen to 140°F), has given rise to one of the most popular solvents used today, Stoddard solvent. Another kind of popular solvent used today include chlorinated hydrocarbons, the main advantage of which is that they...
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