I am frequently asked if wool jackets can be cleaned only by dry cleaning – as their labels usually indicate. Nonsense!
Wool non-sweater garments easily lend themselves to spot cleaning without washing the whole item. In fact, in the “old days,” wool suits received little sponge baths (focused on soiled areas) in between full-scale cleanings.
These garments also can be steam cleaned; steam both cleans the wool and removes or relaxes wrinkles. Our foremothers (or their servants) would also get tea pots boiling furiously and aim the steam at the fabric to remove stains and wrinkles. (Remember a burn from steam is worse than one from hot water.)
To spot clean:
Have at hand: (1) a little bowl of lukewarm (almost tepid) water (I’d use distilled), (2) a clean cotton cloth (not a terry cloth or one that will leave fuzzies – more like a handkerchief), and (3) some soap like Eucalan (gentle, designed specifically for wool, no rinsing needed).
- Use the dull side of a dinner knife to scrape off any particulant matter that might be caught in the spot.
- Pull the cloth over your index or index and middle finger (depending on how strong are your fingers or how big the spot) of your dominant hand.
- Dip the cloth into the water.
- Drizzle a dab of the soap on the wet tip of the cloth.
- With your non-dominant hand, gently pull out/stretch the area of the wool with the spot.
- Dab gently but firmly at the spot with the wet, slightly soaped cloth. (I like to start in the middle of the spot and work my way out.) You want to blot the spot out.
- Now pull a dry part of the cloth over your fingers, dip and dab/blot again.
- When you are satisfied the spot is removed, re dip and dab/blot – but this time with no soap – until you don’t see any soap marks.
- Find a dry part of the cloth, and press and hold onto the wet spot to absorb water.
- Let the garment hang freely so the remaining moisture can air dry.
To steam clean:
The best way to steam clean your non-sweater woolen garments is to buy a modern steamer designed for home use. These steamers enable the user to steam (both cleaning and removing wrinkles), a hanging garment anywhere – say, from shower curtain rack in the bathroom. While clothes steamers can be rather pricey, I have seen them at discount stores for under $100. You might also find them second hand.
I saw my grandmother steam many a wool jacket and skirt using nothing more than a heavy, old-fashioned iron and a wet cotton cloth. She would arrange the garment on the ironing board, lay the wet cotton cloth over it, then lower the iron close to the cloth and let the heat press steam out of the cotton cloth into the wool. It both cleaned and smoothed out wrinkles. The drawback from that it is MUCH easier to burn yourself (which I did several times while “helping” my grandmother). You also don’t have the benefit of the garment hanging upright – unless you are holding the iron upright and running it up and down the hanging clothes – which I do not recommend as it dramatically increases the risk of (serious) burn or scalding.
To keep your suitings clean in between cleanings:
Remember those old movies where you saw people brushing off their suits? There was a reason: Doing so removes particles of dirt before they get ground into the fabric. Invest in a clothes brush!
After you take your wool jackets, slacks or skirts off, do not immediately hang-and-shove-into-a-closet. Hang them, yes, but not in the closet. I find letting them hang outside the closet over night works well.
Cost/benefits of dry cleaning:
Dry cleaning is indeed easy … just drop your garments off at your local dry cleaning establishment and come back when they’re ready. But dry cleaning is not good for wool; its chemicals are harsh on wool fibers – shortening their life and shine. Further, when you open your wallet to pay, there are external costs that are frequently overlooked: Environmental (toxic chemicals used to clean – where do they go?) and health (people are now exposed to chemicals through their clothes and natural environment, e.g., water & air).
According to the National Resources Defense Counsel: Conventional dry cleaners are responsible for the majority (60 percent) of the total use of PERC [perchloroethylene] in the United States. Through routine use of the dangerous chemical, dry-cleaners become a major source of toxic air pollution and hazardous waste in many neighborhoods and communities. In fact, three-quarters of PERC dry cleaners in the United States are estimated to have contaminated soil and groundwater where they are located. Off-site disposal of hazardous waste by cleaners has resulted in PERC becoming a common contaminant at more than half of our nation’s Superfund hazardous waste sites.
Thankfully, today we have the benefit of many “green” dry cleaning establishments – a great place to drop off a wool jacket or suitings – but not too frequently! 🙂