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A Clean Conscience : Fashion: Some concerned consumers are developing shopping and laundering techniques to avoid dry-cleaning garments.


Nancy Grundahl, a pollution-prevention specialist in Philadelphia, was irritated by an article in her local paper. Headlined "Clothes With a Conscience," it detailed how leading fashion designers were coining slogans and donating dollars to increase awareness of environmental crises.

There wasn't a word about dry-cleaning.

"The designers are missing the point," Grundahl says. "If they really wanted to make a significant difference, if they really wanted to change the world, they should switch from 'dry-clean-only' fabrics to washable fabrics."

Grundahl and other dry-cleaning foes worry about solvents such as perchloroethylene touching their skin, polluting the air and contaminating ground water. They also object to plastic bags and wire hangers, which typically end up in landfills.

These concerned consumers have developed shopping and laundering techniques that allow them to avoid dry-cleaning many garments. They scour stores for cottons and other fabrics that are easy to wash. They stock their utility closets with biodegradable laundry powders and liquids along with ironing boards, irons and portable steamers. They outfit their gardens, patios and bathrooms with useful gadgets like retractable clotheslines and fold-away sweater dryers. They tend to ignore many dry-clean-only warnings. But if a garment, such as a wool business suit, must be cleaned, they make sure it happens as infrequently as possible. And before they wear any dry-cleaned item, they let it air out.

It's debatable how long the airing process should take. "You know that dry-cleaning odor? That's perc (perchloroethylene)," says Grundahl. "To be safe, clothes should be aired outside for 24 hours."

Debra Lynn Dadd , in her book "Nontoxic, Natural, & Earthwise," advises a longer waiting period. "If you absolutely must have an item dry-cleaned," she writes, "remove the plastic covering as soon as you get home and hang the item in a well-ventilated area--preferably outdoors--to encourage evaporation of the solvent. This could take up to a week."

Dadd, who became a consumer advocate after learning she was "very sensitive to petrochemicals," works out of her home near San Francisco. She says she is steadily "moving away from things that require dry cleaning. Ten years ago I would buy silk shirts and wool blazers. Now I buy cotton shirts, more free flowing skirts and jackets that are not as strait-laced, so they don't have to be as pressed."

If a professionally ironed look is essential, Dadd suggests washing the garment at home, then taking it to the cleaners to be pressed. If the garment can only be dry-cleaned, she says there are ways to minimize the frequency. One of the easiest--and most old-fashioned ways--is to hang the item up immediately after use in an airy space to give odors, such as perspiration or smoke, a chance to dissipate.

Dry-cleaning opponents will take on just about any fabric. Dadd, for example, hand washes "a beautiful rayon suit without a lining,' in biodegradable liquid soaps available in health food stores.

Grundahl experiments with $5 thrift-shop purchases. "I wouldn't wash a $100 dress," she says. "But I take my chances with these. I wash them in the machine on cold and put them in the dryer for just a few minutes to get them fluffy, then I hang them in my basement. Dryers tend to over-dry," she cautions. "All that lint you take out is just your clothes being stripped away."

In department stores, she selects only cotton or acrylic fabrics, which means she frequently snubs a favorite designer: "I keep thinking Liz Claiborne must have stock in a dry cleaners. When I look at her clothes, my impression is that 1%-2% is washable. It drives me crazy. I love her things. I just keep thinking the designers could do something." (A spokesperson for Liz Claiborne Inc. said the company had no comment.)

Manufacturers seem to slap dry-clean-only labels on everything these days--even cotton. Bob Berg, executive director of the Textile Assn. of Los Angeles (TALA), defends the practice: "Especially in higher-priced garments, they are attempting to retain for a longer period of time the nice hand and look of the fabric."

But Phillip Menges III, a publicist and free-lance writer, says he stopped taking anything except a few suits to the dry cleaners 10 years ago, after he found "they would smash the buttons and the fabrics seemed to wear out faster."

Menges has become so good at doing his laundry, he even tosses some of his unlined linen suits into the washing machine on the delicate cycle, than hangs them up to dry. And he takes preventive measures. If he is wearing a silk tie, for instance, he flips it over his shoulder before he washes his hands--to avoid water spots that could send him to the dry cleaners.

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