They don't talk about Old Pasadena for nothing. Old World craftsmanship has been the watchword for more than 70 years at the French Hand Laundry and Dry Cleaning, which enjoys a spotless reputation among museum curators and studio costume departments as a kind of luxury spa for heirloom linens and antique clothing.
The business was founded in 1927 by Albert and Marie Cottave, a French immigrant couple who brought with them traditional European linen care techniques. At a time when household servants often maintained everyday items, the Cottaves handled mainly specialty and table linens using chemical-free hand methods that included water softening and dry ironing. By 1970 Albert had died, and Marie sold the business to Virginia McManigal, who had worked in an area dry-cleaning shop for 20 years. McManigal brought modern dry-cleaning technology to the laundry but continued to honor the house credo of hand workmanship. In 1980 after an employee fell ill, McManigal's daughter, Susan, pitched in to help and ended up staying on to run the business.
Along the way, Susan fell passionately in love with antique textiles. The French Hand Laundry began to specialize in fine restoration work on antique wedding gowns, christening dresses, vintage clothing and movie costumes. Though she warns that not all old pieces are salvageable, her loving ministrations often mend fragile laces and restore dingy, age-browned heirloom pieces (some as old as 200 years) to their original pristine white. She restored a slip that Mary Pickford wore in a movie and the blouse Judy Garland wore in "The Wizard of Oz." It is not uncommon for a restoration of an elaborate piece to take a year or more. "Fabric is a living organism that tells a story," Susan says.
The laundry does conventional cleaning too, but always with a nod to tradition, hand-sewing buttons, blocking (hand-shaping) and pressing on huge 50-plus-year-old machines. The McManigals mix their own starch and iron tablecloths with a weighty iron that's also more than half a century old
"I've truly been blessed," Susan says, "I've been able to create a business from a passion.