Stain removal 1 – The Basics

20 May 2021

Our new series of What Went Wrong continues with experts Richard Neale and Roger Cawood in a target masterclass looking at the basic skills needed for stain removal

Many customers only bring an item in for cleaning when it becomes stained during normal wear. They expect the busy cleaner to find and remove any stains and to render the item stain-free – not always a realistic expectation, but a trained professional cleaner can go long way to meeting customers’ reasonable hopes. This month we look at the key steps required; with a little care and attention, a dedicated cleaner can delight the majority of customers. Please note that we shall only be covering basic stain removal this month, involving the pretreatment and complete removal of stains (and any treatment chemicals used) prior to cleaning (either wetcleaning or drycleaning). The item then goes forward to cleaning in the machine. We shall be covering prespotting (and slop-spotting) with pretreatment detergent mixtures, immediately prior to machine loading, in a later issue.

Equipment needed for stain Removal

The basic tools needed for stain removal might have come as part of the basic package when the cleaning unit was first fitted out, in which case all that is needed is to find them, dust them off and relearn how to use them correctly. The list in the “Essential tools table” (See Image) should meet most requirements:

Stain removal chemicals

High-pressure water sprays are extremely effective for quickly removing small waterbased stains without recourse to chemicals, whilst at the same time being a much safer option. Ensure the fabric is completely dry before drycleaning.

When using chemicals, it must be clearly understood that no spotting chemical can be considered safe in terms of its effect on fabrics, dyes or finishes. It is the sole responsibility of the cleaner to check and make sure.

Most cleaners use formulated kit chemicals. The simplest is a three-bottle kit comprising a tannin remover (for vegetable dyes from plant-based stains), a protein remover (for animal- or human-based body fluids) and a solvent based (‘dry-side’) stain remover (for paints, glues and mineral oils/greases). Some cleaners use pure chemicals such as 5% ammonia (protein stains), 10% acetic acid (tannin stains), amyl acetate (dry-side stains) and 9% hydrogen peroxide (colour/ dye stains). Chemical bottles should have a maximum capacity of 500ml and be capable of delivering just a few drops to the stain.

Deciding whether to use wetcleaning or drycleaning

Generally, all protein stains from animalor human-based body fluids, and all plant-based vegetable dye stains, are water-based. In wetcleaning the solvent is water, and the right process will often remove some or all of water-based staining quite easily.

Protein and vegetable dye stains can be removed successfully by drycleaning, but only if they are pre-treated first. Difficult stains such as old blood (especially) require complete removal, followed by flushing and drying off, before going into a drycleaning machine.The reverse is true for ‘dry-side’ stains, such as paint and glue. These are usually unaffected by wetcleaning and even with drycleaning, they need skilful pre-treatment (and often complete removal) before being placed in the drycleaning machine.

The general rule is to pre-treat every dry-side stain and in the case of paint, glues, inks and lacquers, to remove them completely. The only dry-side stains that can be placed untreated in the drycleaning machine are those based on mineral oils and greases. Even then, there may be some post-spotting required.

Many cleaning disputes arise because of failure on the part of the cleaner to inspect and recognise those stains that must be pre-treated and to do this expertly. Stain removal is part of the cleaner’s craft skill and should not be neglected. It is important to check goods at reception, quiz the customer as to the origin of any stains found and where appropriate make a note, giving realistic expectations at the same time.


Stain removal and pre-spotting are major topics for the cleaner. We shall be returning with further advice on both in future editions of LCN.

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Ink stain on the sleeve

Fault: A blob of fountain pen ink spoilt the sleeve of this cerise Cashmere sweater, which the cleaner declined to pre-treat because of its high value. The stain did not come out with drycleaning alone.

Technical approach: If ink remover is applied directly to the stain it is likely to spread out rapidly and become several times larger. One approach is to surround the stain with glycerine, working a circle of glycerine well into the fabric, but not into the stain itself. Then, when the ink remover is applied, the glycerine will stop the spread of the stain. Place clean, thick cotton cloth underneath the stain and then use cotton fabric to blot off the stain from the top. Keep moving the cloths until no more ink can be removed. Finally, flush the area using the steam gun and vacuum. With patience it may be possible to remove all of the ink.

Responsibility: If the cleaner did not feel competent to deal with the stain correctly, they should have declined to accept the item.

Rectification: It is worth trying the recommended method using a post-spotting dry-side remover. It may be possible for an expert to remove any faint residual stain with 9% hydrogen peroxide or sodium perborate.

Let’s see if the staining comes out!

Fault: The pale whitish marking on this coat was not treated before drycleaning and came out of the machine a much more intense white. It then defeated the cleaner’s attempts to reduce by post-spotting.

Technical cause: This marking has the hallmarks of gelatinous protein from custard or ice-cream. If this is not removed prior to cleaning using an alkali-based stain removal reagent (the same as the one used for blood) then it will harden and set onto the fabric, becoming whiter in the process, in much the same way as an egg whitens and sets, during frying or poaching.

Responsibility: The responsibility for not pre-treating this stain lies with the cleaner. Most staining containing proteins (from body fluids) or sugars (from drink spills) must be pre-treated to stand a good chance of total removal in cleaning. Slopping on a brush-full of diluted pre-treatment soap is no substitute for drop-wise application of protein remover, followed by correct use of spatula and tamping brush, flushing and drying. Any vegetable colouring in the stain needs de-colouring with tannin remover.

Rectification: Post-spotting with pure chemicals can be more effective than using kit products but they must be pre-tested, applied with care and properly flushed out and feathered afterwards. Chances of complete removal in this case (using a digester) are very good.

Drink stains need pre-treatment before drycleaning

Fault: After drycleaning, this bridesmaid’s dress was still marked with ugly round drink spills.

Technical cause: the staining here should have been seen and pre-treated before cleaning. The sugars in the drink should have been flushed out with water warmed up with steam and the vegetable dyes should then have been de-coloured with a tannin remover. The untreated marks have darkened further in cleaning with the characteristic sugar rim still just visible.

Responsibility: These marks were apparently visible before cleaning and so the cleaner should be taking responsibility for not pre-treating them.

Rectification: It is usually possible to remove caramelised sugars (with patience), using water and steam. Then any residual vegetable dye staining should be de-coloured using a tannin remover.

DECEPTIVE APPEARANCE: Externally it looked spotless, but dirt under this vacuum gauze splashed back to contaminate whites when using the steam/air gun
Ink stains generally need pre-treatment and removal before either wetcleaning or drycleaning
Essential tools
SET AND MATCH: Drycleaning set this untreated protein stain
DARK DEVELOPMENT: Sugary drink stain darkens in drycleaning

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