Coming clean (and no worse for wear)

February 28, 1993|By Elizabeth Large

In a year when one of the hottest looks is grunge (the funkier the better), it's ironic that many of the most fashionable fabrics for spring are floaty, delicate and fragile -- and ought to be marked Special Handling.

During the '70s people got used to the ease of wash-and-wear synthetics. But in the past few years, natural fabrics such as silk, cotton, linen and wool have come on strong. (Yes, designers are layering tissue-weight wools for spring.)

Stains go deeper into natural fibers. Sunlight can fade silk and linen. Deodorants and perspiration can cause chemical disintegration. Yet we're still treating delicate garments as if they're made of polyester. The care label may say washable, but that doesn't mean you should throw your sueded silk blouse into the washing machine with your jeans. (Not that synthetics guarantee easy care. Rayon, notoriously troublesome, is bigger than ever; and the new microfibers -- more about them later -- fuzz easily and don't press well.)


Take something fluttery, floaty and fragile like chiffon, one of the fabrics that makes the ultra-feminine layered look possible. This sheer woven fabric, which can be made of synthetic or natural fibers, has what Pat Gallon, owner of Schroedl Custom Cleaners, calls "an inherent dimensional instability." What that means is that when a chiffon garment is cut on the bias, something as simple as sitting down can cause the skirt to lose some of its shape. And you could end up with an uneven hem even after dry cleaning.

But that's not the worst of it. Any moisture, he says, can make this highly twisted yarn shrink. Don't even think of washing it, and think twice before you dip your napkin into your glass of

water and dab at a spill.

Chiffon dry-cleans well -- stains come out pretty easily -- but choose your cleaner carefully. The best of them use mesh bags because chiffon snags so easily. If a chiffon garment does become distorted, according to Everett Bergmann, an owner of Neild's, a dedicated dry cleaner can get it back in shape through a tedious process of steaming, pulling and stretching.

But how many of us, you ask, are really going to be worrying about chiffon this spring?

Natural fibers

Cotton and linen -- now, there are the durable natural fabrics we'll all be wearing. And they look fine even if they wrinkle.

Are you sure they're so durable? The International Fabricare Institute recommends using a deodorant rather than an antiperspirant when wearing them because antiperspirants are slightly more acidic. Affected fibers could tear after washing. And if you have a stain, even on a washable cotton garment, you should blot gently; never rub at it. Strong rubbing can cause an abrasion of the fabric.

One of the hottest new fashion accessories made of cotton is crochet. A good reason to hand-wash crochet items comes from Maureen Grasso, associate professor of clothing and textiles at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "The kind of dirt that's attracted to cotton," she says, "tends to be water-soluble." Even dry cleaners like Steven Miller of Kirsh recommend hand-washing crocheted vests and sweaters so they can be blocked into shape to dry. Those of us addicted to throwing clothes into a washing machine may want to think twice about being this fashionable.

But silk, you say, is no longer just a luxury fabric; we're wearing it every day and it can be machine-washed. Yes, silk is exceptionally strong and resilient considering its delicate appearance; but it still requires special care. Even if your new silk blouse is labeled washable, there can be considerable dye bleeding, especially of dark colors. It's a quandary: Dry cleaning can cause a sandwashed silk garment to lose its suppleness and feel stiff, but you may not be happy with the fading you get with washing.

Then there's the perspiration problem. "Alkalinity is one of the biggest drawbacks with silks," says Schroedl's Pat Gallon. He and other dry cleaners recommend underarm shields to protect expensive silk garments from color changes and fabric weakening. Other alkalines, like facial soaps, shampoos and even toothpaste, can also transfer and affect silk clothes adversely.

Sugar seems like a harmless enough substance, but Neild's Mr. Bergmann tells of the customer who spilled ginger ale on a light-colored garment. It caused no visible stain, and she forgot to tell the cleaner about it. The heat in the cleaning process caused a yellowish stain to develop, and the stain had to be analyzed by a laboratory to discover whether the customer or the cleaner was at fault.

It's enough to make you want to give up natural fabrics.


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