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Taken to the cleaners
Solving the mysteries of dry cleaning, from how it works to why it costs so freaking much
BY JULIE SURATT

For some reason, dry cleaning hurts. No, not the feel of crisply starched shirts sliding over your skin, but the cost of that feel. How could dry-cleaning a suit, two sweaters, and five shirts add up to $35, you gasp. And why, goddamn it, does a womanís shirt cost more to clean than a manís?

But before we get into that, letís start with why some things need to be dry-cleaned anyway (other than the fact that the tag says so). "Washing in water creates more wear and tear on your clothes," says Christa Hagearty, president of Dependable Cleaners.

She admits that the difference in price between dry cleaning and laundering can be startling. At Dependable, it costs between $4.50 and $6.50 to dry-clean a cotton shirt, and only $1.96 to wash it. "Dry cleaning is a more involved process," explains Hagearty. When you hand over a pile of shirts to be dry-cleaned, theyíre sorted and put into a stainless-steel basket in a machine thatís similar to a home washer but bigger. A cleaning solution that has the feel of mineral oil and contains little or no water (thus "dry") is pumped into the machine, removing dirt and odors from the garments as they tumble around the basket. Then each item is dried, hung, pressed and inspected. "We can dry-clean 20 shirts in an hour versus laundering 50 or 60," says Hagearty.

Commercial laundering is much less labor-intensive. Shirts are washed with heavy-duty soap and water in a machine that reaches higher temperatures than your home washer. Then theyíre dried, starched, and pressed. But bargain-hunters beware: the type of soap used is important. Dependable, for example, uses higher-quality soap thatís more expensive but allows for items to be cleaned at lower temperatures. "Youíre more apt to get shrinkage at higher temperatures," Hagearty says.

To answer the question of pricing on womenís versus menís shirts, Hagearty explains that the smallest size a professional pressing machine can iron is a womanís size 10. So smaller shirts must be hand-pressed. Nevertheless, Dependable "doesnít make pricing decisions based on gender," she says. Both menís and womenís shirts are $2.

We called around town to see if this was typical. Unfortunately, ladies, itís not. But the gap is more reasonable at some cleaners than at others. Winn Cleaners, in Beacon Hill, charges $1.65 for a manís shirt, washed and pressed, as opposed to $4 for a womanís. Less than a third of a mile away, Esplanade Cleaners charges only 75 cents more for a womanís shirt ($3 versus $2.25). Elite One Hour on Huntington Avenue, like Dependable, bucks the trend and charges $2 for both menís and womenís shirts.

Then thereís Dryel ($11.39), which is billed as "an affordable alternative to dry-cleaning your clothes," available at Stop & Shop and most other supermarkets. A box contains four moist cleaning cloths; one cloth goes into the dryer with up to four garments. That makes it a bargain at around 70 cents a garment, right? Alas, "Itís really just a freshener," says Hagearty. "It takes the smell of smoke out of a sweater, but itís not going to remove beer stains." For that, apparently, youíll have to take yourself to the cleaners.

Where to find it:

ē Dependable Cleaners, 316 Newbury Street, Boston, (617) 266-5607; www.dependableclearners.com

ē Elite One Hour, 297 Huntington Avenue, Boston, (617) 536-2086.

ē Esplanade Cleaners, 109 Charles Street, Boston, (617) 523-6925.

ē Stop & Shop, various locations; www.stopandshop.com

ē Winn Cleaners, 15 Myrtle Street, Boston, (617) 523-6860.


Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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