Drycleaning dramas

CHOICE finds out the truth behind your drycleaning disasters and your rights when things go wrong.
 
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01 .Introduction

drycleaning label
Finding a good drycleaner can be a hit and miss affair. Even if you use one with a reliable track record, accidents can happen. CHOICE believes the problem could rest with misleading care labels. While there is an Australian Standard that stipulates what should be on a care label, manufacturers don't always follow it, instead using the catch-all "dry clean only". But it can be difficult to establish exactly who is to blame when your favourite jacket comes back from the drycleaners with shrunken sleeves and tarnished buttons. CHOICE outlines the problems and what you can do when disaster strikes.

Labelling laws - the toothless tiger

There are mandatory standards for care labelling (Australian Standard AS 1957:1998), enforcable by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC). In theory, fines of up to $1.1million apply for companies that fail to comply; the reality is that the ACCC has never recorded a single conviction. So the laws provide little comfort for those who believe their drycleaning disaster comes down to a poorly worded care label. Under the laws, all clothing suppliers - manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers - must ensure their care labelling is:

  • legible
  • accurate
  • permanently attached to the garment
  • written in English
  • appropriate and adequate for the care of the garment so that when followed the article is not damaged
  • accesssible at the point of sale

Labelling problems

Drycleaning Institute of Australia (DIA) CEO Philip Johns believes manufacturers often use "overly cautious" instructions such as "dry-clean only" on a garment that may be safely washed. "Most manufacturers do not test their products before attaching the care labels. It's more convenient and cheaper to attach a generic label containing "Dry clean only" or "Dry cleanable" instructions,"  he says. Without specific care instructions on what is allowed and what should not be done to the garment, the risk of damage is high, especially for fabrics that contain elastane or plasticisers (typically used in garments to provide stretch and recovery characteristics).

Accredited textile technologist Steve Pyott, founder of Dry Cleaning Complaints Arbitration Services (DCCAS), examines, tests and analyses textiles to determine fault when garments are damaged during drycleaning. His website lists the problem, as well as photos of the damaged garment and his findings. He also blames inaccurate care labelling. CHOICE approached a few local designers and manufacturers, such as Lisa Ho and CUE, to find out if clothing manufacturers test their garments to determine the specific care (washing, drying, maintenance) instructions before attaching the care labels, but they did not respond.

Drycleaning labels may wrongly specify that a particular chemical should be used to clean the garment: 

  • P means the garment can be drycleaned with the solvent perchloroethylene (perc), hydrocarbon solvents and white spirit.
  • F means drycleaning should only be carried out with hydrocarbon solvents and white spirit (no perc).

Drycleaning the wrong garment with perc can cause dyes to run and beads to melt, says Johns.

Your rights when things go wrong

When a garment is destroyed, consumers usually blame the drycleaner, who may choose to compensate or deny fault. If the compensation claim is more than several hundred dollars, you can take it further by sending the damaged garment/s to the Drycleaning Institute of Australia or Dry Cleaning Complaints Arbitration Services (DCCAS) for testing to determine fault.

For consumers, unless the garment was very expensive and/or had sentimental value (such as a wedding dress or suit), the protracted process of proving fault and claiming compensation through the local courts is unappealing. If an independent party such as the DIA or DCCAS determines that the manufacturer (not the drycleaner) is to blame for attaching an inaccurate care label, consumers are unlikely to take action against the manufacturer.

However, according to the ACCC, if you have a damaged item of clothing after following the care instructions, you can take the item back to the retailer you bought it from and ask for a refund under statutory rights. If this does not work, you can write a letter of demand to the seller or lodge a complaint with a consumer protection agency. If you purchased the item overseas, this is obviously not an option. See our Q&A for more tips.

Our spot test

Consumers often ask our laundry lab about stain removal and fabric care – what will come out in the wash and what needs drycleaning? So we conducted a pilot stain test by setting red wine, blue ballpoint pen and curry stains on a business shirt. The care label stated it was both wet and dry cleanable. The result: only the red wine was removable with a normal machine wash. We sent another shirt with the same stains to a local drycleaner to see if they could do better; sure enough, all the stains were removed.

 
 

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What redress do I have if my clothes are damaged and the drycleaner said they followed the care instructions on the label?

You can ask the drycleaner for compensation, complain to the Drycleaning Institute of Australia or the Dry Cleaning Complaints Arbitration Board, who will investigate if it was really the drycleaner's fault or that the instructions on the care label were inaccurate. You can also take the damaged garment back to the retailer you bought it from and explain that the garment was damaged although care instructions were followed. You can demand a refund under your statutory rights. If this fails, you may lodge a complaint with the ACCC  and/or take your complaints to a consumer or small claims court in your state.

Can I make a claim for damage if I bought my garments or textiles second-hand?

Yes. Second-hand garments and textiles are excluded from the mandatory care labelling standard, but you may be able to make a claim for the damage of your garment. The catch is you may need to produce a receipt - which is not always possible when buying second-hand items - to make a claim. Go to the Drycleaning Institute of Australia's Fair Claims Guide (or the Dry Cleaning Complaints Arbitration Board's website for a comprehensive PDF copy) to find out the replacement value of your item.

Why doesn't the drycleaner return my garments after I've been compensated for the damage they caused?

It is the drycleaner's responsibility to remove the damaged garment from circulation as it is no longer serviceable.

Why is there such a wide range of pricing among drycleaners?

Pricing depends on location, competition and quality of service. Shop rentals mean a shopping mall drycleaner is likely to charge more than one located outside. Your local chemist or tailor may also double as commissioned agents for drycleaners, who leverage on them to build volume. These business owners benefit from drawing customers into their shop.

Why are men’s clothes cheaper than women’s to dryclean?

Men’s shirts are similar in size and fabric composition and new shirt-pressing equipment have been designed for this classification of clothes. Women’s shirts – often smaller and with more detailing – are not suitable for high-volume shirt presses.

Are Perc and GreenEarth environmentally friendly?

When released into the air, perchloroethylene (perc) can contribute to smog when it reacts with other volatile organic compounds (VOC). In Australia, drycleaners must use an approved transporter to remove perc waste and take it to an Environment Protection Agency-licensed facility. Hydrocarbon solvents are less aggressive than perc, but also contain VOCs that contribute to smog. Liquid silicone – the same base ingredient found in everyday shampoos, soaps and lotions – is more environmentally friendly than perc and other hydrocarbons, and is odorless and non-toxic. “GreenEarth”, a silicone-based dry-cleaning solution patented by GreenEarth Cleaning, is not a VOC and degrades within days to silica and trace amounts of water and carbon dioxide.

However, only a handful of drycleaners use this in Australia, as it costs more than double the price of perc and users must pay an annual fee to GreenEarth Cleaning.

Drycleaning tips

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to ensuring your garments are returned in good condition after you've sent them for drycleaning. Here are some tips to help you minimise the risk of damage:

  • Find an experienced drycleaner - good fabric understanding comes from years of handling different types.
  • Check your garments thoroughly before handing them over to your drycleaner.
  • Remove belts and any other detachable adornments. Identify the nature and position of stains, loose stitching or fasteners.
  • Use a specialist drycleaner for beadings, sequins and other garment decorations, and take notes of the discussion about the best way to clean your garment.
  • Photograph expensive formal or designer wear and advise your drycleaner. Many drycleaners also have counter cameras to identify the number of garments handed back to the customer.
  • Point out concealed buttons, as a heat press may leave a shiny imprint on the fabric if they go unnoticed by the drycleaner.
  • Check the dryclean symbol on the care label.  An encircled “P” or “F” indicates which solvent should or may be used.
  • Find out if the drycleaner is a member of the Drycleaning Institute of Australia. The DIA will advise you too of its investigations and your options if the drycleaner you complained about is a member.
  • Keep drycleaning dockets and original purchase receipts for your expensive garments as textiles as proof for any damages claim.

 

We called out for your drycleaning disasters and here's what you told us:

Ruined and missing wedding dresses

Larisa Biggar: "Hi, you wanted to hear about dry cleaning disaster, well mine takes the cake. My mum took my wedding dress into the local dry cleaners for cleaning after my wedding. After about six weeks she hadn't heard from them so she dropped in.  She handed in her ticket and they handed her a dress back with the corresponding butt, however it was not my dress.  My dress was a designer, hand-appliqued, hand made, silk and lace number with my great grandmothers brooch attached.  This thing was a something out of a bad 80s debutante ball.

Once they realised, they claimed that maybe the ticket butts had fallen off and got mixed up.  Apparently they tried to ring all clients to find out if they took home the wrong dress buy mistake...but I don't think they tried very hard.  So I spent a day in the shop ringing there clients, but there records were so bad I didn't have any luck. They then told me they would refund me the cost of the dress. However, I never received a cent.I got my lawyers to send a nasty letter to get them to pay.  Still no luck. I could have pursued it further at the small claims tribunal, but by now I had fallen pregnant and really didn't want any stress.  I had to accept that my wedding dress we spent hours designing and fitting, and the most expensive and beautiful thing I had ever worn, would never come back (and my great grandmothers brooch as well).  Getting reimbursed was just to prove a point and get the cost of the dress back.  A week of crying helped me get over it. I don't know if they really did lose it.  Part of me thinks that someone in the dry cleaning process has nicked it as it was a stunning dress. I hope you can use this to warn other consumers to go to a reputable dry cleaners for irreplaceable items. Kind regards,

Cassie Beattie: "I bought a wedding dress off of eBay, it was a stunning dress, but it was second-hand. I had to have the dress altered and after that I took it to a drycleaner in North Adelaide, who are wedding dress specialists. I dropped the dress off on the Monday, I was told I could pick it up the following Thursday. I pointed out that the bead work was all over the dress not just the bodice, I also asked them to be very careful with it because our wedding was just four weeks away.

I returned on the Thursday to be told it wasn't done yet, come back next Tuesday. I go back next Tuesday and it turns out my dress had been severely damaged in the cleaning process, resulting in my beautiful dress being ruined. A lot of the beading had gotten caught causing it all to pull. The worst part of the whole experience was the staff, I was told if I produced a copy of my receipt for the dress they would give me the insurance claim forms. That the process takes between six and 10 weeks and there was nothing else they could do. I stormed out of the shop, burst into tears, I had to find an alternative dress. I was lucky I was able to find another dress, it was nothing like the original but was still fine. When we returned from our honey moon there was three demand notices from the dry cleaner for payment and a threat of legal action. I was appalled and I called them and told them so. Eventually it took a letter from our lawyer threatening a law suit before they stopped sending me demand notices. My insurance claim was also knocked back because it was not a "real" receipt because I had purchased it on eBay. I took the case the state government organisation and I received the money I had paid for the dress back but no apology. I have since made it my aim to tell as many people as possible not to deal with them!" 

Maree Mealor: "I had made my daughter's dress for her debutante ball and wanted to have it dry cleaned before packing it away. I took it to our local drycleaners, supposedly wedding gown specialists. During the process of cleaning the trim on the dress was damaged - it seemed to have melted and the buttons at the back also seemed to have disintegrated. When I picked the dress up I was told that this was due to poor quality trim and buttons. I protested since I had made the dress myself I knew that the trim instructions for care were "dry clean only" and I had used the self -over buttons which were also sold by the dry cleaners on their recommendation! Since my daughter had worn the dress and I had no plans for its reuse so I did not take it any further. I still had to pay for the cleaning of course! I would never use that drycleaner again."

Curtains

Jenny Macqueen: "I sent two sets of velour backed curtains ( $800+) to the drycleaner with small discoloration spots and spoke to the drycleaner about what we thought the spots actually were. It was decided that they were 'probably' mould forming from a period of wet weather. I suggested to him that if he had any doubts about doing the job, please tell me. He didn't and suggested that drycleaning would kill the spores if it was mould forming so I went ahead. I got the curtains back, hung them, and to my horror, he had melted the backs, even melted foreign material into the curtains. I rang immediately and he acted as if he didn't know that he had damaged the curtains. He virtually told me I was not telling the truth.

I went through the normal channels, and reported the whole story to the Tribunal- they contacted him and he wouldn't pay for his damage, so we went to court where I was awarded $500,  $300 short of replacement value. He was not a member of the Drycleaning Institute of Australia - so I had to go to court to get any compensation for his shoddy work - but still came away with less than it cost me to replace the curtains. The curtains were two-years-old but in as-new condition. They certainly were not in as new condition when they were returned. In fact,  with the light behind them, they looked as if a handful of mud had been thrown at the back of each curtain. It was a long and messy business, where I was the loser for shoddy workmanship."


Everyday clothing

John O'Hagan: "I had two suits dry cleaned and didn't wear them immediately but when I did so found a crinkle effect on the front of both suits. I spoke to the dry cleaner. Their reply was "not our fault it's a problem in the lining of the suit". I checked on the internet and found out that this crinkle effect occurs when lthe garment is pressed using an ironing press that was too hot. This particular dry cleaner is expensive when compared with Sydney dry cleaners and does not publish or supply a price list - without competition their attitude is take or leave it, you've got nowhere else to go."

Adele De Rossi: "About four years ago I bought a jacket. It was a very warm jacket, fluffy on the inside and swayed like on the outside. It was around $89.00 I picked it up on sale. It fitted me very well, It was not a fitted jacket, it was made to wear over winter clothing. I ware it for that winter and had some lovely comments on the jacket. The tag said dry-clean only so I ended up taking it to the drycleaners, thinking I'll clean it so I could wear it fresh and clean for the new winter season coming up.

When I picked it up from the cleaners and thought it looked bigger, but dismissed it.When I got home I tried on the jacket and it was about 20cm longer in the sleeves and 40cm extra around the waist and 20cm longer in length, I was in shock! I took it back to the drycleaner and asked what happened to my jacket. They did not care and blamed me as she said they did what should be done and said it was not their fault. They added that cheaper clothing should not be dry-cleaned. I was not happy and pressed them to shrink the jacket. They something - I don't know what - but to this day the jacket is still way to big to wear. The sleeves are about 10cm longer, the waist is still 40cm too big and  the jacket is about 10cm longer.

Coming from a one wage income this jacket was a costly buy, but it looked like a really costly jacket ( well, to me it was, but you know what I mean.) I was so sad that this jacket was destroyed. I still have it as I can't bear to throw it out, but it is way to big even to wear around the house and it looks real shabby, nothing like before I took it to the dry-cleaners."

 

Siobhan Stewart: I have two drycleaning disasters. The first involves a very expensive Nicolla Finetti blouse made of two shades of sheer aqua silk with a shiny silk neckline with detailed stitching. I wore the blouse once and someone spilt a beer down the front of it. I took it to the drycleaners two days later and pointed out the water mark. I collected the garment a week later and after paying for it and heading back to work I noticed that the top had changed color to a brown and green and the stitched neckline had shrunk and puckered. I immediately returned to the drycleaners to report the damage.

The drycleaner took absolutely no responsibility and told me that they had followed the cleaning instructions listed on the label and that I would need to take it back to the shop to complain that the label was incorrect.  As you can imagine the shop also refused to take responsibility and told me that I needed to take it further with the drycleaner.  In the end I just gave up and never gave that drycleaners any further business. The second incident occurred last year and involves a dress that has a large zip down the front that I wear to work on a regular basis. The first time my husband attempted to collect it a week later they told him that it hadn’t yet been cleaned and to come back in a few days.

I now think that this excuse was offered to buy them more time. When I attempted to wear the dress to work I discovered that the zip no longer did up. My husband took it back to the drycleaners to report the damage and they refused to take any responsibility, claiming that the zip was in that condition when they received it. I know that this isn’t the case as I would have noticed that something was wrong with the zip the last time I wore it!It would have cost them next to nothing to repair the zip but they did not want to admit fault. I still have that dress hanging in my wardrobe unworn and in disrepair. Needless to say, I haven’t returned to that drycleaner since."

Sally Parker: Hi there, I had a pair of light coloured trousers dry cleaned at an expensive drycleaners'. Upon collection, I was informed that the machine had sprayed a fine black substance on my trousers which they couldn't get out.  They asked me to nominate a value and they sent me a cheque for $80 to replace the trousers, and they refused to allow me to take my trousers home. Even after an argument they would not give me my trousers back. I had never had an item damaged at the dry cleaners before. Is it common practice to keep the damaged item?

Beddings

Sue Burton:  "Thanks for the opportunity to tell you about my recent dry cleaning disaster which happened about one or two months ago. I've been going to a particular dry-cleaner in Rozelle (NSW) for the last 20 years. I have trusted them completely with the most delicate and precious items, including a wardrobe of old clothes that had belonged to my mother, including a simple and now fragile wedding dress from 1941. They refused some things, and did a good job with the others.

Recently, I took my quilt - a top quality, German, 100% goose down quilt which is probably about 30 years old but still very fluffy and warm - to the them. The covering fabric was heavily stained. The stains would have been about 10 years old, but I discovered them only recently. The person who served me told me they probably wouldn't be able to remove the stains. I said I understood that, but if they would do their best, perhaps they could at least freshen it up. Now, after the dry-cleaning, it is completely flat, lumpy and useless. The down has been completely ruined. (I could show it to you if you want). My complaint was that I had been given no warning that this might happen; had I been warned, I would not have asked them to do it. I had trusted them for so many years, with good reason, and had no idea that there was a risk of damage.

I took the doona back and made a complaint but the owner of the shop said he's been cleaning doonas for about 30 years and all he did was wash it and that the damage could have been caused by dust mites. I made it clear that I was upset about was the lack of warning - why wasn't I warned? He said If we warned every customer of every risk, we'd have to have a lawyer on hand all the time.

I said I just want an outcome that we can both feel ok about. I was told I was a difficult customer and always bringing them difficult jobs. That's true: I HAVE taken difficult things to them, because I trusted them. When I asked for an apology, the shop owner said: "Well an apology's not going to be much use now is it?" As for the refund, he said "What about the work I've put into it?". Eventually, he grudgingly gave me my refund and said he never wanted to see me again. What an appalling response. There was no attempt to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome. No apology, at any time - not even a hint of regret - just repeated defensive self-justification. I am still looking for a drycleaner with a reputation for reliability with delicate and precious things. Thanks again for the opportunity to give you this feedback. I hope it does some good. It'll be interesting to see what emerges from your research."

Drycleaning agents

Judy Bahar: "At the end of winter I took my entire woollen clothing collection of two pairs of slacks and six jumpers to my usual, friendly drycleaner.  When I went to pick them up I noticed straight away that they were shrunk by several sizes.  When I pointed it out, he said, still friendly, to leave them with him, he'll check with his laundryman if there was a problem with the solvent. When I came back he informed me that there was nothing wrong with the solvent and there was nothing wrong with the articles, they were the same size as when I brought them in.  I asked if I could try them on there in the shop, which he agreed to. I struggled into a couple of them.  He said they were fine.  When I said they were very tight, he said I must have put on weight.  I said that is quite possible, just as I must have also grown a considerable amount in the previous two weeks as the sleeves of the jumpers were halfway between my wrists and elbows and my slacks reached just below my calves. He told me he'll fix them. When I returned, the items were somewhat larger than before, but still not the original size.  So while I waited he steamed, stretched, steamed, stretched, steamed and stretched until he said no more can be done. The items were still small. I asked whether the insurance would pay for the accident, at which stage he became very unhappy with me.  I was apparently a most difficult, most unreasonable customer and he didn't want to see me any more.  He did not.  Since I didn't see the point of suing if he wasn't insured, I threw out three jumpers, wore the rest around the house, and let the slacks down." 

Peter Nichols: "I recently had some simple adjustments and repairs done to some jeans and the dry cleaner ruined one pair by excessively shortening them and then refused to give me a refund, let alone replace them. I stead she started ranting and made up some story about me taking them somewhere else and having them altered again to "make trouble" for her.I have made a formal request for the costs and subsequently initiated a complaint with consumer affairs. I'm waiting on the outcome. If I made a mistake in the process it might have been not to check her work before paying. I thought it would have been rude to examine them beforehand but now I'm thinking that I need to."

Tanya: "I left a suit at my local chemist for drycleaning. (The suit cost me $800. It was on sale and would normally have cost about $1200). The chemist is an agent for a drycleaning business in a neighbouring suburb. When I returned to collect my suit the chemist could not locate it. The drycleaner maintained it had been returned to the chemist. Neither could prove whether it had or had not been returned to chemist, but in any case,I lodged a complaint with the NSW Consumer, Trader and Tenancy Tribunal (CTTT), asking that the chemist and drycleaner give me $400 each to cover the discounted cost of the near-new (and favourite!) suit. The chemist agreed to pay me $400 to avoid going to the CTTT. The drycleaner would not. I received $400 to replace a $1200 suit, but what's worse, I couldn't replace the suit because it was no longer available in my size. Very disappointing all around although I should mention the CTTT were very quick and efficient at giving us a hearing date."



 

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