A dry cleaning specialist handles the receiving of clothes for dry cleaning, the restoration of the material and the safe return of garments to the customer.
Dry cleaning is a method used to restore clothing and fabric items to their original clean condition without risk of damage to the garment. In normal cleaning processes, hot water and washing powder are mixed to allow clothes to be either hand-washed or machine washed, but this process is not suitable for delicate items or garments of a high value. In dry cleaning, a chemical (perchloroethylene) is used in a machine containing an “extraction chamber” inside which the garments are rotated in a (relatively cool) 30-degrees C part-filled drum, partially exposing the clothes to the solvent.
The dry cleaning specialist must check for foreign objects which may become damaged by the solvent and impact the garment. The cleaner must also be aware of colours which run (red being a prime candidate) and shed dye during solvent immersion. These should not be included in a load along with lighter-colour textiles to avoid colour transfer.
The cleaning chemical used is distilled to take out the non-pure elements that have a high likelihood of being transferred to clothing. Clothing and other garment items are checked by hand and by visual inspection to ensure it is safe to put them through the dry cleaning process. Many types of buttons and zippers are not resistant to the powerful cleaning agent, or will not withstand the mechanical action of cleaning. These will be removed and re-stitched after cleaning, or shielded by use of a padded inhibitor, plate or bag.
Not every soil or stain can be cleaned out just by dry cleaning alone. Some need to be treated with “spotting solvents” (high power chemicals with a strong localised cleaning action), and sometimes by steam jet or by soaking in special stain removing liquids. This must take place before garments are washed or dry cleaned. The dry cleaning specialist will manage all aspects of these essential cleaning processes, ensuring safe return to the customer.
Depending on age, new candidates may begin on minimum wage. In the UK, this is currently £5.93 per hour for workers aged 21 and over, £4.92 for those in the 18-20 age category, and £3.64 for young workers aged between 16-17 (source: DirectGov UK). Experience and expertise will double the minimum wage once that person has become a crucial and dedicated part of the shop’s working team. Managers could be earning around £30,000 a year or more, with some dry cleaning company owners with multiple shop locations, taking home over £100,000 a year.
- Receiving garments
- Checking for damage and stains
- Loading/unloading the dry cleaning machine
- Pressing the garments
- Applying special spotting solvents for stained clothes
- Packaging and returning orders to the customers
- Administrative tasks, including cash reconciliation, accounts, paying invoices
- Machine maintenance
- General customer service
It is a requirement of new European regulations that persons using dry cleaning solvents be competent, qualified and permit holders, under rules laid out by the Solvent Emissions Directive. However, in practice, most dry cleaners in the UK are not qualified, either because they have been operating before the regulations came into force, or they began working as “shop floor assistants” or apprentices, whereby the rules (technically) do not apply. Accreditation in the UK is administered by the GCL: the Guild of Cleaners and Launderers.
- Be customer-focused
- Be able to handle difficult customers and unusual requests
- Possess excellent attention to detail
- Have a careful and methodical approach
- Only one chance to get things right first time, so must take work seriously
- Have an ability to work with various types of administrative task
- Be health and safety minded when it comes to handling toxic or hazardous chemicals and waste
Although stressful at times of high workload and hot during summer months, most independent dry cleaning companies take great pride in providing a clean and safe environment for staff and customers. Crucially, a clean work space means that there is less likelihood of soiling or damage of customer’s garments – something that can be incredibly distressing for customers with precious or irreplaceable items. Also, a clean shop floor area and customer area demonstrates dedication to cleanliness, building the customer experience and encouraging customer loyalty to the cleaning shop.
Staff using dry cleaning solvents should be trained or accredited, and the solvents used are classified as toxic to humans and should be handled as a highly hazardous substance.
Most candidates enter the trade by working on the shop front, assisting customers, handling administration and receiving and packaging the garments. The natural progression is then to the position of store manager (or at least a more senior shop floor position, depending on the size of the shop), and then the establishing of one’s own store. Staff size is typically small at independent dry cleaners, who may employ just a few people. Large names in the business can run operations of considerable sizes at popular locations, employing 20 people upwards at busy sites.
Most skilled dry cleaners yearn to progress to owning their own dry cleaning business, and during the course of this research, many industry professionals consulted had taken this route to living the dream of becoming their own boss. Owning more than one location can yield high turnover and profitability for successful business persons.
The largest dry cleaners in the UK is Johnson Cleaners: a household name that has been established over many successful decades of cleaning experience. There are also considerable chain operations, particularly clustered around London and Birmingham.
Mike Moran is the owner of Top Hat Cleaners, a family owned and family operated dry cleaning business located in Chiswick, West London.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
This is a hard one for me to answer because it’s a family business which was started by my mother and father back in the sixties. A number of the staff we have employed here over the years started out as “Saturday staff” and then have gone on to become full time, and in many cases subsequently then progressed to owning their own dry cleaning shops.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise'?
All days have the same basic plan and entail the same series of tasks; the only difference is that some days are busier than others. For us, the busiest days are Saturday, Monday and Friday, as a result of customers fitting their dry cleaning requirements around their own work and social engagements.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry to which you must attend?
Most of what we do is the basic ‘Dry Clean’, meaning that people will bring in clothes for cleaning such as suits and dresses which have no particularly special handling requirements. We treat all of the items with care of course, but still class them as standard items. Extra skill is required on delicate garments or garments with particular stains – these require specialist care to restore and handle, to preserve or return it to original condition.
What do you like most about the job?
The customers. Constant engagement with a broad range of people keeps the job interesting and makes it a highly sociable role. Not everyone is necessarily looking for a customer facing role, of course, but for me, it’s one of the things that make the job such a pleasure. It’s great helping people, especially when you return clothing items to them in superb condition for which they have a great sentimental attachment. The job is very rewarding in that respect.
What do you like least about the job?
The customers! There are nice people and occasionally, customers who are not so pleasant, for whom you have to extend the same courtesy and level of service. This is just the way it goes, so you need to be able to take the rough with the smooth and deal with a broad mix of people.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg A Levels?
There are various qualifications, but 95% of people working in the business will not have any. A willingness to work is the key qualification, and a good sense of team spirit, especially at busy times.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
It’s a good business if you’re willing to work hard and be reliable; keep working to a good standard and maintain that standard – this is the key to earning good money in the dry cleaning business.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
New candidates should be mindful of punctuality, have a smart appearance, have a good command of English, and be reliable. They should also be a keen and adaptable team player.