Being There

Battling the great unwashed

A day at a professional laundry reveals the origins of stains and the art of getting rid of them

Ironing for John Lui is not easy when the dress comes with frilly flowers.
Ironing for John Lui is not easy when the dress comes with frilly flowers.PHOTO: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Listen, guys. If you really want to know a woman – I mean really, really know a woman – get to know her stains. 

Exhibit A is a green silk evening gown. If fabrics could tell a story, this one would be a novel about a real livewire who lets nothing stand in her way. 

Around the hem, there are grass stains and dried mud. There are also tiny tears in the material. She was most likely at a cocktail party where she tramped across a lawn in heels at such a speed that she stepped on the dress, making small rips along the bottom edge.

There are water stains on the front. From the pattern of the whitish residue, it is likely that it is splashback from a sink she was leaning over. She might have been in a hurry and turned the tap on too quickly. And lastly, there is a brown streak down the back. 

Here at operations centre of For The Love Of Laundry, a dry-cleaning and laundry company, I will spend a few hours de-staining, ironing and generally trying not to accidentally steam or get parts of my body caught in a press.

The Sherlock of stains, the Hercule Poirot of prata smears down the front of your shirt a.k.a. Frederick Koh, 36, operations manager, runs his eye over the mystery splotch. 

“It’s either faeces or, er, you know,” he says.

Before he became the floor boss of the workshop, he was a military cop for 14 years, so he knows a thing or two about giving clothes a Crime Scene Investigation going-over. Not because he wants to, but because there is one remover for each kind of spot.

Customers are supposed to tell his staff where and what the trouble areas are. But often, the splotches and splashes are a bit too personal to inform a stranger across a counter, as in the case of the gown that is part garment, part Jackson Pollock painting.

He also learns how to read washing instruction labels from an employee at For The Love Of Laundry. PHOTO: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

But no matter, because it was picked out at the visual inspection station here at laundry chain’s Jurong centre, humming with industrial washing machines and the hiss of clothes presses and steam irons. It’s off to the spot station for the gown with the matter of the splatter.

Mr Koh, after taking a closer look, is pretty certain that the mark is a souvenir from a monthly visit by Auntie Rosie. A sneak attack by the Red Brigade. An early visit from the house painters. When I heard this, I wasn’t sure whether to be glad it wasn’t what I feared it was or be more alarmed by what it actually turned out to be.

After Mr Koh shows me how, I have a go at what the pros call “spotting”. The dried blood is surprisingly easy to remove, as are the grass marks. The dried mud? Gone with a brush. The small rips will be sewn, no extra charge. The water streaks are to my surprise, a little harder, mainly because it is spread over a larger area. But we manage to get most of it out and after the dress goes through one of the wash machines, you would never know it once held enough DNA to stock a lab.

I know what you are thinking – how can I do this at home? A big part of the secret, unfortunately, is in the array of specialist commercial potions Mr Koh has at his disposal. These can be found from wholesalers if you look hard enough, but how often do you think you need a whole bottle of remover made just for ballpoint ink? And if you find yourself reaching for bloodstain cleaner on a regular basis, I worry for you. 

Also, Mr Koh has magic wands that squirt steam and water. A vacuum pump sucks away the cleaning fluid and dissolved dirt out of the spot. He also has a trained eye and steady hands.

But since my shirts exert a powerful magnetic force field, attracting curry gravy and pasta sauce from my fork and, I promise, the forks of diners several tables away, I get Mr Koh to share a few tips. 

There are a couple of general ones. Dab away as much as you can with a wet cloth. Don’t run it under a tap. It will make the smear bigger. Wash the outfit as soon as possible. Tomatoes have acids and enzymes that eat into fabric. Wait too long and that pasta or sambal stain will be permanent.

Pen ink can be scraped off a shirt after applying a spotting chemical. PHOTO: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

For The Love Of Laundry is a new outfit, run by earnest, idealistic young people proud of their environmentally friendly dry-cleaning method and superior standards of service, which include home pick-ups and delivery. They’ve seen everything, from T-shirts to sequin-studded gowns to enormous collectible teddy bears to mascot costumes of famous brands. The general manager, Mr Dexter Tan, 27, is nice enough to let me try ironing. I iron at home, how hard can it be? 

My first job is a blouse that looks to have been tortured by a method I call Death By A Thousand Pleats. Getting those ruffles into line, as well as making sure that the petals of the fabric flowers sewn across the chest and shoulders are nice and fluffy, is not quite what I am used to at home, where very few of my clothes have either ruffles or big puffy flowers. High-pressure, extra-hot steam shoots out of these industrial irons and I almost turn my extremities into Cantonese delicacies.

I decide to call it a day at the workshop after that. Sure, it’s nice to give a customer clean, nicely pressed clothes, but I’d rather have working fingers at the end of my arm, not chipolatas, thanks very much.