- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

he International Fabricare Institute likes to say its Textile Testing Laboratory exists so potential problems can be solved before they occur.

However, technicians affiliated with the organization, which is made up largely of laundry and dry-cleaning firms, also tackle challenges that arise after the fact.

The institute, which has two labs in its 20,000-square-foot headquarters in Laurel, can offer an opinion based on testing and analysis for members and clients concerned with how well fabrics of all kinds hold up under varying conditions.

“Fact” is a key word in these precincts, where test results are duly noted in formal reports similar to those found in any pure science lab. Equipment on site is a mix of high- and low-tech, with many of the testing methods derived from the Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. They include microscopic examinations to identify the nature of fabric damage, examination under ultraviolet light, and the use of chemical indicators in addition to equipment replicating various dry and wet cleaning processes.

The institute’s Textile Testing Lab does research in a temperature-controlled room on a number of machines that, to an outsider, resemble a cross between a medieval alchemist’s chamber and a fitness center.

“‘CSI’ doesn’t have a whole lot on what we do here,” boasts an institute employee proud of the detective work involved.

A Textile Analysis Lab adjacent to the testing lab does hands-on inspection of items submitted by members who may be concerned with liability matters. The institute often is the last word in settling differences between a cleaner and his customer. Technician Chris Allsbrooks one morning recently carefully inspected a woman’s chenille suit jacket that had a tendency to form loops on the surface, possibly from being handled by dry cleaners. The suit should be able to withstand normal wear and tear, she judged. She would alert the manufacturer to forestall future problems.

A child’s jacket on a nearby rack had developed stains in the dry-cleaning process from a hidden layer of fabric bleeding through onto the surface. There also were conflicting cleaning instructions on the label.

“The goal in this lab is to see who was responsible — whether because of a defect in the garment, a mistake in its construction or the lack of proper cleaning instructions,” notes IFI spokesman Jay Calleja.

Eleanor Brooks, a testing lab technician, works with fabrics of nearly every make and hue, testing strengths and weaknesses under specific conditions reflecting an entire range of human activity. Evaluating the durability and serviceability of textiles is a cost-effective measure, the institute reasons, since knowing how well a material holds up for its intended use helps a company before the manufacturing process goes into high gear.

Sometimes, a problem is detected after the fact that helps a company better control future fabric orders, too. Take, for instance, the problem presented by a Georgia-based formalwear rental company called After Hours, which had contracted with the IFI to test fabrics of various weights used in its tuxedos. Many jackets were coming back marred by slight abrasions — possibly as a result of contact with prickly sequins and beads on formal dresses worn by female dance partners.

The goal is to find which fabric held up best and so prolong the life of garments for hire.

Ms. Brooks took samples of the various fabrics submitted and applied them to what she calls her “dagger snagger machine,” a tiny motorized spiked wheel.

“What they want me to do is run this beaded sequin fabric on the snagger and see it next to the tuxedo satin,” she said. “He really wants to know if this will create snagging on the fabric. He has seen this on the suits and thinks it must come from the dress. But what if the guy didn’t dance with anybody?

“He wants to see if they all snag, and which one snags the less, and the one with the least amount of snagging he will take. It depends upon the twist of the yarn in the fabric and how well it is compacted. This looks to me like it was up against something, and he seems to think it is the beaded satin. I don’t know for sure. He has his own lab and uses us as a second lab.”

The ability of various fabrics to recover from wrinkling is judged by putting a swatch between a number of metal weights for 15 minutes and then rating its appearance to see how it responds over a 24-hour period.

“Most of the times [fabric swatches] are tested before and after washing because [fabric manufacturers] might want to apply something to the fabric to keep it from wrinkling,” Ms. Brooks says.

Tensile-strength machines in another part of the room measure how much pressure is needed and how long it takes for a fabric to break apart when stretched between heavy iron pincers.

Such requests come in regularly from institute members, who number in the thousands and are located all over the country and abroad. In addition to laundry and dry-cleaning firms, they include clothing rental companies, textile and clothing manufacturers, hotel and restaurant chains, as well as clothing merchants whose labels can be found on fashionable garments sold in retail stores all over the world.

The manufacturer of curtains for hospital cubicles sent samples to compare the appearance of the curtains after five cleanings against the original fabric. An important IFI constituent is suppliers of sheets and towels to hotels and of napkins for restaurants. Both need to know the durability of fabrics and the ability of cleansing agents to get rid of stains.

“Cotton isn’t white naturally, but more of a beige color,” Ms. Brooks says. “If it turns yellow, that means there is residual chlorine [from the bleaching process]. What you can do with some fabrics [for testing] is put a drop of distilled water on it because water does not show yellow by comparison. In the process of bleaching to make cotton appear white, they sometimes accidentally damage the fabric. They need to get rid of the bleach residue.”

The Textile Testing Lab has different formulas for different garments to judge the effects of chemicals used. “If not applied in the right way, things will occur to garments when they are washed,” she says. “At home we see that when we add too much bleach. A large laundry faces the same thing but has more chemicals to use and, hence, has more dangers.”

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