What Are Furniture Tags Really Telling Us?

An issue that confuses many cleaners when undertaking upholstery-cleaning projects is the tag attached to the furniture. The federal government requires these tags, or "Care Labels," indicate whether the manufacturer approves or recommends dry solvent cleaning (represented by an "S" on the cleaning code); if they approve/recommend wet cleaning ("W" on the cleaning code); or if they approve/recommend that only dry vacuuming be used ("X" on the cleaning code). Too further add to the confusion, these tags could also be the "content" tags. So, what does each tag represent, which do you believe, and which do you follow?

Federal law mandates "Care Labels," however they may not always provide valid information. The tags are attached during the finishing process of the furniture pieces and may not always end up where they belong.

Many situations of contradictory labeling have also been reported. In several cases, two pieces of a matching living/family room set have had different "Care Labels," although the fabric and construction on both pieces were identical. Just a silly mix-up at the factory? This in itself should be enough to motivate you to seek training that will allow you to determine the proper cleaning system to employ. Be sure to discuss with your client, if you don't follow care label directions, why you've made the decision you have regarding the cleaning process. Now's the time spell out your guarantees, if there are any. In some cases of abused furniture, I may guarantee only that I will be paid.

The solvent cleaning system, indicated by an "S" on the label, has often proven to be a less than satisfactory process for heavily soiled fabrics. It also entails the use of, and many times the aerosolization, of petroleum solvents such as Odorless Mineral Spirits, which in itself may create a health hazard for technicians or occupants of the area where the cleaning is being performed. There have been discussions on removing training information on solvent cleaning from the IICRC's Upholstery & Fabric Cleaning Technician courses so as not to lend credence to this system.

Several years ago, I received a letter from the fire chief of my city, which was sent to all licensed upholstery cleaners in the city, stating that it was illegal to use solvent-based cleaners for on-site cleaning. Keep in mind that suitable respirators and goggles and gloves must be used when performing this type of cleaning, and ventilation of the work is imperative. All this effort for a process that isn't very effective.

Wet cleaning systems indicated by a "W," have proven to more effective and less hazardous for most upholstery cleaning situations. Pre-test carefully to determine fiber content and danger of dye bleeding occurring. Natural fibers may shrink or brown, so take every precaution when selecting cleaning agents, and get it dry! Fans, and/or our friend Mr. Sun, will normally help with the drying and prevent many problems.

Always remember that the "X" on a label means just brush and or vacuum pieces.

The tag that creates the most confusion is the "content" tag. That's the one that usually carries the warning: "Do not remove under penalty of law."

This tag doesn't refer to the outer coverings of the piece. It's a throw back to the days when horsehair, jute and most anything else that could be used was used in the manufacture of upholstered furniture. This tag will often carry the phrase: "Interior Filling is 100% Polyurethane." The problems arise here when the cleaner mistakenly assumes that the finish fabric is polyester or polypropylene. Bad news if it turns out to be Haitian cotton. Once again, this tag never refers to the finish fabric. Additionally, the content tag should never be used as a replacement for burn testing to determine fiber content!

Some relief for these problems is in sight however. Thanks to the hard work of Carey Vermeulen and his Upholstery & Fabric Cleaning Technician Technical Advisory Committee and their many hours of meetings with the Furniture Manufacturer's Association, some changes are occurring in "Care Labels." Approximately 60% of furniture now carries tags that indicate fiber content of outer coverings on furniture. Vermeulen and his committee would also like to see more consumer information on the tag. Perhaps something on regular vacuuming, maybe even a recommendation to call IICRC's toll-free phone number for a referral to a certified firm. Still some work to left, but getting them to include fiber content on the care label was a major step forward. To prevent problems, look closely at the tags on the furniture to determine which one you are looking at.

Perhaps a better idea is to take some classes in upholstery cleaning. Learn to the job properly. I still shudder when the call from the customer includes the statement "I want it dry cleaned." I have not dry-cleaned a piece of upholstery in about 15 years. Wet cleaning is simply more effective than dry cleaning and provides superior results. If you know your job, then wet cleaning is quite safe, especially with the newer internal jet hand tools that clean effectively with only a minimal amount of moisture. This minimal moisture process helps achieve rapid drying. You might also clean upholstery outside or at least dry it outside. I always try to get complete drying of upholstered before I leave the job site. Any "surprises" such as bleeding, browning, shrinkage etc., occur during the drying process. Get it dry before you leave and there won't be any surprises for you or the customer.

Maybe you should obtain a copy of the S300 IICRC Upholstery Cleaning Standard. It's available from the IICRC. Tell 'em I sent you!

I hope that these tips will help you avoid problems in dealing with the very lucrative business of cleaning upholstery. Until next month, seeya!

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