Cleaning & Restoration Association News

Cleaning Smoke Damaged Window Treatments--Part 1, Draperies

Thoroughly vacuum the face and backing fabric before applying solvents and deodorizers.

The complete range of drapery restoration opportunities are often overlooked by restorers and insurance adjusters alike. They’ve been overwhelmed with stories of drapery shrinkage, fabric deterioration, circling, sun streaking, and removal and rehanging. In reality, the probability of problems with draperies is greatly reduced, if restorers follow a few simple guidelines.


Whether your company cleans draperies on-location or in-plant with immersion processes, inspect them carefully for potential problems. The problems you discover and document before accepting responsibility for draperies remain problems that insureds and insurance company representatives must resolve, if restoration efforts are unacceptable. On the other hand, problems not documented and explained before restoration may remain with your company long after what normally is the claim’s successful conclusion.

Obviously, begin by examining the amount of soot residue buildup. For the most part, this residue, along with pre-fire usage soiling, is the major factor in determining whether draperies are cleaned on-location or with in-plant immersion techniques. Next, check for fabric deterioration on drapery linings, and on the inner folds and edges of face fabrics. Deterioration results from atmospheric pollutants filtering onto drapery fabrics that combine with moisture (humidity). The process forms a weak acid, which is accelerated by prolonged exposure to sunlight and heat entering the window.

Evaluate how evenly the drapery hangs at its top and bottom and consider the condition of its hardware. Then, lift an edge to spread the fabric and observe for sun streaks, bug deposits and water rings, especially near windowsills or at the floor level along the drapery’s hem.

Now, consider the drapery’s position in relation to the fire’s heat line, if any exists. Check for scorching and physically feel for heat damage to fibers or fabrics, particularly at the headers. As you inspect, be sure to make notes on the problems you discover, and be prepared to tactfully brief insureds, when necessary, about anticipated results or difficulties. This greatly limits liability for your company.

Cleaning Options

Your inspection and evaluation of draperies is the primary criterion for determining the method of cleaning to be used. Essentially, there are three options for cleaning: wet cleaning, on-location dry cleaning (sometimes accomplished in your facility with portable drapery injection/extraction units), and in-plant immersion dry cleaning. Let me point out that certain factors override all others when selecting a method. If draperies are custom made, for example, clean them with dry solvents (either on-location or in-plant), since water-based compounds may cause severe shrinkage and fabric distortion. On the other hand, draperies with latex backcoatings are easily damaged with in-plant immersion cleaning using typical chlorinated dry solvents. But let’s specifically address “which method to use when” on soot-contaminated draperies.

Wet Cleaning

Wet cleaning (machine washing) is an aggressive technique reserved for colorfast and pre-shrunken fabrics. Often these draperies are 100% synthetic, synthetic blends or even Fiberglass. Wet cleaning also may work well on curtains and many commercial draperies, especially those that are latex or vinyl backed. It’s an inexpensive, thorough method for cleaning heavy pre-existing or soot soiling. Wet cleaning is done in large washers, followed by drying or partial drying and careful finishing (pressing, ironing). Usually, machine washing results in the removal of both smoke residue and odor.

Occasionally, wet cleaning curtains or draperies may be attempted on-location. After protecting windows, walls and floors with heavy-gauge plastic, or after removing draperies to a work table set up in a protected area, an appropriate detergent solution combined with a deodorant is sprayed onto the drapery from bottom to top. This solution is agitated with a soft bristled brush, and after 3-5 minutes of dwell time, suspended soil is extracted (rinsed) from the fabric with hot water, using a drapery extraction tool and techniques similar to those employed in on-location upholstery cleaning. On-location wet cleaning tends to be a somewhat messy, time-consuming job, and thus, is seldom employed.

On-Location Dry Cleaning

This option involves the use of specially designed upholstery and drapery wet/dry cleaning units. As their name implies, these units have special pumps, seals, and other components and tools that allow them to use dry solvents without harm to these parts. Additionally, they incorporate motor windings and vent fans that make them safe to operate from a flammability viewpoint. Use them with proper safety precautions in mind, such as room ventilation, splash goggles, solvent resistant gloves, exhaust hoses, solvent vapor respirators, etc.

On-location cleaning, while perhaps not as effective in heavy soil removal, is extremely useful to restorers. We often encounter relatively new drapery materials that have little pre-existing soil and light smoke soiling. On-location cleaning has the advantage of enabling operators to restore an entire room from ceiling to floor including everything in between, without waiting several days for draperies to be returned from the dry cleaner. Since it’s the most gentle of the restoration options, technicians with minimal experience can obtain excellent results with few worries about shrinkage, browning, dye bleeding, or even weak fabric or seam separation.

While detailed descriptions of on-location drapery cleaning would occupy several chapters in a book, essentially the process is accomplished in several steps to include: Inspection and evaluation; client briefings; thoroughly vacuuming both backing and face fabrics; injection and vacuum extracting of lining materials with dry solvents; and dry solvent deodorant, followed by injection and extracting of face fabrics. Drying and touch-up procedures complete the job. Additional deodorization may be accomplished by combining thermal fogging using a dry solvent-based deodorant, and continuous exposure to ozone for 12-24 hours.

In-Plant, Immersion Dry Cleaning

When draperies display moderate to heavy pre-existing soil, or when soot contamination is heavy, or even when very light-colored fabrics are moderately soot damaged, then immersion cleaning usually is required. This is an aggressive process that involves large, expensive equipment, large quantities of dry solvent, and much longer cleaning cycles than are possible with on-location techniques. Naturally, the primary drawbacks are that the procedure is more complicated, hazards to the drapery are greater, and the draperies must be removed from the structure for several days.

Even when they are removed and cleaned in-plant, restoration technicians have several critical responsibilities before cleaning commences and after it’s complete. Since draperies and even windows may vary in size, write the insured’s name, the room location of the drapery, and its number within that room (counting from the room’s entry from left to right) on a “pinch-clip” laundry tag preferably with indelible ink. For example: in the Smith’s master bedroom with two windows, numbering from left to right, the left-hand drapery on the second window would be given the written designation “Smith MBR 3.” The other side of the tag should specify the drapery’s exact length in inches (shrinkage consideration). Attach pinch-clip tags to the lower right-hand corner of the drapery’s lining, if present, so that everyone in your company knows where to look for the information logged thereon.

Further, before removing drapery pins from the header, use a ballpoint pen to mark the base of each pin. This greatly facilitates reinserting the pins during rehanging. Once draperies are removed, regardless of how soiled they are, fold them neatly and place them in protective drop cloths for transport to your in-plant dry cleaning subcontractor. If, when inspected, the draperies display weak areas on either lining or face fabrics, make note of and explain this condition to insurance adjusters and to dry cleaners as well. You might even remind dry cleaners to run older, delicate draperies in a protective net that minimizes agitation during the cleaning cycle.

Once draperies have been cleaned and pressed, and have had length stabilized with special equipment and decorator folds (not pleats) have been reformed, restorers normally pick them up and transport them to the job site for rehanging (unless the subcontractor provides this service). Place the draperies in the appropriate room designated by the pinch-clip tag, and one by one, rehang them in exactly the same location they were in prior to removal. At this point, the reason for marking the base of pins with ink becomes abundantly clear. With light smoke damage, the old drapery pins may be reinserted using the mark as a quick reinsertion and alignment reference point; however, when smoke damage is heavy, replace pins with new ones to prevent future rusting.

The customary rehanging sequence includes (working from the traverse toward the corner mounting bracket): two pins inserted on the traverse followed by one pin in each slide (eyelet). Position unused slides between the corner mounting bracket and the last pin that attaches the drapery to the rod, via the slides. Skipping rod-mounted slides in your outward progression toward the corner can cause the drapery to bind when opened or closed. Use one of the two remaining pins to hang the drapery at the front of the corner mounting bracket, while using the last pin to make the drapery to wrap around the corner of the bracket. This procedure “squares off” the drapery, causing its edge to hang flush with, and parallel to the wall. This prevents sunlight from entering the room around the edges of the drapery and it provides a finished, professional appearance.

Next month, I’ll address sheers, top coverings and blinds.

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