Garment spot cleaning

Out Damn Spot

Two of the driving forces behind every successful business are credibility and quality. The two, as with the many other factors of success, go hand-in-hand though they are both equally individual. Quality—the creative, unique and professional products you produce—affects your credibility, how creative, unique and professional the services you offer are. And, to those who are painfully aware, it only takes one sub-quality product out of a million to ruin years of hard-earned credibility.

It is for this reason industry inventors and innovators continue to improve on technologies and practices of a preventive nature. Among them—after safety features on equipment, literature on good business practices and procedures, and training sessions on intricate processes—are the materials and equipment designed for ink and soil cleaning; specifically, spot-cleaning fluids and equipment.

This last, in the broad scope of preventive measures, carries with it a unique set of idiosyncrasies that steer some away from spot-cleaning, and away from its many advantages. But being educated on the topic may shed new light on how the benefits of spot-cleaning can outweigh its risks.

Safety first

The garment-decorating industry has long been the target of speculation from directions such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and environmental-management and regulatory groups. The industrious equipment, chemicals, inks and a combination of the three that are inherent to decorating techniques certainly require appropriate caution in handling and processing. That’s no secret to successful and responsible decorators. What seem to have been kept somewhat shadowed are the specific regulations and requirements that are tied to industry fluids, especially those involved in spot-cleaning.

But it’s not the goal of regulating agencies to keep us in the dark. Rather, it can be difficult to find the definitions and regulations because the volatile substances and their specific uses in this industry are not expressly defined. Rest assured, though, the information is out there and easier to find than one might think.

Marcia Kinter of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) tells us that members of her association have access to many of the regulatory guidelines via the SGIA website. “That’s been one of our biggest goals, to compile all of that information. And then it’s just a matter of updating. What it’s designed to do,” she explains, “is give the printer enough information to ask the next question. And, because no one really likes to wade through the federal register, we’ve done that to give the printer enough information to make the next decision.” The policies regarding the chemicals, Kinter explains, are in place to protect employees from the harmful byproducts that can be emitted from the cleaning fluids.

About 10 years ago, she tells us, OSHA published a rule governing methelyne chloride, a chemical commonly found in many spot-cleaning fluids: “It did not ban methelyne chloride. OSHA basically said that, if you use the product, you must perform some kind of air monitoring or air sampling to determine what the exposure limit is for the employees. So it’s not that you can’t use it according to OSHA, just that you’re going to have to go through a few more hoops to use it.” What OSHA determined is that, in an eight-hour day, an employer cannot expose any employee to anything above 25ppm (parts-per-million). Greg Kitsen of Indiana-based Mind’s Eye Graphics tells us that these levels of exposure can be tested using badges production personnel can wear that track exposure.

The other issue with methelyne chloride is that, as Kinter puts it, there is no minimum: No matter how little you use, you need to follow the regulations.

There are also environmental hazards, which creates and entirely different set of considerations. Air-toxin regulations and fence-line concentrations—that is, what you accumulate in your facility to which you expose people and the environment—are concerns handled on a federal level by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with other local and regional environmental-management groups. Kitsen says that the biggest issue, environmentally speaking, are the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) inherent to many of the chemicals used in screen printing, as well as in spot-cleaning fluids. But unlike with OSHA, says Kitsen, the requirements for reporting threshold limit values (TLVs) of VOCs vary depending on how much substance you’re using.

Much like OSHA, the guidelines and requirements can be a bit elusive. Kitsen suggests that using a search engine such as Google can also yield educational results. “Use search terms such as environmental management in combination with the names of the fluids you’re using—along with your state, city or county—to get the best results.” He adds that decorators must understand that the strongest regulations will apply, whether it’s on a local or federal level; it’s not the level of government, but the level of the regulation that matters.

No matter the vehicle of information, it is important for decorators to understand, says Kinter, that it’s not the supplier’s responsibility to tell the printer if there are any regulatory requirements associated with the use of the fluids. “It is the printer’s responsibility,” she asserts, “to understand what regulations they have to deal with if they pull that chemical into their workplace.”

Wondering how your environment and procedures stack up? Wesley Robinson, veteran apparel decorator with Missouri-based Eagle Products Inc., offers this pearl of advice: “There are private safety companies that you can hire to evaluate safety practices relative to spot-cleaning practices, or anything else for that matter.”

Finally, though it need not be stated, the use of Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) should always, our sources resound, always be available at the work station, and that they be updated to the most recent order of products. “And this includes samples,” reminds Kinter. “Even if you are just evaluating a product for use, you need to have that MSDS.”

Elimination process

So what’s the point of using spot-cleaning fluids that contain methelyne chloride, if the stuff has such a bad rap? Our sources tell us that, above all, it has proven effective at banishing unsightly blemishes. However, Kinter points out that the span of time since the regulations on the chemical came out has given some alternatives an opportunity to develop. “There are acceptable alternatives on the market, and printers need to look at those and examine whether they’re cost effective to use,” she says. “And in that examination, to consider that you’re not only evaluating the cost of the fluids, but you’re costing out the total impact of bringing this into your shop—the environmental and the business costs—is it going to cost more to dispose of, et cetera, as well as the price per gallon.” Kitsen stresses that it’s the process, not necessarily the fluids and their chemical contents, that makes the difference in effectiveness. And, according to our sources, the range of price-points varies per system, in terms of both chemistry and equipment.

“You can get a vacuum table that exhausts the VOCs locally for as little as $300 to $500,” Robinson reports, “and the guns start as low as $60.” He says that some of the safety features on the higher-end vacuums have intrinsic values, such as a light that ensures that the vacuum is on. Vacuums are possibly the most important components as far as health and safety is concerned, as they require less fluids to achieve spot removal. A prevailing myth about a stinky vacuum is that it’s releasing more chemicals according to the odor it puts forth. But Kitsen argues that it’s actually more aromatic because the vacuum is breaking down the chemicals, using less of the substance.

He also advises that spotting guns themselves, even the expensive ones, can break down from use. That’s why many of those with higher price tags have components that can be replaced for as little as $25.

Why spot clean at all?

Once you have all of the materials assembled, the process is fairly simple. Affected garments—those with a spot of unwanted ink from a careless hand, drop of oil from a press or embroidery machine, or marks that evidence pinholes in a stencil—are placed on the station, the cleaning gun is prepped with fluid and, with a little aim and a lot of pressure, the stain is gone.

A word of caution, courtesy of Kitsen, is that testing unfamiliar garments with the particular solution you’re using is paramount. “Especially,” he warns, “with the trendy garment- and pigment-dyed shirts that are available, because the spot-cleaning fluids can also break down the dyes in these cases.” Further, the pressure of the gun needs to be assessed for different fabrics—too much pressure can abrade a garment—and it is further necessary to explore different fluids for different fabrics.

As Robinson explains, as the industry leans more and more toward a just-in-time mentality in regards to substrates—saving costly and valuable space—with wholesalers strategically placed across the country decorators are ordering product as their orders come in, in only the quantities needed.

This system certainly sets a business up for success in terms of little overhead tied up in idle product. But it can also make a mountain of a problem out of a pinhole or other blem. “If you need to deliver 100 shirts,” Robinson says, “and 10 of them have blue finger prints on them and you don’t have ten more shirts to print on, that customer is either going to get 90 shirts, or get 10 shirts late, when the reorder is delivered.” This is one of the exact situations that call for the band-aid of spot cleaning.

Kitsen describes other scenarios that may call for this quick fix: “We encountered a nightmare of a situation where we had to remove a name under a sponsor’s logo on some T-shirts for a race. What it came down to was that the only way to correct the situation in the time we had was to spot clean every one of those shirts since we couldn’t get new blanks in and reproduce the whole job. But that’s a rare situation. Time is of the essence, and that’s exactly what you need to base your decision on about whether or not to clean it up—time.” Kitsen adds that this is part of the training process for the technology: when it’s appropriate to use, and what situations might be rectified by alternate means. Factors that influence this decision would be the time of day the error occurs, time in relation to the due-date of the project, and so on.

While many quick-fixes are just that—band-aids that, in concealing a symptom also conceal a bigger problem—spot cleaning can be eliminated from this category. It’s not about masking problems, but about assessing all available tools and using them appropriately in your effort to triage a crisis. Because, just like death and taxes, it’s certain that these issues will come up in the life of any business. Having the right information about the right tools may just save an ounce of quality and a pound of credibility.