I just collected my new blouse from the cleaners to find it had been prematurely aged. How was this "dry" cleaned? It looks like I'd chucked in a hot wash with a slug of bleach. It's once perky frilled collar now sags like limp celery. And it's shrunk.

Now, I know there are many excellent professional and careful drycleaners out there, but my luck is not strong in this department. The universe has been telling me to kick my habit for years. My zips come back stiff (why is that?), my buttons cracked or missing, those effing tickets pinned through the silk instead of the label. Once, the elastic waist of a favourite red dress literally melted in their machines.

What are those mysterious machines anyway? And how on earth do you shrink something without wetting it?

"They do wet it," says Anna Gould, an advocate for chemical-free dry cleaning. Who knew? "Dry cleaning is a funny phrase because it doesn't actually mean the clothes stay dry, just that water is not involved." Water swells fibres, which can lead to shrinkage in the drying process. Solvents avoid this problem.

If, like me, you'd imagined the cleaners wafting your designer duds into a westerly breeze or delicately dabbing at them with a baby wipe, you'd better sit down.

"It's not magic. It's just a system," says Gould. "You drop off your clothes, they fix a little ticket to them, then throw them in the machine. Sometimes they might sort them according to fabric or some other categorisation, for example put a whole lot of coats in together, but generally speaking it shouldn't matter because with the solvent the colours shouldn't run. Your garment isn't cleaned on its own.

"The machine soaks the clothes in solvent, then drains the liquid, and dries [the clothes] with heat. Then someone steams out the creases, covers [the garment] in plastic and hangs it up. That's the run-through."

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