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Shirt Tales

Is your dry cleaner ruining your shirts? A trip inside the local laundry uncovers clothes in peril.

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Frayed collars, tiny tears in oddly consistent formations; pummeled collars and plackets; fine shell buttons cracked, shattered, and broken like a prizefighter's teeth. What the hell happens to my shirts at the laundry?

I remember the weekly trips I took with my dad to the local Chinese laundry in Larchmont when I was a kid. The place always seemed like a library, with its shelves of neat square packages and color-coded tags. My father's shirts were stored in comforting brown-paper parcels tied with string. And the kindly woman who matched my father's magenta slip to his week's worth of officewear really seemed to care. It was a quaint, labor-intensive mom-and-pop business.

Today, the dry cleaner on your corner isn't washing and ironing your shirts with personal supervision anymore. It's not profitable enough. Instead, it sends them out to a wholesale cleaner where machine-driven laundries crank out shirts for nearly the same price as my father's cost a quarter-century ago. It's only a matter of time before the machines take their toll and you get your shirts back battered.

Wayne Edelman, the owner of Meurice Garment Care, a New York cleaners with a cult following, offered to demystify the complexities of the shirt-laundering business for me. Because there is no money in shirts, Edelman says, he is "in the dry-cleaning business, not the shirt-laundering business." Even with $40,000 worth of machinery devoted to the task, he still cannot charge much more than his father did, because there are just too many places promising to do your shirts for half or a third of the $3 that he charges.

Taking a bundle of my shirts through the process at his Manhasset plant, Edelman let me see for myself what happens to them on their weekly field trip. First, he washes them in lots according to color -- light or dark -- and starch: none, light, or heavy. Starch, he confides to me, is the enemy. It stiffens the fibers and makes them brittle.

While still damp, my shirts move to the pressing area -- a knot of white-enameled and stainless-steel machines operated by a guy named Santiago. Santiago lays the collar and cuffs of my prized pink shirt across a press comprising three spring-reinforced arcs with matching hot metal plates suspended above. The springs are Edelman's addition; they keep my cuff buttons from being nicked or shattered under the punishing heat.

Then Santiago moves to a machine that looks like an oversize toaster turned on its side. Two fabric-covered arms stick out of the toaster slots, and Santiago covers them with the shirt's sleeves. The arms move into the toaster, where two metal plates heated to 380 degrees press them. At the same time, hot air is fired from the center of the arm to dry and dewrinkle the rest of the sleeve.

The body of the shirt is handled by the biggest and most impressive piece of machinery, which holds two life-size dummies called double bucks. Santiago dresses one of the bucks and steps on a floor pedal that activates suction, pulling the shirt close to the buck's fabric padding before rotating in and out of the griddle like pressing plates. Underneath the pads, the buck is a mesh of wires. It's these wires, pushing through a thin, aged pad at some anonymous laundry, that have made the curious patterns of tears in my favorite shirts.

Though Edelman does 1,500 shirts a week, he does it mostly as a service to his dry-cleaning customers. Cleaners generally want the machines cooking 50 to 100 shirts an hour to get profit out of their machinery, but at that pace Santiago cannot guarantee the quality I am looking for.

This is the crucial choice. The difference between Meurice and the run-of-the-mill wholesale shirt laundry is only a matter of degree. "If I took in wholesale business, I wouldn't do as good a job on those shirts," Edelman says as he acknowledges the temptation to just pound out product and make a profit.

But to maintain quality, you have to care. Posted on one of Edelman's machines is a sticker that reads this machine has no brain -- use your own! At every step, Santiago inspects the shirts he is working on, looking for stains that did not come out in the washing machine, adjusting the machinery so it won't damage buttons, watching for wear on the fabric covers.

"The 99-cent shirt laundry just can't give you the quality control we offer or the hand finishing," adds John Hallak, the cleaner Turnbull & Asser recommends to its customers. "Buttons are going to break, but we sew them back on. There are only a few of us who invest the time and money to do it right: Meurice, Madame Paulette, Fashion Award, and me."

My curiosity satisfied, I go to the register to pay for all that attention to detail. At twice the price of my corner cleaners, it's still a bargain. Across the room, another man carefully hand-presses shirts with even greater care. Edelman charges $16 for that service -- and swears he isn't making any money on it either.

Fashion Award Cleaners,1462 Lexington Avenue, near 94th Street (212-289-5623); Hallak Cleaners, 1232 Second Avenue, at 65th Street (212-832-0750); Madame Paulette Cleaners, 160 Columbus Avenue, near 57th Street (212-501-1408), and 1255 Second Avenue, near 66th Street (212-838-6827); Meurice Garment Care, 245 East 57th Street (212-759-9057) and 31 University Place (212-475-5800).


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