The experience is so often the same: That glass of wine somehow slips out of your hand—or that missed slurp of coffee sloshes out of your mug. And, as if in slow motion, you can see the to-be-stain leaping toward the lightest, most stainable fabric within the bi-state area, settling between the fibers for all to see. And unless Murphy’s Law took the afternoon off, that stain is setting up base camp in the most visible part of something treasured, irreplaceable and expensive.
So what do you do now?
“The worst thing you can do is try to wipe it off,” says Ken Rimell, co-owner of Marquard’s Cleaners. Rimell, also known as 'The Clothes Doctor,' explains that a stain should be approached initially in two different ways. “If it’s a liquid stain, try to absorb and keep it within the perimeter of the stain. You’re not wiping or spreading it—you’re containing it in the area.” If the stain is something solid, such as ketchup, Rimell says, “The best thing to do is to try to remove it with a soft-edged object like a spoon.” After lifting the stain, dab it repeatedly with a dry cloth. “You’d be amazed at how much you can get off of it.”
If you feel the need to use water, get a cloth wet and “ring out all the water and do the same thing” as previously explained, says Rimell. “If it is washable, and you trust the care label and you’ve washed it before, you can follow the washing instructions—and do it as quickly as possible. In a matter of about 48-52 hours, the air causes oxidation; once you past that mark, it becomes a spot—and becomes more and more difficult to remove.”
According to Rimell, it is important to note that seemingly harmless water can cause sincere problems while removing a stain. For example, he explains using water to remove a stain on a cotton garment may leave a ring around the stain when it dries; this is because of sizing, a glue-like product found between threads that gives body to the fabric. When the entire piece is submerged, such as in a washing machine, these little rings don’t appear; when only part of the fabric is wetted and left to dry, small stains can be made worse.
Bryce Roderick, owner of Fiber-Seal of St. Louis, says the best way to respond to a stain is to make sure you know what you’re dealing with. “If you know what it is, then you can appropriately treat it.” He explains that, for example, if it’s red wine on wool carpet, you should take a white, dry cloth or paper towel and blot up as much of the liquid as possible. Then, again using an entirely white cloth, blot the wool carpet with water.
If the stain is on a water-friendly fabric, and water doesn’t take the stain off, Roderick says it is time to call a professional. “If you start introducing other chemicals, you don’t know what damage you may be doing to those fibers. For instance, if you have rayon fabric, and you get it wet, it will more than likely ruin that fabric. You really need to know what type of stain you’re dealing with and what kind of fabric it’s resting on.”
While everyone might know their family’s secret at-home stain remover, home remedies can be a dangerous game, Rimell notes. "Some of the home remedies do work, but some don’t.” However, he explains that even functional remedies can cause serious problems when done improperly or tweaked slightly.