First aid for holiday spills and stains

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 10:36 a.m.

Silk shirts and ties. Winter whites and woolens. Dry-clean-only dress slacks and cocktail dresses…

The clothes we wear to look our holiday best seem, at times, somehow destined to bring out the careless and klutzy in us — or anyone else who happens to be within spilling or splattering distance.

Spills happen. But your holiday finery doesn’t have to bear a permanent record of your holiday festivities. One key to success: “Be sure you know the fiber you’re dealing with,” says Mary Harrison, professor of consumer education in the department of family youth and community services at the University of Florida. One caveat: If your garment’s care instructions say “dry clean only,” do not use water.


Start with simple home remedies before turning to commercial products, recommends Harrison. Here’s a guide to removing some of the most commonly occurring stains this holiday season:

GRAVY: Wet a white cloth with warm water and a few drops of liquid dishwashing detergent. Gently sponge the stain. Rinse by blotting with a clean, damp towel. Wash the garment as soon as possible.

RED WINE: Treating a wine spill before it dries reduces the likelihood that it will stain. Blot or rinse the stain with cold water. Sprinkle the damp area with table salt to absorb the moisture, then rinse again with cool water. If the stain remains, apply a paste of water and an enzyme-containing laundry detergent and let it soak for 30 minutes. Rinse well.

MEAT JUICES AND PROTEIN STAINS: For stains from blood, meat juices or other proteins, start by running cold water through the stain. Warm or hot water may permanently “cook” the stain into the fabric. Soak for 15 minutes in a mixture of one quart lukewarm water and one-half teaspoon liquid dishwashing detergent and one tablespoon ammonia. Rub gently from the back of the fabric to loosen the stain. Soak for another 15 minutes in the same mixture of water and dishwashing detergent. Rinse. Soak in an enzyme product for at least 30 minutes — longer if the stain has had time to set. Launder the garment.

COFFEE: Flush out the stain with water. If the fabric care guidelines allow it, use warm or hot water. If the coffee contained creamer, use a small amount of detergent mixed with water. If the stain persists, add an enzyme-containing detergent or add a few drops of ammonia to the water-detergent mix.

CHOCOLATE: Treat the stain with a pre-wash soila n d - s t a i n remover (Axion, Biz, Spray and Wash). Launder. If traces of grease remain, apply a light-duty liquid detergent directly to the stain and launder the garment again.

MAKEUP: Most makeup contains a grease base. Place the garment over a white cloth and work from the back side of the fabric. Rub the makeup stain with a bar of white soap. Wash to remove the soap. If this fails to do the trick, apply a spot remover, which will help break down the grease.

If these guidelines don’t work, or if you don’t know what caused the stain, contact Brenda Williams at the Alachua County Extension Office (955-2402); she may be able to provide additional guidance for removing stubborn spots.


ACT QUICKLY: “The more quickly you can treat that stain, the more likely you are to get it out,” says Harrison.

BLOT: Don’t rub. Regardless of the type of fabric you’re wearing (washable vs. dry clean only), use a clean, dry white cloth or towel to remove any dampness. Place the towel over the spot and press down with your fingers to absorb the moisture. Do not rub. “We’re so inclined to scrub the fabric hard,” says Harrison. “But that tends to fray the fiber,” especially wool. Rubbing also causes the stain to spread.

WORK FROM THE INSIDE OUT: If possible, treat the stain from the reverse side of the garment, advises Harrison. This helps to push the soil away from the fabric instead of into it. “You want to push it back from where it came,” adds Williams, “You don’t want to force it on through.”

USE COLD WATER: If you’re wearing a washable fabric and are able to do so, go to the bathroom and rinse or blot off the stain with cold water. If that’s not possible, says Harrison, “Take your napkin and dab it with water.” Although some folks swear that club soda removes stains better than water, there doesn’t appear to be any scientific evidence to back up the claim, says Williams.

If your garment’s care instructions recommend professional dry cleaning, remove as much of the stain as you can with a clean, dry cloth and take the garment to the dry cleaner as soon as possible. Be sure to point out the spot to the cleaners and tell them what caused the stain.

When you get home, says Harrison, “take the next step”: “For most garments, place the stained area face down on white paper towels and treat it from the back side. The paper towels absorb the moisture and the stain goes into the paper towels.” Replace paper frequently.

No matter which stain-treatment method or product you use on washables, always test for colorfastness first, says Harrison. “Read the labels very, very carefully. If you’re considering using [a stain remover], test it on an inconspicuous spot to make sure it doesn’t discolor the garment.” She recommends using the inside seam of a garment or the underside of the hem. “If it marks or changes the color, don’t use it.”

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