A woman enters a local dry cleaners holding her heirloom wedding gown, the fringe caked in mud. A man drops off an expensive wool suit, the pocket stained with ink. A teen-ager brings in two pairs of crystal-clad jeans to be laundered; she has been turned away by other dry cleaners because of possible damage to the crystals.

Where do you go to have your valuable clothes cared for properly? And what really goes on behind the scenes?

“It is not as easy as it used to be,” said Robin Kim, owner of the Valley’s A-1 Dry Cleaners — an accredited member of the BBB (Better Business Bureau) and recipient of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s Ambassador’s Service Award in 2008 for their honesty in returning a large sum of money found in a customer’s pocket.

“Today a lot of fabrics are made to be worn for a short time and then discarded,” Kim said. “Many garments are made with a combination of fabrics, some have sequins, beads or other detail that cannot be machine washed, making additional care essential.”

Kim held up a pair of Ed Hardy Jeans and turned them around, displaying the back pocket adorned with colorful hand-painted crystal artwork.

“These jeans are almost 100 percent cotton, which can be washed,” he explained, “but with the leather tag, paint and crystals, they must be carefully hand washed, and absolutely cannot be ironed.”

On another table, a salmon-colored silk negligée with gold accented rhinestones affixed to the midsection caught his eye. “That’s another example of something that takes special care,” Kim continued. “Dry-cleaning is usually the best option for silk, but with the rhinestones, we have to remove them first, clean the fabric and then sew them back on. The customer is told this.”

Since Kim’s A-1 Dry Cleaners opened in the spring of 2000, a key member of their staff, Diana Vargas, has been general manager of their six locations. With over 35 years experience in the dry-cleaning business, Vargas is in charge of inspecting clothes for missing buttons, tears, spots or other concerns as they pass through for cleaning. Vargas then determines what needs to be done and delegates the task, often taking charge of the duty herself, as in the cleaning of the wedding dress mentioned previously.

The combination of Kims’ and Vargas’ extensive experience in the dry-cleaning business keeps them armed with knowledge to make informed decisions about how to clean garments that cross their counter.

“Some dry-cleaners won’t even take wedding dresses or clothing with sequins or such ornamentation,” Vargas explained. “We clean a variety of garments, and the first place we begin is always the wash instructions on the manufacturer’s label. That’s the way to go, unless there have been logos, beads or jewels added because then it will take extra care. If there is no care label, then the properties of the fabric help us determine the care.”

Vargas went on to explain how customers may bring in a bright red shirt, for example, that has been embroidered with a white logo stitched across the front after the shirt was purchased.

“The shirt may be 100 percent cotton and the logo something entirely different,” Vargas continued. “The red color from the shirt is likely to bleed into the white logo, depending on the garment’s texture, thread and the material used. Special care will need to be taken.”

That’s where experience steps in. “In this instance, we have to do a color test before we can tell which method is best for cleaning,” Vargas explained. “It used to be I could just touch them [the clothing] to know the best way to clean. But now, with all the combinations of fabrics being used together, I have to examine them carefully before I decide.”

A-1 Dry Cleaners, and most dry-cleaning facilities, offer regular soap and water laundering services. However, the process of dry-cleaning is different. Vargas stands in front of several $60,000 machines to illustrate how they work.

“Dry-cleaning is different because the process cleans without water,” she said, placing a medium-sized load of light-colored garments into the machine. “The cleaning fluid we use in this one is ‘perc’ [perchloroethylene], the best solvent used by dry-cleaners.”

Another dry-cleaning machine, which looks similar, is distinguished from the ‘perc machine’ in that it uses “isoparaffinic hydrocarbon solvents (H2020),” which is better for cleaning delicate fabrics like silk.

Although they use several brands of machines, they all have motor-driven washers, extractors and dryers and hold from 20 to 100 pounds of fabric per wash. Unlike machines used in homes, professional dry-cleaning equipment has the washer and dryer both in the same unit. This is to recover nearly all of the cleaning solution, which is better for the environment and saves the dry-cleaner money.

As the clothes gyrate in the cleaning solution, the dirty solvent is forced constantly through the filter, trapping dirt, and then it is distilled before being re-circulated. From start to finish, typical load cycles last about one hour, Vargas noted, dousing the clothes with 50 gallons or more of solvent — enough to get even the dirtiest clothes spotless.

The cycle that follows drains and spins the clothes to expel the solvent. And, finally, the dry cycle rotates in the opposite direction and distributes warm air through the clothes, which allows the remaining fumes and solvent to vaporize and then condense over cooling coils.

This is by no means the end of the process. Once thoroughly dry, each garment is examined to make sure no stains remain. Then one-by-one, all are pressed, folded, packaged and finishing touches administered.

With pride, Vargas inspects the once mud-laden wedding dress, which now looks like it has never been worn. “It will be carefully boxed for the bride to pick up,” Vargas said. “She can store it, look at anytime, and she’ll have it preserved to pass on.”

For Robin Kim and his staff, taking care of customers’ clothes means being constantly attentive to quality control. They pay particular attention to the needs of each garment as well as maintaining equipment filters and solvent condition and moisture.

“We go to the trade shows every year to keep up with what’s new in the dry-cleaning business,” Kim said. “New and better machines are being developed, and there’s always something to learn to help keep us up with the business.”

According to the BBB’s web site, A-1 Dry Cleaners meets accreditation standards, which includes a commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve any consumer complaints.

“It’s not that we don’t ever make errors,” Kim admitted, “but we are honest with our customers and do our best to resolve any issue that comes up. It’s the only way we feel good about doing business, and that’s what keeps us in business.”