Part One: Choosing a dry cleaner.
This can be a nerve-wracking and frustrating process if you don't know where to start, what questions to ask, or who to trust with the threads dearest to your heart. So here are some tips to help you navigate through the dry cleaning establishments in your town.
Choose a dry cleaner who is a member of IFI, the International Fabricare Institute. (They will display an IFI sign in the window). The IFI is an independent testing lab. When a garment comes out of the dry cleaning process in less then satisfactory condition, and the owner of such a garment is not satisfied with the explanation the dry cleaner provides regarding the altered condition of the garment, the dry cleaner can send the garment to the IFI. The IFI will inspect and test the fabric and send back a report detailing how the garment was damaged and whether it was due to improper handling by the dry cleaner or to poor fabric manufacturing processes. If the IFI says the dry cleaner "blew it", the cleaner is obliged to reimburse the customer for the cost of the damaged garment. If the "damage" was due to, in essence, lousy fabric, or flawed fabric finishes, or loose dyes, the dry cleaner is not obliged to pay to replace the garment. However, the customer may take the IFI report to the store from which the fabric was purchased and can often use it in obtaining a refund for the flawed fabric. The IFI also sends out excellent educational bulletins to its members, detailing the proper care of special or new-to-the-market fabrics, and warning of "trouble" fabrics and how to deal with them. In essence, IFI members are well educated in fabric care, and are prepared to back up their work.
You want to take your period attire to a cleaner who is experienced in cleaning elaborate costumes. Call the costume rental shops and the costume shops of theaters, colleges, and universities in your area and ask them who they take their costumes to. Choose the one who is mentioned most. Then call and ask if they are a member of IFI.
When calling the cleaners, call before noon and ask to speak to the owner or operator. (They usually work from 6 am to noon.) Ask the owner/operator how many years of experience he/she has had cleaning costumes. (I would say five or more years of dry cleaning costumes is usually sufficient experience.) Ask if he/she is willing to test the beads on your costume to see if they will dissolve in solvent, and the trim to see if it will run or bleed. (See Part Two below.)
Always tell the dry cleaner, if at all possible, of what each stain on your costume consists. This will aid the cleaner in using the correct spotting agent the first time around. The more a spot is worked on, the more likely the fabric underneath will be damaged, or the dye removed.
For heaven's sake, don't go for the cheapest dry cleaner in town. This is penny-wise and pound foolish! A good dry cleaner can be medium to high priced, but is almost never low priced. In order to offer low prices, dry cleaners must pay their employees low wages, and cut costs wherever possible. This leads to a high turnover in employees. Unless you have lots of time to make new clothing, and loads of money to burn on new trim and beads, you don't want inexperienced people whose primary goal is to cut costs, handling your precious garments.
Part Two: Choosing and Cleaning Beads, Trim, and Fabric
Dry cleaners cannot melt beads by heat. No dry cleaning machine ever gets hot enough to melt anything. But solvent will dissolve plastic. Many beads on the market now are not dry cleanable. (And you can bet that the beads you used from those flea market necklaces will never survive the dry cleaning process.) Even beads used by wedding gown manufacturers are often not designed to be dry cleaned. To determine "dry cleanability" of the plastic beads you are going to use, or the beads you have already used, it is best to provide one loose bead of each kind that is on your costume to the cleaner to immerse in solvent. Many plastic beads have an outer coating which is "solvent proof", but this coating is rendered useless when the bead is pierced. The solvent may enter through the thread hole and dissolve the bead from the inside out, leaving a sad, wrinkled shell where a plump, pearly bead used to be. The only way to test for this kind of bead is to immerse it in solvent.
Small glass or semi precious stone beads may be dry cleaned. Large glass or semi precious stone beads and drops should be removed before cleaning, as they can crack and chip in the tumbling process. Metal beads will tarnish slightly in the cleaning process. This usually gives them a soft patina that can actually be preferable to a bright, shiny finish. To shine beads up, polish them with a jewelry cloth. (These cloths are impregnated with metal polish, and they clean beads very well without the risk of staining surrounding fabric.)
One way to get around having to remove all your beads one by one before dry cleaning, is to apply beadwork to long strips of fabric trim which are then basted on to the costume. They can be quickly clipped off before dry cleaning, and easily reapplied afterward.
Trim and Fabric
When choosing trim and fabric, check to make sure it says "dry cleanable" on the bolt. Always, always, always preshrink your trim as well as your fabric! Take it to the cleaners and ask them to preshrink it for you. (Trim and fabric that is color fast to water and won't be damaged by steaming can be heavily steamed at home with a good iron to preshrink it.) Upholstery braid is very popular for trimming middle class period attire, and it shrinks when dry cleaned the first time. (Thus the common sight of puckery middle class attire at faires.) So buy a yard extra and have it preshrunk before applying it.
Some trims and fabrics are not dye fast in solvent, and can bleed onto surrounding fabrics. This is particularly common when the fabric is a great color contrast to the trim or other fabric in the costume, or the fabric is white and the trim is a bright or intense color. If it says "dry cleanable" on the bolt, it is color fast or you get your money back. If you don't know whether the bolt you bought from so long ago said "dry cleanable" or "don't breath on this or it will fall apart", ask your dry cleaner to test it for you.
Did I cover everything? Probably not. But now you get to ask your, as yet, unanswered questions about the mysteries of dry cleaning. I will be glad to answer. It is my policy to provide references for this column. For this article I have drawn upon my 20 years of experience working for my father in his dry cleaning shop, (which he has owned and operated since 1966), and upon his many years of experience dry cleaning every imaginable kind of costume for the local theaters and rental shops.